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Neil McManus the hero as Antrim claim place with the elite after Joe McDonagh Cup victory

Antrim 0-22 Kerry 1-17


Collison course: Man of the match Antrim’s Niall McKenna with Fionan Mackessy and Brandon Barrett of Kerry

Collison course: Man of the match Antrim’s Niall McKenna with Fionan Mackessy and Brandon Barrett of Kerry

�INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Celebrations for Neil McManus

Celebrations for Neil McManus

�INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Surrounded: Antrim’s Gerard Walsh, Joe Maskey and Niall McKenna close in on Jason Diggins of Kerry

Surrounded: Antrim’s Gerard Walsh, Joe Maskey and Niall McKenna close in on Jason Diggins of Kerry

�INPHO/Tommy Dickson


Collison course: Man of the match Antrim’s Niall McKenna with Fionan Mackessy and Brandon Barrett of Kerry

Antrim will take their place among the elite of hurling in 2021, not only in Division One of the National Hurling Leagues but in the Leinster Senior Championship courtesy of eking out this nervy win over Kerry in the Joe McDonagh Cup.

A driving third quarter in which they outscored The Kingdom 0-7 to 0-1 granted them the platform to survive the last 15 minutes that belonged to Kerry.

Saffrons manager Darren Gleeson could happily turn to some stellar talent from his bench and brought on Neil McManus - out for the last few weeks with a hamstring injury - in the 45th minute and he nailed two '65s' that were proving difficult for Ciaran Clarke's range, along with a free and an excellent effort from play.

This was the fourth time Antrim have beaten Kerry this year and while it may not sound that significant, Kerry have had their number over recent seasons.

But there is something more steely about this Antrim team, who have gone undefeated right though the Kehoe Cup, league and now Joe McDonagh Cup.

"However we got over the line, that was what it was all about," said a relieved Gleeson afterwards.

"We weren't coming up to say we were going to flash a team out of the stadium. That was never going to happen. Kerry are too good a side, too physical, too well-prepared to let that happen so just delighted to get over the line."

He admitted, given the familiarity with the opponents and personal duels carrying over, it felt like a derby for the two teams on opposite ends of the island.

"Yeah, and the tone coming into the game was we had those three wins.

"It wasn't an aggregate, they were over, as soon as those matches were over they were over," Gleeson said.

"From the start today, Kerry came out with the right attitude that they were going to give themselves a platform to be in the game and then see would we crumble. And thank God, we didn't."

There will be a worthy study paper in the works by some enterprising Sports Science student some of these months, as to how the water break can affect momentum in the covid Championship.

The first quarter could hardly have gone better for Antrim, racing into a 0-6 to 0-2 lead with Ciaran Clarke gobbling up the first three scores and Conor McCann adding a fourth with a heroic bit of play down the Hogan Stand sideline.

Kerry sent three efforts wide and only got moving on the board with a Shane Conway free and a well-worked finish from Paudie O'Connor.

After the break came the score Kerry desperately needed.

A poor Ryan Elliott puckout had Eoghan Campbell in bother as the ball dropped at his ankles. Shane Nolan lorried in the delivery and while full back Matthew Donnelly was in front and it was a routine clearance in the offing, he missed the flight in the glare of the sun and Mickey Boyle was as surprised as anyone to see it falling to him. He kept his composure to bounce his shot past Elliott.

The momentum swung firmly in Kerry's favour, winning the next three puckouts when they pushed up on Elliott's puckouts. Nolan and Conway grew into the game and the previous freedom enjoyed by Clarke began to stutter.

The contrast of styles was something to behold. Kerry lifted their template almost from a football one left lying around their Currans Centre of Excellence.

They surrendered the puckout and left Ryan Elliott to pick out Stephen Rooney most regularly and Matthew Donnelly on occasions.

Antrim would then send it high and long into the left corner to find Clarke, or else get Niall McKenna or James McNaughton floating around the fringe of the attack.

Kerry, instead, were trying to work it through the lines, going crossfield on occasions and while they stitched together some moves and kept in touch, it seemed that they were pulling an awful out of themselves to get them.

And for all that, they went in at the break marginally ahead, Boyle's goal helping them to 1-7 to Antrim's 0-9, Kerry having eight wides in the same period.

The teams went level for the fourth time in the first minute of the second half. Conor Clarke's free from 65 metres dropped short but luckily the clearance reached him and he made amends. From that point on, they would not be level again.

Tomás O'Connor took the ball into his hand twice and was blown up for a free that Clarke slotted over to give them the lead.

What followed was a quarter of an hour of incredible individual hurling from Niall McKenna. The Sarsfields man clipped over an inspirational point on 45 minutes. Two minutes later he was fouled by a desperate Brandon Barrett for another converted Clarke free.

He sent Neil McManus away in space on the Cusack Stand side for a magnificent point and scored another himself a minute after.

It was enough to make him the Man of the Match and open up a five-point gap.

That would prove enough.

ANTRIM: R Elliott; P Duffin, M Donnelly, S Rooney; G Walsh, P Burke, J Maskey; E Campbell, K Molloy; N McKenna 0-2, J McNaughton 0-1, M Bradley 0-1; D McCloskey, C McCann 0-1, C Clarke 0-11, 8f

Subs: C Cunning 0-2 for McCloskey (HT), N McManus 0-4, 2x'65', 1f, for Molloy (45m), D Nugent for McCann (45m), C Johnston for Bradley (64m), A O'Brien for McKenna (70m)

KERRY: JB O'Halloran; B Murphy, T O'Connor, E Leen; J Diggins, F Mackessy, M Leane; B Barrett, P O'Connor 0-1; M O'Leary 0-2, S Nolan, S Conway 0-9, 8f; D Collins 0-2, M Boyle 1-0, M O'Connor

Subs: B Mahony for M O'Connor (42m), P Boyle 0-2 for P O'Connor (49m), C Harty for Boyle (56m), B O'Leary 0-1 for Barrett (61m)

Referee: Liam Gordon (Galway)

Belfast Telegraph