Antrim ensure the first weekend of the 2021 season is one to remember
Neil McManus inspires landmark victory over Clare on return to Division 1
Clare’s David Reidy is tackled by Antrim’s Niall McKenna. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
There was always going to be one. A hurling league that started back after just three weeks of collective training had to throw up at least one shock result and lo, it came at Corrigan Park in west Belfast where Antrim took the scalp of Brian Lohan’s Clare. It was no fluke either as Darren Gleeson’s side marked their return to the top-flight after three years away with a 1-21 to 0-22 victory.
They had to overcome a slow start to do it, finding the combination of a stiff wind and Tony Kelly too much to resist and going down to a six-point deficit early on. But from the first water break onwards, they were clearly the side with the most vim in the legs and once they had the wind at their back for the endgame, they were always able to find a score when they needed it.
“I wasn’t worried because that’s happened to us before where we hit a little flat spot for 10 or 15 minutes,” said Darren Gleeson afterwards. “I’m not worried about the lads as they are able to switch back and have a strong mentality. These are the things you work on in training: if a team is x amount ahead, then try to build it back.
“It doesn’t have to be through goals, but you can do it by points and the lads brought forward what they do in the training field in that situation. I have a solid belief that these lads can play at the highest level. Now they have to find out if they can back up that performance with another performance and keep the momentum going.”
It was Antrim’s first win over one of the major hurling counties since their 2012 defeat of Wexford. In the nine campaigns since then, their only Division One victories have come against Carlow, Offaly and Laois. According to the @GAA_Stats account, it’s their first win of any kind over a Munster county other than Kerry since beating Waterford in 1994. They face Kilkenny next weekend. No better way to come back down to earth.
“The League is massive for us,” Gleeson said. “Not to take away from our win but Clare experimented there a small bit. I’m just very happy with it and that they brought the positivity and momentum.
“Every game is an opportunity to go out and represent their county. That’s what they’re doing. The county jersey is important - I think we’ve instilled that back into them. They all come from fantastic clubs and every game they go out, they need to represent that jersey and what it means. Today is done now, we’re finished with it, we’ll move on and get ready for next week.”
It was fitting that the go-ahead score injury-time came from long-time soldier Neil McManus, a booming effort from distance that would have sent the crowd into conniptions if there’d been one in the ground. Man of the match Ciarán Clarke scored 1-11. Including 1-1 from play to see them through.
“It’s only two points at the end of the day,” said McManus, doing his best to poor mouth it. “The first half was about keeping ourselves in the game. We came on strong towards half-time. We kept our shape well, kept working hard, defended well near the end. We were glad to have a wee two-point gap coming towards the end. It wasn’t much but it was enough.
“It means everything. It’s only two points but it does mean loads to us and will mean loads to those watching at home. Hopefully it won’t be long until they’re out at these games with us.”
Elsewhere, there were heavy wins for Wexford over Laois and Cork over Waterford, both of them burnished by a slew of late goals. In Wexford Park, the home side ran out 4-17 to 0-10 winners, albeit that the impressive scoreline that was padded out by them running 2-2 in injury-time at the end of the game. Two first-half goals from Mikey Dwyer got them up and running and though they were sluggish enough after the break, goals from Rory Hearne and Rory O’Connor put a gloss on it for them.
The game was notable too for the first sin-binning of the hurling year. Laois full-back Lee Cleere was the answer to the quiz question, after he wrapped the in-running O’Connor up in a bear hug in the semi-circle midway through the second half. Referee Thomas Walsh won’t have a more straightforward sinbin decision to make all year and Cleere went to the stand for 10 minutes. Lee Chin missed the resultant penalty but Wexford were never in trouble from there on out.
Elsewhere, Cork were 5-22 to 1-27 winners over Waterford in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, a scoreline that is a bit unfair on Liam Cahill’s visiting side. A game in which the sides were only separated by four points with four minutes to go tilted heavily Cork’s way with three late goals from substitutes Alan Connolly (two) and Shane Kingston. Waterford also had Calum Lyons sent off in injury-time to round off their miserable opening day .