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Ryan stunned as heroic Saffrons defy all the odds

Antrim 2-15 Wexford 1-16
Even Kevin Ryan was taken by surprise.

Consider the odds on offer ahead of Saturday’s semi-final and it quickly becomes apparent how big a shock this actually was.

Wexford were 1-80 to beat Antrim at Semple Stadium. The handicap spread was in the region of 17-20 points. Antrim were available at 12-1. The draw was a 50-1 chance. In a two-horse race.

Ryan watched 14 players train last Thursday evening and wondered how on earth they could compete. The Antrim county board listed 23 players for the official match programme but only 20 travelled.And yet they won.

There were a few reasons why. Sweeper Eoghan Campbell was one of them, captain Jackson McGreevey at midfield another. Stephen McAfee at centre-forward hit 1-4, corner forward Ciarán Clarke 1-5.

"But if you had taken a video of our training on Thursday night with just 14 lads running up and down the field you would have wondered how the hell are they preparing for an All-Ireland semi-final," Ryan said.

"But the training they were doing was all about playing short-ball and keeping the ball and they did that really well out there. They surprised me to be honest, even though I knew the hurling was there."

And now, as Ryan acknowledged, there’s expectation. It’s an All-Ireland final, after all. Antrim will be rank outsiders, for sure, but Ryan wants a performance.

He took over last month in the team’s hour of need, shortly before the Ulster semi-final victory over Down. Since then, they’ve done everything he’s asked of them. Now, there’s one more step.

He added: "Our job is to keep their mindset as it is. We need to deliver now in an All-Ireland final now. We can’t go out there and just flop."

The post-match scenes were quite remarkable as Ryan’s sidekick, Antrim senior captain Neil McManus, addressed the group in a huddle. Players whooped and hollered and hugged each other. In a landmark hurling summer, this was just the latest highlight.

Ryan’s re-appointment as Antrim senior boss was confirmed last week and maybe, just maybe, there’s light at the end of the tunnel amidst talk of ‘Team Ulster.’ Saturday showed what can be done with some decent organisation and a whole lot of belief.

For Wexford, it was a hugely under-whelming afternoon. After the high of last month’s Leinster final victory over Kilkenny came this crashing low. It’s almost as if Wexford Park and Kilkenny never happened now, boss JJ Doyle admitted.

He said: "We do [have the Leinster title] but it’s of no great consequence today. It’s a sickener. We were so close to an All-Ireland final and now we might as well be as far away as we’ve ever been. Wexford don’t get too many chances to get to that stage so listen, we just have to go away and lick our wounds and get on with it."

Doyle added: "You don’t mind if you get beat and you performed but we just never got into second gear today at any stage.

"They looked like they wanted it more than we did. Maybe the lads listened to what everybody was telling them, that they were going to come down here and win handy, I don’t know."

Wexford led just once, when Ian Doyle popped over an early free. But McAfee’s third minute goal, a fortuitous one as Brian Murphy fumbled a greasy ball into his own net, set the Saffrons on their way. Clarke added another with a low strike across and exposed Murphy and into the far corner, and by half-time, Antrim were 2-7 to 0-9 clear.

They were eight points in front with 20 minutes remaining before Wexford roused themselves to trail by two at full-time, with Conor McDonald netting a late goal.

Scorers for Antrim: C Clarke (1-5, 5fs), S McAfee (1-4), J McGreevey, N McKenna (0-2 each), C Johnson, D McKernan (0-1 each).

Scorers for Wexford: J Guiney (0-7, 6f), C McDonald (1-1), G Moore, I Byrne (2f), R Clarke (0-2 each), L Chin, B Carton (0-1 each).

ANTRIM: G Dixon; C Morgan, M Donnelly, T Coyle; T Ó’Ciaráin, P McNaughton, C Johnson; J McGreevey, E Campbell; N McKenna, S McAfee, S Dooey; D McKernan, C McCann, C Clarke.

Sub: D Kearney for McKenna (58).

WEXFORD: B Murphy; G Foley, C Goff, E Conroy; Andrew Kenny, S O’Gorman, D O’Leary; L Chin, Aaron Kenny; J Guiney, I Byrne, G Moore; C McDonald, B Carton, R Clarke.

Subs: A Nolan for Byrne (36), C O’Leary for D O’Leary (43), T French for Aaron Kenny (51).

Referee: C McAllister (Cork).