Antrim opened their Allianz NHL Division Two campaign with a narrow 1-11 to 2-7 win over Carlow at Casement Park yesterday but boss Dinny Cahill knows he has work to do with the side.
Granted, the winners were without a number of regulars but there is stronger opposition ahead and much improvement will be needed if the northern side is to make a serious bid for promotion.
It took an injury time point from a Liam Watson free puck to edge the home side to victory, a victory just about deserved over the 70-plus minutes of a scrappy but well-contested match.
The Saffrons started in top gear and a 12th minute goal by midfield man Martin Scullion had them ahead by 1-4 to 0-1 as Scullion and man-of-the-match Neil McManus controlled lar na pairc. From a McManus outfield free, Scullion raced along the end line to squeeze the sliothar into the net at a post.
With the hard-working Eddie Byrne much to the fore, Carlow powered back for points from Andrew Gaule and Paudie Kehoe (two frees) to leave just the goal between the sides.
Only three more flags were raised before the beak. The most important one was a Carlow goal on 35 minutes when centre-half Eoin Nolan dropped a free from past halfway into the Antrim goalmouth and Craig Doyle knocked the ball home.
However, in the minute of extra time, Watson landed a point from a placed ball to leave Antrim 1-6 to 1-4 ahead at the break.
Kehoe narrowed the gasp on the resumption, and following Antrim points by McCrory and Watson, Kehoe ghosted in to level the argument after 49 minutes with another Carlow goal (1-8 to 2-5).
Despite great work by Edward Coady and Shane Kavanagh, Antrim always seemed to have a little edge.
McManus and Watson pointed frees but the game was level again at 1-10 to 2-7 on 61 minutes with Gaule and full-back Kavanagh (free) snapping up points.
Then right on full-time Watson cracked over the winner for Antrim to repay the Barrow County men for defeating the Saffrons last week in the Walsh Shield and in last season's league.
The game was played with honest endeavour even if the standard was not the highest and both teams shooting 12 wides.
Antrim, of course, were short of their St Gall's players and also lined-out without three of their selected side. Cormac Donnelly was replaced at full-back by Neil McGarry while also missing was PJ O'Connell.
His place in midfield was filled by moving out Neil McManus from the ‘40' and bringing in Carey Faughs' player Colm McBride to the No.11 spot.
McManus, in his roving role from midfield, produced a man-of-the-match performance.
He moved to full-forward for a time but returned to the middle of the pitch where, in the early stages, he and Martin Scullion dominated. McManus also helped out his defence on a few occasions.
This game never really set the hills alight but both teams showed determination in the bitterly cold conditions.
The Casement Park sod was in great shape, considering the fact that yesterday morning, with snow falling, the game looked in doubt.
ANTRIM: C O'Connell; B McFall, N McGarry, N McAuley; A Graffin, K McKeegan, C Herron; M Scullion (1-0), N McManus 0-3, 0-2 frees); S McCrory (0-2), C McBride, L Watson (0-4, 0-3 frees); S McNaughton (0-2), T McCann, D Hamill. Subs: C McFall for McBride (40), P McGill for Scullion (57). Yellow Card: L Watson (28), S McCrory (34).
CARLOW: D Miley; A Corcroan, S Kavanagh (0-1 free), D Shaw; E Coady, E Nolan, R Coady; C Hughes, D Roberts; R Dunbar, E Byrne, M Brennan (0-1); A Gaule (0-2), C Doyle (1-0), P Kehoe (1-3, 0-3 frees). Subs: D English for Dunbar (half-time), B Lawlor for Kehoe (61). Yellow: M Brennan (28).
Referee: E Hasson (Derry)