Courageous Antrim dig deep to claim Laois scalp

A MAGNIFICENT display of character saw Antrim secure their first win in the Leinster senior hurling championship at Portlaoise on Saturday evening.

Man of the match Neil McManus didn’t downplay the significance of the win which he claimed “merited the decision to come into and hurl in Leinster.”

This was a triumph against all the odds for Dinny Cahill’s side which featured four debutants and were reduced to 14 men following the 38th minute dismissal of defender Neil McAuley for a punch on Laois midfielder Seán Burke.

Other sides would have collapsed but Cahill’s outfit are made of sterner stuff and once McManus equalised with a point in the 48th minute (1-12 to 2-9), they never looked back and ran out deserved winners.

A delighted Cahill said: “We had four fellas just out of minor on that team. Christopher McGuinness and James Black were minors last year and Conor McCann played minor two years ago.”

You wouldn’t have thought that was the case the way those youngsters played. McCann picked up four superb points in that second half as Antrim overturned a five-point half-time deficit (2-7 for Laois to 1-5), while the diminutive McGuinness was a dynamo throughout at corner-back.

McGuinness revealed: “I started out the year at corner-forward, Walsh Cup, but I played corner-back at minor. You look at the boys around you, Aaron Griffin at full-back, Michael Herron at centre-back, and they keep you right, you’re never left exposed. It was a brilliant experience to be playing with the likes of Neil McManus, Karl Stewart and all of those guys I looked up to as a kid. The first half I was a wee bit nervous, you don’t know what to make of it, but a few words at half-time from Ollie (Baker, selector) and Dinny settled us down. We knew what our job was and we just did it.”

Well as young McGuinness and McCann played, however, it was the slightly more experienced McManus who really got Antrim through this game. Most of his 10 points were from placed balls but his move to midfield midway through the first half, at a time when Antrim were struggling to make an impression, kept them in the contest.

An early goal from late call-up Simon McCrory flattered Antrim somewhat as they trailed by just three points in the 25th minute, full-forward Neil Foyle with the Laois goal in reply after a strong Owen Holohan run and pass, but a late 1-1 double whammy from Willie Hyland gave the hosts that five-point cushion at the break.

Into the second half and with the difficult diagonal wind, it was McManus’s accuracy that brought Antrim back to parity, and his workrate around the middle of the pitch set an example for everyone else to follow.

Follow it they did, and even when Laois drew level again in the 57th minute with their third goal (3-9 to 1-15), Holohan the finisher this time, still there was no panic in the visiting ranks.

With centre-forward Karl Stewart (two), youngster McCann (three) and McManus (one) firing over the points it was Antrim running out worthy winners, Seán Burke’s last-minute shot flashing past the wrong side of the posts for Laois.

“We were playing with 14 men and with the breeze at our back,” said McManus. “We dug in and some of the performances were second to none. Some of the point-taking was outstanding. Conor McCann was unbelievable and everything he touched went over the bar. Christopher McGuinness is a super athlete who can play anywhere — he’s been played corner-back, corner-forward, midfield for us through the year — but he seems to do well wherever he’s picked. We were nervous about our first round match in Leinster because we wanted to win one but now we’re over that. It was a massive thing to get invited into Leinster for a start and by winning a game we feel like we’ve merited the decision to come into Leinster and hurl in Leinster.

“There was a lot of emotion in the changing room afterwards, relief mainly that we had got over the line and won one. We’ll take on Wexford now and hopefully we’ll be able to put on a similar performance.”

Scorers for Antrim: N McManus 0-10 (0-7f, 0-1 65); C McCann 0-4; K Stewart 0-4; S McCrory 1-0; N McAuley 0-2 (0-2f); M Armstrong 0-1.

Scorers for Laois: W Hyland 1-4 (1-3f); O Holohan 1-1; N Foyle 1-1; W Dunphy 0-2; M Whelan 0-2 (0-2f); J Walsh, S Burke, 0-1 each.

Subs for Antrim: M Armstrong for Black (44); D Hamill for McKeegan (56); K McGourty for McFall (66).

Subs for Laois: C Dunne for Fitzpatrick (inj. 35); W Dunphy for Dunne (inj. 37); S Dollard for Costelloe (61).

Referee: A Kelly (Galway).

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