By Daire Walsh
Ciaran Clarke registered a superb haul of 0-11 at Croke Park on Sunday to propel Antrim towards their maiden Joe McDonagh Cup title.
Pushed all the way by a spirited Kerry side, the Saffron County dug deep to secure the silverware and consequently earn a spot in next year’s Leinster Senior Hurling Championship.
While Shane Conway and Michael O’Leary did their best to stem the tide for Kerry, they couldn’t rein in the challenge of Antrim, for whom Neil McManus enjoyed an excellent second half cameo.
Clarke came into this contest with 4-36 to his name and carried this scoring form into the early moments of this second-tier showpiece. After pointing a 50 metre free in the fourth-minute, the Ballycastle ace gathered possession in the left-corner and proceeded to split the uprights in consummate fashion.
If Clarke was the go-to man in the Antrim attack, then the same was true of Conway in the Kerry ranks. The Lixnaw man won the Fitzgibbon Cup with UCC earlier this year and he got the Kingdom up and running on six minutes with a superb long-distance effort.
The Ulster side were the ones making the greater headway early on and Clarke converted a close-range free following a foul on the raiding Niall McKenna. Full-forward Conor McCann was then on hand to lift some of the scoring burden off Clarke’s shoulders, firing over a point from play after knocking the ball down to himself.
The quick thinking of Conway released Kerry midfielder Paudie O’Connor for a fine point, but Antrim continued to push forward. Despite hitting a couple of ’65’s short, Clarke hit a superb score on the turn via a powerful kick into the opposition half by Gerard Walsh.
Just in time for the first water break, James McNaughton was picked out in space and raised a white flag to move Antrim into a 0-6 to 0-2 lead.
This temporary interval worked to Kerry’s advantage as they brought themselves back into the reckoning on the stroke of 20 minutes. Saffrons full-back Matthew Donnelly was blinded by the sun in the Jones’ Road venue and couldn’t judge the flight of a crossfield delivery.
His direct opponent Mikey Boyle was ideally placed to capitalise and he fired low beyond the reach of Ryan Elliott. Having played second fiddle for much of the opening quarter, Kerry suddenly found themselves on level terms through Conway’s placed-ball strike on the left-flank.
With tension beginning to rise – despite the absence of spectators – both sides started to clock up a series of wides. Nevertheless, Michael Bradley and Conway (free) traded scores and while the reliable Clarke edged Darren Gleeson’s men back into the ascendancy, Daniel Collins was quick to respond for Kerry.
Deputising netminder John B O’Halloran came to the rescue of Fintan O’Connor’s Munster outfit on 33 minutes when he stretched to clear an awkward McKenna shot. There was a suspicion that some of the ball may have crossed the line, though it was impossible to tell if all of the the sliotar had gone beyond the whitewash.
Clarke did restore Antrim’s one-point cushion, but it was Kerry who were the more satisfied of the two teams heading into the dressing rooms. Conway and Michael O’Leary were both on target in stoppage-time, giving their side a 1-7 to 0-9 half-time buffer in the process.
Like the opening period, the second half began with consecutive points from Clarke. Having initially dropped a free short inside 60 seconds of the restart, the ball was recycled into his hand and he fired over the posts in clinical style.
When presented with a placed-ball opportunity moments later, he made no mistake to put Antrim back into the driving seat.
The northerners had already sent Conor Cunning into the action and he was joined on 45 minutes by McManus and Donal Nugent. The marquee name in this Saffrons squad, McManus had been absent for a number of weeks due to an injury sustained in a Division 2A National League final against Kerry in October.
Supplementing McKenna and Clarke efforts, he superbly dissected the uprights on the right-hand touchline in the 48th-minute to give Antrim further momentum. Another McKenna score on the run made it six points on the bounce for the rampant Ulster men and it took a Padraig Boyle single to break this scoring sequence.
Still, Antrim’s gander was up and a McManus free gave them a commanding 0-16 to 1-8 advantage at the second water break.
It wasn’t quite a done deal at this stage with successive points from Conway (free) and substitute Colm Harty offering Kerry a potential path back into contention. Yet Antrim replied with a two-point salvo of their own from Clarke and a Cunning score edged them a step closer to the top prize.
The Kingdom refused to throw in the towel, though, as Michael and Brendan O’Leary’s white flag contributions preceded a Shane Conway pointed free on the right-hand side. Conway later used his vision to pick out Collins for his second of the match and suddenly – with just four minutes of normal time to play – it was a two-point game in an increasingly frantic finale.
Although it was initially waved wide, Cunning was awarded a second score in the closing minutes of normal time through the intervention of Hawkeye. While Conway added two points to his tally (including one from open play), McManus did likewise to keep Antrim in pole position during six and a half minutes of stoppage-time.
Conway’s ninth of the tie raised the prospect of a dramatic Kerry fightback, but Antrim held out to earn a spot in the top section of the hurling championship.
Scorers – Antrim: Ciaran Clarke 0-11 (8 frees), Neil McManus 0-4 (3 frees), Niall McKenna, Conor Cunning 0-2 each, James McNaughton, Michael Bradley, Conor McCann 0-1 each. Kerry: Shane Conway 0-9 (8f), Mikey Boyle 1-0, Michael O’Leary, Daniel Collins 0-2 each, Paudie O’Connor, Padraig Boyle, Colm Harty, Brendan O’Leary 0-1 each.
ANTRIM: Ryan Elliott; Phelim Duffin, Matthew Donnelly, Stephen Rooney; Gerard Walsh, Paddy Burke, Joe Maskey; Eoghan Campbell, Keelan Molloy; Niall McKenna, James McNaughton, Michael Bradley; Dan McCloskey, Conor McCann, Ciaran Clarke. Subs: Conor Cunning for McCloskey (half-time), Neil McManus for Molloy, Donal Nugent for McCann (both 45), Conor Johnston for Bradley (64), Aodhan O’Brien for McKenna (70).
KERRY: John B O’Halloran; Bryan Murphy, Tomás O’Connor, Eric Leen; Jason Diggins, Fionán Mackessy, Michael Leane; Brandon Barrett, Paudie O’Connor; Michael O’Leary, Shane Nolan, Shane Conway; Daniel Collins, Mikey Boyle, Maurice O’Connor. Subs: Barry O’Mahony for M O’Connor (42), Padraig Boyle for P O’Connor (49), Colm Harty for M Boyle (56), Brendan O’Leary for Barrett (61).
Referee: Liam Gordon (Galway).