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Determined Down clinging on

Down grabbed themselves a National Hurling League Division Two lifeline at Casement Park yesterday, when they defeated Antrim in a drum-tight battle by 2-17 to 2-16.

This was in the penultimate round of the league with both teams struggling to avoid relegation. Although the result doesn't really decide anything, the victory eases the Mourne men's fears of a drop.

And for Antrim, it doesn't really mean they are heading for Division Three just yet.

Westmeath and Kildare are also in the relegation mix and with Down hosting Westmeath in the final round and Antrim travelling to Wexford so nothing was definitely decided.

Yesterday's neighbourly Belfast battle that was level eight times and won by just one point would suggest a cracking game.

Not so. It was far from a classic but the honours ended where they belonged. Down played with determination throughout with a much more potent attack.

The losers relied mainly on the super free-taking of Paul Shiels — he rifled over eight points from placed balls.

Down were 0-2 to 0-0 up before two goals by Neil McManus in the eighth minute — the first from a 20 metres free — gave the Saffrons the edge.

By the 12th minute the home side were 2-2 to 0-4 ahead and seemed to be well in charge before a point by solid midfield man Kevin McGarry and a goal by excellent corner-forward James Coyle levelled the argument in the 18th minute.

Coyle first-timed a dropping ball to the Antrim net after a long distance free by Gareth Johnston was batted down in the goalmouth.

From there the teams were level another six times and there was never more than a point between them with Shiels rifling over four points from placed balls to peg back Down each time.

A massive point by Down centre-back Ruairi McGrattan, from just outside his own ‘45' metre line, in injury time sent the Mourne men in leading by 1-12 to 2-8 at the break.

Inside seven minutes of the resumption, Down had increased their lead to seven with Stephen Clarke touching home a dropping ball from a midfield sideline by Conor Woods.

Johnston and sharpshooting James Coyle (2) added points to leave Down leading by 2-15 to 2-8 on 40 minutes.

The visitors' scoring blitz then dried up as Antrim took over to hit seven unanswered points and level the argument for the eighth time with eight minutes left in the game.

But the Down defence buckled down to shut out the attack once more.

Woods and Johnston hit points for Down after Paddy Hughes was shown a straight red card in the 66th minute by whistle-happy referee Tony Carroll from Offaly.

Karl McKeegan sent over a free for Antrim but that was as good as it got for the Saffrons.

“Our lads showed great character to hold out,” said Down manager Gerard Monan. “I though Paddy Hughes' sending off was harsh but everyone worked hard as Antrim dug in during the closing stages,” he said.

“James Coyle was tremendous and after Neil McManus scored the two early goals we tried to cut out the supply to him.

“We don't want to drop down to Division Three and our fate is now in our own hands after the win.

“We have Westmeath at home and this was a big result for us. It is vital for Down hurling that we stay up.

“I can go home now and eat my Easter egg after being off chocolate during Lent!”

Antrim manager Dinny Cahill reflected on missed chances.

“We learned that you can't sit back and hope to win a game in the closing stages,” he said.

“We missed a lot of chances and Down took their chances. Connor Woods is a serious player for them.”

ANTRIM: McGhee, McFall, Donnelly, McKeague, McAuley (0-1), McKeegan (0-1, free), Herron, Shiels (0-9, 0-8 frees), McCloskey, McFall, McManus (2-0, 1-0 free), O'Connell (0-3), McAllister (0-1), Stewart (0-1), McCrory. Subs: Hamill (for McAllister 54).

DOWN: G Clarke, L Clarke, Murray, Ennis, Hughes, McGrattan (0-1, free), M Ennis, Johnston (0-3, 0-2 frees), McGarry (0-2), O'Prey, Woods (0-3), B Ennis, Coyle (1-6, 0-4 frees), Savage (0-2), Clarke (1-0). Subs: Flynn (for O'Prey 55), Conlon (for McGarry 63), Clarke (for Ennis 63).

Referee: T Carroll (Offaly).

Belfast Telegraph