Antrim 2-12 Carlow 0-15: Rampant Antrim on the up and up
Hard work and commitment is back among the Antrim hurling squad. And with that, a return to Division 1B after two years absence with victory over Carlow in the 2A final played on Saturday in a Pairc Esler quagmire.
Joint-manager Dominic McKinley cited the blue-collar approach after the final whistle, when a late push from Antrim prevented the sort of collapse that has become all too familiar to their small band of dedicated fans over recent seasons.
"Overall we are delighted," said the 1989 All-Ireland finalist.
"You know, if you had asked me 10, 15 years ago if I would be running around here shaking hands and jumping about, I would have said 'no'. Everybody thinks we should be beating these teams.
"We are delighted, we are delighted for the players.
"It shows the wee bit of work they have put in. We got a wee bit of payback. But it is small steps. Even the supporters - we hope that someday we can take a lot of people with us."
He added: "We know we need to do things first. It is all a process. Hopefully come the end of the year, we can do that. We can add a wee bit more to it. But this was the big one."
Antrim started impressively and with Neil McManus taking over Neal McAuley's previous unorthodox role at full-forward, he was a menace to his marker Paul Doyle.
He turned the ball over twice in the bottom corner of the pitch to set his Cushendall clubmate Eoghan Campbell through on goal, and he stitched his shot into the postage stamp corner in the 10th minute to open a gap.
Nine minutes later McManus was hauled down in the square after catching a Campbell delivery. He took the penalty himself and goalkeeper James Carroll didn't even budge as it rocketed to the bottom corner.
But Antrim grew complacent. After six consecutive points cut the Saffrons lead to a single point, McManus added three pointed frees - the final one a monster effort - while substitute Ciaran Clarke added a classy finish to give them the league title.
With only one team going up from this league final, it was win or bust and both sides contributed to a game of hurling that remained entertaining to the very last play.
At times it grew tetchy along the management sideline between two opponents that are intimately familiar with each other.
The Newry surface was far from ideal and in the war of attrition, the sheer size of the Barrowsiders began to tell in the physical exchanges, although some exceptions stood tall, especially centre-back Matthew Donnelly.
Near the end, there was a goal in it when Denis Murphy was fouled 20 metres from goal. Martin Kavanagh took the free, but Antrim's goalkeeper Chris O'Connell was equal to the poor strike.
"We can't complain, the scoreboard is never wrong," said a resigned Carlow manager Colm Bonner afterwards.
"Hats off to Antrim, they're heading up to Division 1B."
McKinley beamed: "What confidence this will give the players!
"More importantly, players that haven't been here. It's something to build on for next year and the next year, irrespective of who is here, we will get a system in place that people know from now on that there is no more messing about.
"You have got to commit to the cause and if you do commit to it, you don't know what can happen. These boys trained hard. We trained exceptionally hard for this day and it has paid dividends.
"Maybe if we can spread the word out to everybody else, we need more players but they must be in for the right reasons, they must be willing to commit," added McKinley.
Antrim, including captain Simon McCrory who lifted the trophy, now have a busy schedule ahead of them. They face Donegal in the Ulster Championship semi-final next weekend at Celtic Park, and should progress to the Ulster final a week later.
Then it's Carlow again on April 22 in the Christy Ring Cup opener.
Antrim: C O'Connell; S McCrory, J Dillon, S Rooney; N McAuley, M Donnelly, P Burke 0-1; C McKinley, P Shiels; E Campbell 1-0, C McCann, N McKenna 0-1; Conor Johnston 0-1, N McManus 1-4, 4f, D Murphy 0-4f
Subs: O McFadden for McAuley (49), C Clarke for Murphy (58), J McNaughton for Campbell (70)
Carlow: J Carroll; A Corcoran, P Doyle, G Bennett; D Byrne, D English, R Coady; J Kavanagh, S Whelan; JM Nolan 0-1, M Kavanagh 0-3, 1x'65', E Byrne 0-1; C Nolan, P Coady 0-7, 6f, 1x'65', S Murphy 0-1
Subs: J Doyle for Whelan (half-time), K McDonald 0-1 for Nolan (44), R Kelly for English (52), D Murphy for S Murphy (58), J Murphy 0-1 for J Kavanagh (61), S Kavanagh for E Byrne (Blood sub, 75)
Referee: Mick Murtagh (Westmeath).