The midlanders came into the tie as overwhelming favourites and when Paul Kingston slammed the ball past Chris Kerr to make it 1-7 to 0-1 after 23 minutes, it looked as if Antrim were destined join Waterford, Carlow and London in the group of division four sides without a win this year.
Ryan Murray was the only scorer from play for the Saffrons in the first half, as Laois went into the dressing rooms with a seemingly insurmountable 1-9 to 0-5 interval lead.
“At half-time I spoke to boys and told them need to step up or get on the bus and go home,” said Antrim manager Frank Fitzsimons afterwards. This in the wake of pre-match plans thrown into chaos when he was forced to drop three players for lining out in a club hurling tie on Friday night.
“There was nothing we could have done with that, the boys played last night. We have a plan with 30 players and to be fair to the rest so I just had to pick fresh players. Thankfully for me and for the lads it worked out.”
The reshuffled Antrim side played some of their best football in the opening ten minutes and really should have made far better use of their early possession at a time when Laois looked stuck to the ground. The sides scored a mere point each in that time, a fact that didn’t surprise Fitzsimons.
“We came down here with a plan, we wanted to keep it tight up until half time. I know it didn’t look like that but we actually did think that Laois would tire coming into the second half due to playing three weeks in a row and it turned out that way in the end.” There was no change of pace or tone immediately after the interval. Laois even had a penalty saved, but pointed from the resultant ‘45 and appeared comfortable - until Ryan Murray came to intervene.
He scored 1-2 in just over five minutes, finishing his goal with real confidence and precision.
Donie Kingston kept Antrim at arm’s length and Laois looked to have seen out the storm when they moved into a 1-16 to 1-12 lead, though again Kerr was to save Antrim with a stunning save to parry Evan O’Carroll’s goal-bound effort from twelve metres out.
The real drama was to come however, as Antrim shrugged off two wasted chances to pick off scores from Benny Hasson and Mark Pollock. They were now within striking distance and made it count when Ryan Murray set up Dermot McAleese to slot the ball into the bottom corner of the net.
Laois had just over ninety seconds to save their season but Antrim held their discipline as the home side poured forward and with 29 players moving inside the Antrim 45m line, they turned over John O’Loughlin and picked off a wonderful Patrick McBride score on the break. A late red card for Brendan Quigley was the final act of an afternoon in which the home side fell short in their bid to secure a 19th qualifier win, one short of the record of twenty which is jointly held by Tyrone and Kildare.
D Kingston (0-7, 1 free), R Munnelly (0-4, 2 frees), P Kingston (1-0), D Strong (0-2), J O’Loughlin, N Donoher, and E O’Carroll (0-1 each).
R Murray 1-5, M Pollock 0-5 (0-4f), D McAleese 1-0, P McBride 0-2, C Kerr (f), O Gallagher & B Hasson 0-1 each
G Brody; S Attride, M Timmons, G Hanrahan; D Strong, D O’Connor, C Boyle; B Quigley, J O’Loughlin; N Donoher, R Munnelly, C Begley; E O’Carroll, D Kingston, P Kingston.
R Kehoe for Attride (48), B Sheehan for O’Carroll (62), C Meredith for Munnelly (63), J Finn for P Kingston (68)
C Kerr; N Delargy, J Crozier, D Lynch; P McAleer, J Laverty, T Scullion; O Gallagher, B Hasson; M Armstrong, C Murray, M Sweeney; R Murray, M Pollock, P McBride.
D McAleese for McAleer (29), J Dowling for Armstrong (HT), R McGrady for Gallagher (63)
D O’Mahoney (Tipperary)