An injury time goal from a Brian Carroll free edged Offaly ahead after the Saffrons looked to have sealed a memorable championship win. On a day when Antrim keeper Chrissy O’Connell pulled off a string of superb saves to deny the visitors, it was a long-range free that evaded the Saffron netminder two minutes into injury-time that secured Offaly’s place in the next round.
With Antrim leading by two, Carroll’s effort sailed through a crowded square to make it 2-18 to 1-20 to Offaly. Seconds later Sean Cleary fired over the final score of the day for a two-point Offaly win.
“Our confidence was low after the last day and we always knew it was going to be a tough game coming up to Ballycastle. I’m very proud of my lads and the way they kept going. We created some great goal opportunities in both halves and in fairness to the Antrim goalie, he pulled off some wonderful saves. We would be disappointed that we didn’t convert one or two of them but having said that, they had a chance or two, and James Dempsey in the first half pulled off a great save,” said Offaly boss Brian Whelahan.
“The stakes are getting higher now and we’re going to come up against teams who have aspirations of going on well into the summer, but this game was about getting a win. It’s a big lift for everyone. They are after having a tough year and everyone has been down on top of them.”
In an entertaining game, the sides were level eight times. Antrim probably played the better hurling, but Offaly continued to look dangerous close to the Saffrons goal, and forced O’Connell into six superb saves on the day.
Antrim could also have raised more green flags and Ciarán Clarke and PJ O’Connell ran the Offaly full- back line ragged at times.
Clarke had a superb effort off the post, while O’Connell and later McGuinness both watched goal efforts sail wide. Paul Shiels opened the scoring after two minutes and Jackson McGreevy doubled the lead four minutes later. Two Joe Bergin points levelled matters and the sides were still on parity on 12 minutes when Conor Mahon forced O’Connell into his first save of the day.
On 19 minutes, with the sides all square (0-6 apiece) Shane Dooley was denied by O’Connell before Bergin then saw his effort turned away by the Loughgiel Shamrocks clubman.
Antrim also continued to create chances and Clarke’s 27th-minute shot came off the post and PJ O’Connell’s effort three minutes from the break stretched Dempsey to the limit.
Four unanswered scores had Antrim 0-11 to 0-7 ahead approaching the break but points from Shane Dooley and Colin Egan reduced the deficit. A Shiels free saw Antrim 0-13 to 0-10 ahead at the change of ends.
Clarke opened the second-half scoring to stretch the Antrim lead but David Kenny’s goal began a 1-2 Offaly salvo without reply. Kenny got goal-side of Conor McKinley to give O’Connell no chance, and Derek Morken and Bergin put Offaly into a one-point lead, 1-12 to 0-14, with 43 minutes played.
Antrim replied well through scores from Neil McManus, Shiels, Conor McCann and Stephen McAfee and were 0-19 to 1-14 ahead on 58 minutes when Carroll converted a 65 for Offaly. Dan Currams became the next player to be denied by O’Connell but, at the other end, PJ O’Connell finally got the goal he deserved when superbly finishing to the roof of the net off his left side, to put Antrim five points to the good with 12 minutes to play.
Offaly began to chip away at the lead and trailed by two, 1-20 to 1-18, when McGuinness was blown up for a foul on Morkan in injury time. The resultant free was moved forward after Antrim protests and Carroll’s effort sailed into the Antrim net for a one-point lead and heartbreak for the home support. “They are all gutted and I’m gutted for them. I can’t fault the performance. There were a few chances early on that we didn’t take and we had them opened up, but to be fair, Chrissy O’Connell stopped five or six certain goals so we can’t really harp on about the chances that we missed,” said Antrim boss Kevin Ryan. “I’d be pleased with the performance, the way we went at it, the way we stuck to our game plan. We’re content with the progress but we know it was a missed opportunity.”
ANTRIM: C O’Connell; O McFadden, C McKinley, A Graffin; S McCrory, N McAuley (0-1), N McManus (0-1f); T McCann (0-1), J McGreevy (0-1); C Carson, P Shiels (0-8, 4f, 0-2 ‘65’), C McCann (0-1); D Hamill, C Clarke (0-3), PJ O’Connell (1-2).
Subs: M Bradley (0-1) for S McCrory, S McAfee (0-1) for D Hamill, D McKernan for J McGreevy, N McKenna for N McAuley.
OFFALY: J Dempsey; N Wynne, R Hanniffy, C McDonald; K Brady, G Healion, C Parlon (0-1); C Mahon, S Ryan (0-1); S Dooley (0-2), D Kenny (1-0), C Egan (0-2); B Carroll (1-4, 1-2f, 0-2 ‘65’), D Currams (0-2), J Bergin (0-5, 2f)
Subs: D Morkan (0-1) for S Ryan, E Nolan for N Wynne, S Cleary (0-1) for S Dooley, K Connolly for G Healion.
Referee: J McGrath (Westmeath).