ANTRIM will make an immediate return to the Joe McDonagh Cup as they fell to a six-point defeat to Laois at Parnell Park yesterday.
The Saffrons won promotion to the top tier of Championship hurling in December, but will have to plot their way back once again as they were unable to overturn an 11-point deficit early in the second period.
They got to within two as Laois found themselves with 13 men for a spell with Sean Downey sin-binned and Ross King then shown a second yellow, but they just couldn’t get closer.
“We had enough chances to win a couple of games,” reflected Antrim manager Darren Gleeson.
“I don’t know how many goalscoring opportunities we had. We showed a bit of inexperience. The first half we were relaxed about it with lack of tracking and application. Second half, we got into it a bit and were on the front foot, but then the water-break came and seemed to kill the momentum.”
Laois came flying out of the traps with late replacement Podge Delaney lashing over just 10 seconds in and King doubled their advantage before Antrim got on the board through Conor Johnston.
The Saffrons were distinctly second best in the opening quarter as Laois piled on the points with PJ Scully the tormentor in chief - his best coming from a sideline - while Antrim were reliant on Ciaran Clarke points from placed balls as they trailed 0-11 to 0-4 at the water-break.
Gleeson was forced into a change as Damon McMullan, booked early along with King for an off-the-ball tangle, was on his final warning and Aaron Crawford was introduced.
A bit of reorganising during this brief halt in play seemed to do the trick as the Saffrons hit the first three points of the second quarter through Clarke, James McNaughton and Conal Cunning, but the Midlanders responded in kind as they maintained the seven-point gap approaching the break when Paddy Purcell availed of an advantage to crack home a stunning goal from outside the penalty area to help Laois into a 1-17 to 0-10 lead at the half.
There was no indication as to what was to come early in the second period with Laois hitting three of the first five scores including another sublime sideline from Scully, but suddenly Antrim raised a gallop with a pair of Keelan Molloy points and got the goal they needed as Cunning offloaded to half-time substitute Eoin O’Neill, who fired to the net on 44 minutes.
Just 60 seconds later came a huge moment as Downey trailed down Conor Johnston outside the area, but was adjudged to have prevented a goalscoring opportunity with a penalty awarded and the Laois man sent to the sin-bin. However, the inspired Enda Rowland was equal to Neil McManus’ effort.
Still Antrim pushed and the earlier yellow card picked up by King came back to bite as a late swipe on Crawford resulted in his dismissal and Antrim took advantage with Clarke pointing a free and then his deft flick put O’Neill in for his second goal to leave just two in it at the water-break.
The O’Moore men reorganised in the break in play and rattled off three scores in a row and when Purcell pounced on a fumble by Burke - who did appear to be fouled in the process - to lash to the net, Antrim again had a mountain to climb.
Try as they might, the Saffrons couldn’t find a way past Rowland for a third time as the Laois keeper produced saves from McNaughton and Seaan Elliott with Antrim restricted to points in the closing stages with Cha Dwyer firing over the insurance score to ensure Antrim’s relegation.
LAOIS: E Rowland; L Cleere, S Downey, D Hartnett; P Delaney (0-3), C McEvoy (0-1), R Mullaney; F Fennell (0-1), J Kelly (0-3); P Purcell (2-2), C Dwyer (0-1), C Collier; PJ Scully (0-11, 7 frees, 2 sidelines), W Dunphy (0-3), R King (0-2). Subs: J Ryan for R Mullaney (53), E Lyons for C Collier (57), J Keyes for P Purcell (65), A Dunphy for W Dunphy (70+2), C Comerford for C Dwyer (70+4).
ANTRIM: R Elliott; D McMullan, G Walsh, S Rooney; E Campbell, P Burke, A O’Brien; K Molloy (0-3), Ciaran Johnston; N McManus (0-4), J McNaughton (0-2, 1 free), M Bradley; Conor Johnston (0-1), C Cunning (0-2), C Clarke (0-8, 7 frees, 1 65). Subs: A Crawford for D McMullan (18), J Maskey for Ciaran Johnston (HT), E O’Neill (2-0) for M Bradley (HT), S Elliott (0-1) for Conor Johnston (59), M Donnelly for A O’Brien (70)
REFEREE: Sean Cleere (Kilkenny)