Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Antrim hold on for epic victory over Fermanagh

Kevin Niblock celebrates after scoring yesterday
Kevin Niblock celebrates after scoring yesterday

Fermanagh 3-13 Antrim 2-18: Absolutely nothing about this game could be filed under the category of 'typical Ulster football' as Antrim clung on for dear life to get a place in the semi-final against Donegal.

Yet within half-an-hour of this game, it was all too much for one Fermanagh man in the John Vesey stand who got up and proclaimed the game over, inviting all those in his vicinity to join him as he left the ground.

What he witnessed must have horrified him. His team conceded a goal and 10 points in the opening half-hour of football.

The defensive match-ups that the home team had here were puzzling, relying on 32-year-olds Ryan McCluskey and Barry Owens to follow Antrim's vibrant two-man full-forward line of Brian Neeson and Niall McKeever.

Neeson got the Saffrons off the mark with a free and sold Owens a dummy before grabbing his second on four minutes, before finishing a Kevin Niblock pass for his third on six minutes.

In between these scores, Niblock also chalked up his first of the day.

Fermanagh's restarts were being swallowed up by a ravenous Antrim midfield and they were dealt a further blow when John Woods was forced off after a dangerous collision with the opposition's debutant goalkeeper, Patrick Flood.

Another debutant, Paul McCann, was sent on his way and his fiercely struck shot was parried over by Fermanagh goalkeeper Chris Snow for a point.

With Justin Crozier operating as a sweeper when Fermanagh had the ball, and then as an additional runner causing overlaps in attack, Fermanagh were all at sea, Antrim scores going over with frightening ease as three McCann brothers – Tomás, Michael and Paul – scored consecutive points.

Worse was to come when Neeson – revelling in the empty space of Fermanagh's inside 45 metres – was played in with a long ball.

He only had Che Cullen for company as Fermanagh's sweeper system went missing in action. The St John's man rounded his marker with ease and lashed his shot high into the net past Snow.

The odd thing is that this finally seemed to wake Fermanagh from their slumbers and they got some semblance of the correct positionings with their defenders, although the different players operating as sweeper were ineffectual.

A Sean Quigley free began the fightback. From Flood's kickout, Ryan McCluskey won the breaking ball, was fouled, and then found Eoin Donnelly.

His diagonal ball was sent to Sean Quigley, who nudged Ricky Johnston out of the way and fisted to the net.

Donnelly, Paul McCusker and a Paul Ward free left five points in it at the break and when McCusker added another point 20 seconds after the restart, it appeared that Antrim's mettle would be severely tested.

Especially when they lost their second man to a black card; James Laverty harshly going after a body check on Declan McCusker, following Conor Murray who hauled Tommy McElroy to the ground midway through the first half.

However, the effort of staging such a rescue mission was beginning to tell and McElroy was easily dispossessed coming out of defence, the ball transferred by Tomás McCann to Niblock who shimmied past Snow and slotted neatly home to the net.

Antrim could take stock again with an eight-point cushion but for Fermanagh, it was another human error on a day when their composure and concentration deserted them for long periods.

With Antrim tails up, Michael Armstrong was denied by another fine save from Snow while Pete McGrath sent Barry Owens up to the opposite square to accompany Quigley.

The sting seemed to go completely out of the game when Antrim rattled off four consecutive points, the last one a show-and-go dummy by Neeson on his latest marker Aidan Breen, before sprinting in and fisting over.

But then, remarkably, Fermanagh came again. Two frees from Quigley were greeted with hardly a golf clap of applause, but when Quigley robbed Crozier of the ball and transferred to Owens who blasted to the net, there was something in the air again.

Another free from Quigley and a Marty O'Brien point. Then, O'Brien and Eamon Maguire had snapshots at goal, the chance eventually drilled wide by Quigley.

Antrim's nerves were jangling though and a flowing movement brought another goal by O'Brien with normal time closing in to leave two points in it.

The resultant kickout went out for a sideline kick. McElroy hoisted it in, Quigley fielded and presented it to McCluskey.

He steadied himself, picked his spot and placed it past the goalkeeper.

However, Kevin O'Boyle was on the line to clear it from danger. Almost on that cue, referee Ciaran Branagan blew the whistle to end an incredible finale.

As Antrim players made their way off the pitch, they were heartily greeted by some typically boisterous fans chanting and singing. It's a rare win for them and they will savour it.

Onto Donegal now though and their fine-tuned defensive machine. Some difference ...

FERMANAGH: C Snow; R McCluskey, B Owens (1-0), J Woods; D McCusker, C Cullen, T McElroy; E Donnelly (0-1), R O'Callaghan; L Cullen, R Jones, P McCusker (0-3); P Ward (0-1, f), S Quigley (1-6, 5f), E Maguire (0-1). Subs: M O'Brien (1-1) for Woods (13m), A Breen for Ward (44m), M Murphy for L Cullen (44m), R Corrigan for P McCusker (52m), B Mulrone for C Cullen (54).

Yellow cards: McCluskey (27m), Jones (35m)

ANTRIM: P Flood; K O'Boyle, R Johnston, N Delargy; M Johnston, J Crozier, J Laverty; M McCann (0-2), M Sweeney; C Murray, K Niblock (1-3, 1f), P McCann (0-2); B Neeson (1-6, 1f), N McKeever, T McCann (0-3, 2f). Subs: M Armstrong for Murray (BC, 18m), P McBride for Laverty (BC, 36m), R Murray (0-2) for P McCann (42m), D Lynch for Armstrong (59m), S McVeigh for Sweeney (67m)

Yellow cards: Delargy (62m)

Black cards: C Murray (18m), Laverty (36m)

Referee: Ciaran Branagan (Down)

Attendance: 8,265

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