Antrim 5-17 Laois 3-22
Ciaran Clarke netted a penalty deep into stoppage time to give Antrim a sensational win over Laois in the opening game of the Leinster SHC Round Robin series at Ballycastle.
Laois appeared to have secured the victory with a late Ben Conroy goal, but the Saffrons refused to admit defeat, and staged a passionate late surge to gain their reward.
This was a massive boost for the Ulster men, who had endured a horrendous NHL campaign, eventually suffering relegation to Division 2B in a play-off defeat to Kerry.
A high-scoring contest provided thrills and excitement for the small crowd that turned out on the north coast, and the long journey home left the Laois men with plenty to reflect on as they look to revive their provincial challenge.
Neil McManus gave the Saffrons an early boos with a fourth minute goal, drilled low to the bottom corner despite the despairing reach of Enda Rowland.
And with Paul Shiels and Conor Johnson on target, they led by 1-2 to 0-1, before the Leinster men began to move with some menace, hitting three points in a row, two of them Zane Keenan frees.
But Antrim struck a second goal in the 13th minute, McManus sending in a sideline cut from the left which Johnson finished to the net.
That was cancelled out instantly by a Laois goal. PJ Scully was fouled by John Dillon, and Keenan stepped up to smash the ball past Chris O’Connell, standing alone on his line.
An Eoin Campbell score saw Antrim lead by two at the end of the opening quarter, but Laois stepped up the tempo, with Joe Fitzpatrick and James Walsh driving them from deep.
They reeled off 1-4 to take a five points lead, their second goal a scrambled effort from Tommy Fitzgerald, who finished at close quarters from Keenan’s sideline cut.
Keenan continued to hit the target from frees, bringing his tally to 1-6 with a fine effort from play, and late in the half, Willie Hyland began to show his quality, firing over three scores.
Ciaran Clarke converted three Antrim frees, but it was the visitors who led by 2-13 to 2-8 at the break.
The scores continued to come thick and fast in the early stages of the second half, with Antrim points from Clarke and Shiels cancelled out by Fitzgerald and Scully.
But the Saffrons got in for a brilliant third goal in the 42nd minute, Conor McKinley;s searching delivery picking out Johnson, who finished clinically to the net
Clarke’s fifth free reduced the deficit to a single point, and Kevin Ryan’s men were now performing with a confidence that had been sadly lacking during the ill-fated league campaign.
It got even better for the Ulster side in the 50th minute when Clarke raced through to rifle home a fourth goal, putting them back in front at a crucial stage.
The O’Moore men rallied again, Keenan and midfield partner Patrick Purcell hitting the target to put them back in front with 12 minutes to play.
Antrim had just gone level through Deaghlan Murphy when Laois substitute Ben Conroy grabbed a goal, his dipping shot looping over the outstretched stick of Chris O’Connell with just four minutes to play.
But there was more drama to come, and when referee Paud O’Dwyer awarded a penalty for a foul on McManus in the 73rd minute, Clarke stepped up to hit the net for a sensational win.
Antrim: C O’Connell, R McCambridge, N McAuley (0-1), A Graffin, S McCrory, C McKinley, J Dillon, N McManus (1-2), M Bradley (0-1), M Dudley, P Shiels (0-3, 1f), E Campbell (0-1), C Clarke (2-7, 1-0 pen, 0-5f, 0-1 ’65), D McClean, C Johnson (2-1).
Subs: C Carson for McClean, T O Ciaran for Campbell, D Murphy (0-1) for Dudley
Laois: E Rowland, JA Delaney, C Healy, B Stapleton, J Fitzpatrick, M Whelan, C Dunne, Z Keenan (1-9, 1-0 pen, 0-7f), P Purcell (0-1), PJ Scully (0-3), J Campion (0-1), C Dwyer (0-1), R King (0-3), W Hyland (0-3), T Fitzgerald (1-1).
Subs: B Conroy (1-0) for King, J Campion for Hyland, D Palmer for Scully
Referee: P O’Dwyer (Carlow).