Antrim 5-22 Kerry 4-24
He should have been happy of course, ecstatic even, but after watching his Antrim team escape to victory at Croke Park, Darren Gleeson conceded he simply felt a little ‘numb’.
The former Tipperary All-Ireland winner was clearly still trying to process the nine-goal thriller that had unfolded before his eyes, and was struggling to do so.
His gut feeling? That Antrim shouldn’t have been clinging on to Joe McDonagh Cup success − and a return to the Leinster SHC in 2023 – by their fingertips at the finish having led by a whopping 12 points at one stage in the first half.
By Gleeson’s own admission, Antrim lost all sense of shape and structure in the second half as Kerry, superbly led by two-goal substitute Jordan Conway, produced a remarkable revival which threatened to turn a lost cause on its head.
In the end, Kerry came up just short, Pádraig Boyle’s second goal coming virtually on the blow of full-time when, if it had arrived, say, 90 seconds earlier, one of the great Croke Park comebacks could have really been on the cards.
“I’m a bit numb to it because we were so far ahead, I’m a bit numb to it right now,” said Gleeson when asked to put words on his joy. “You’re just going through your mind thinking, ‘How did we end up like that at the end?’ Instead of being joyous, you’re just kind of wondering, ‘How did that happen?’ I suppose when you analyse it, you’ll say it was lackadaisical from us at times and, of course, some brilliance from Kerry.”
You could use up plenty of column inches trying to explain how Antrim consigned Kerry to their third consecutive McDonagh final loss though it can probably be summarised in one word; goals.
Antrim scored 20 in their five-game group campaign and required all five in the final to get the better of Stephen Molumphy’s never-say-die crew.
Antrim started raising green flags as early as the fifth minute, Ciarán Clarke dancing through the Kerry defence before getting his shot away and then turning provider six minutes later for James McNaughton to strike to the net.
Kerry, a full yard off the pace in defence initially, were cut asunder at times and Antrim’s 12-point 2-11 to 0-5 advantage after 25 minutes didn’t flatter them.
There was a brief Kerry response, Boyle’s first goal part of a 1-3 scoring burst, though Antrim closed out the half with a third goal, this time from Seán Elliott and led 3-14 to 1-10 at half-time.
The presumption was that it would be plain sailing from there on. In reality, Antrim were filleted at times, Conway helping himself to 2-2 in the second half and leading the Kerry comeback.
Curiously, Kerry scored 3-14 in the second half, just as Antrim did in the first half. What kept the Ulster men just about in front throughout was the two second-half goals they pinched, Conal Cunning on target in the 41st minute and Clarke converting a 60th-minute penalty after Paudie O’Connor’s foul on Neil McManus.
It was thrill-a-minute, breathless stuff and Antrim just about survived. They’ll play Cork in an All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final next weekend. Kerry will face Wexford. Both teams will be at home though, frankly, good luck to them trying to gather themselves after this rollercoaster.
ANTRIM: R Elliott; D Kearney, G Walsh, P Burke; M Bradley, E Campbell, J Maskey; C Bohill, K Molloy (0-2); C Clarke (2-2, 1-0 pen), J McNaughton (1-1), C McCann; S Elliott (1-0), N McManus (0-2), C Cunning (1-12, nine frees).
Subs: R McGarry for Campbell (22-24 mins, blood), D McKernan (0-1) for Bohill (50), D Nugent for McCann (53), N McKenna (0-1) for McNaughton (62), C Johnston for Clarke (64), E O’Neill (0-1) for McManus (69).
KERRY: L Dee; C O’Keeffe, S Weir, E Leen; E Ross, M Boyle, M Leane (0-2); F Mackessy (0-1), P O’Connor (0-1); P Boyle (2-11, 1-0 pen, seven frees, one 65), D Collins (0-3), G Dooley (0-1); C Walsh, C Harty, S Conway (0-2).
Subs: J Conway (2-2) for Harty (25 mins), M O’Connor (0-1) for Dooley (45), N Mulcahy for Walsh (49), B Lonergan for Collins (64).
Referee: S Stack (Dublin).