Leaky Saffrons hang on

Fermanagh 3-13 Antrim 2-18

Leaky Saffrons hang on

The brilliant double act of Kevin Niblock and Brian Neeson scored 2-9 between them in Brewster Park yesterday, all but two of that total from play, but a collapse of stunning proportions at the end of both halves left Fermanagh right in this game until the very last second.

It is not often we see a hurling scoreline in the ultra competitive Ulster SFC, but such was the naivety shown by both porous defences, that scores simply flowed.

Despite seemingly winning this game on two occasions, Antrim were hanging on in injury-time after Barry Owens and Marty O’Brien both found the net in the 62nd and 71st minutes.

When Ryan McCluskey went in search of the winning goal in the last play of the game, he went for placement over power and Antrim defender Kevin O’Boyle brilliantly kicked the ball off the line. It was a clearance which saved the day for the Saffrons, who collapsed and did their best to lose a game they should have won by around 10 points.

When Sean Quigley confidently stroked over the opening point after 18 seconds, there was no hint of what was to come.

Antrim took complete control, scoring 1-10 without reply between the third and 32nd minutes.

The Saffrons came with a clear and simple game-plan. With Niall McKeever at full-forward, Kevin Niblock at centre half-forward and Michael McCann imperious in midfield, they were strongest where Fermanagh were weakest — straight down the middle.

Brian Neeson, preferred to Paddy Cunningham in attack, justified his selection with three points inside the opening six minutes and Pete McGrath’s side over-complicated things and suffered as a result. Barry Owens, who wore No 14 but played mostly at full-back, marked three different Antrim forwards in the opening 10 minutes, with the Erne defence constantly on the move.

Antrim made hay with Niblock and debutant Paul McCann kicking fine scores.

In the 22nd minute, Michael McCann received a cross-field pass around the Fermanagh 45 and, totally unmarked and with room to run into, he chipped the ball over the bar to put Antrim 0-9 to 0-1 ahead.

Neeson finished his goal well on the half-hour mark, taking a pass from Niblock, skinning his marker and cutting inside to drill the ball brilliantly across the goalkeeper.

At 1-10 to 0-1 ahead, Antrim must have already started thinking about Donegal on June 22, yet inexplicably, the momentum shifted dramatically with Fermanagh scoring 1-4 without reply in the last few minutes of the first half.

Quigley ended a 32-minute scoring drought with a free and a minute later he punched the ball to the net to ignite an unlikely comeback.

This was Paddy Flood’s first game at any level for Antrim and Fermanagh, starved of possession for so long, did not test the Ballyclare Comrades Irish League keeper nearly enough.

The danger signs were there when Paul McCusker had the ball in the net in the ninth minute, but the whistle had already blown for a foul on a fortunate Flood.

Sean Quigley must have been licking his lips waiting on his chance to tear in to him but had to wait until the 34th minute to get his chance.

Fermanagh lost Tomás Corrigan, the man so much of their offensive game-plan was built around, through injury in midweek heaping even more pressure on Quigley. He deftly flicked Eoin Donnelly’s long ball to the net with Donnelly, McCusker and Paul Ward (free) subsequently reducing the deficit to 1-10 to 1-5 at half-time.

Paul McCusker reduced the gap to four points before Neeson and Niblock went about winning the game for Antrim for a second time — Niblock’s pass to Neeson for an important point which stopped Fermanagh’s unanswered 1-5 either side of half-time.

Then in the 39th minute, Niblock dropped the shoulder and rounded the Erne goalkeeper with a beautiful finish that was honed at Solitude, the home of Cliftonville FC, and reworked to perfection in Brewster Park.

That was the spark which saw Antrim kick on and open up an 11-point lead. They were 2-17 to 1-9 ahead with 53 minutes played and it looked as though they had killed off Fermanagh’s resistance.

However, some second-rate turnovers — Justin Crozier and Ryan Murray both caught in possession — allowed Fermanagh back into it with late goals.

Scorers for Fermanagh: S Quigley 1-6 (5f), M O’Brien 1-1, B Owens 1-0, P McCusker 0-3, E Donnelly, E Maguire 0-1, P Ward (f) 0-1 each.

Scorers for Antrim: B Neeson 1-6 (0-1f), K Niblock 1-3 (0-1f), T McCann 0-3 (2f), P McCann, M McCann, R Murray 0-2 each.

Subs for Fermanagh: M O’Brien for Woods (13), A Breen for Ward (44), M Murphy for L Cullen (44), R Corrigan for P McCusker (52), B Mulrone for C Cullen (54).

Subs for Antrim: M Armstrong for Murray (BC, 18), P McBride for Laverty (BC, 36), R Murray for P McCann (42), D Lynch for Armstrong (59), S McVeigh for Sweeney (67)

Referee: Ciaran Branagan (Down).

Game-changer

Kevin O’Boyle’s stunning clearance in the last act. Ryan McCluskey went for placement over power with his goal-bound shot which would have snatched victory for Fermanagh, and O’Boyle kicked the ball off the line.

Talk of the town

How Antrim’s naïve defence will fare against Donegal in the Ulster semi-final. While great to watch going forward, Antrim’s defence has a tendency to concede a lot of scores very quickly.

Did that just happen?

A hurling scoreline in the Ulster Senior Football Championship. Porous defences and momentum swings made for an exciting spectacle, but surely one that cannot afford to be repeated by either side next time out.

Best on show

Brian Neeson (Antrim). Was the surprise choice in the starting team ahead of Paddy Cunningham and more than justified that call with a stunning 1-6, including 1-5 from play.

Black card watch

Antrim got two black cards. Conor Murray’s was deserved in the 18th minute for pulling down Ryan McCluskey. James Laverty’s black card straight after half-time was less clear cut and on first viewing appeared a tad harsh.

Sideline superior

Liam Bradley won the sideline battle hands down and got his match-ups spot on. Pete McGrath failed to identify Justin Crozier was running amok in the first half and didn’t put Tommy McElroy on to him until the start of the second half.

The man in black

Ciarán Branagan showed two black cards to Antrim’s Conor Murray and James Laverty, with the second one a bit harsh. Otherwise kept decent control of the game, though blew for 56 frees over the 70-plus minutes.

What’s next?

Antrim will play Donegal in an Ulster semi-final on June 22 with Fermanagh heading to the qualifiers.

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