MATCH REPORT BY: Mateo Hernandez-Power
PHOTOGRAPHY: Danny Lahart
Kilkenny v Antrim roundup
Heavy rainfall, Covid protocols and no crowd did little to dampen the spirit of the match
Walking down John Street to Nowlan Park in the rain last Sunday before the 1.30pm throw in, you wouldn’t have been sure there was a match taking place at all. Compared to a normal match day in Kilkenny there was a distinct lack of buzz around town. There were no pre-match pint drinkers spilling out of the pubs, no kids with hurls heading up to try and grab a stray micro chipped yellow sliotar that might come over the nets. There was no black and amber clad crowd with their plaits and hats. There were no northern accents, no buses from Antrim and there was no sea of saffron supporters. It would have been an optimistic sea of saffron after Antrim’s heroic display the previous weekend when they beat Clare in Round 1 of the National Hurling League. Hopes would have been high and surely were for the Antrim Team when they arrived at Nowlan Park to take on their Kilkenny counterparts.
Arriving at Nowlan Park you would usually be thinking which turnstile to head for to get the best seat. Last Sunday we were directed in through the Old Stand, straight up the stairs and shown where to sit by the stadium volunteers. Both teams were warming up on either side of the pitch and the coaches instructions could be heard throughout the otherwise silent stadium. The Kilkenny team used the stand to get ready while Antrim opted for the dressing rooms underneath The Old Stand. It was sunny, then raining, with more rain and then sun. This indecisive weather was to continue throughout the game. Amhrán na bhFiann was played as usual before throw in. Only a low hum could be heard from the spectator group of Gardaí, photographers, journalists, umpires, camera crew and stadium volunteers.
Kilkenny lined out with a strong side minus their talisman TJ Reid. It was strange that every word between players, backroom teams and referee officials could be heard by the minimal spectators. A bit of a hectic start led Conor McCahn from Antrim to open the scoring with a well worked point. By the first water break however, Kilkenny had retaliated with 6 unanswered points including a few by James Bergin and Alan Murphy who were both in flying form. The Antrim backroom team appeared to have people on each side of the pitch, loudly supporting every move from their team, yet Antrim couldn’t get a foothold in the game. Eoin Cody from Ballyhale Shamrocks scored a low shot underneath Antrim goalkeeper Ryan Elliot giving him a goal in the 25th minute. In the 30th minute Conor Browne lost his hurl and took down an Antrim player who was running in on goal, now automatically resulting in a trip to the sin bin and a penalty. Ciarán Clarke, on frees for Antrim, stood over the penalty without a run up looking like he would go for a point. Surprising us all, he went for the goal which was at the perfect height to be saved by Darren Brennan. The first half finished with a score of Kilkenny 1.11 to Antrim 0.6.
During half time the Kilkenny subs were out having a puck around, while the Antrim subs did a bit of sprinting. The Kilkenny team then went back up to the stand and Antrim headed for the dressing room. You’d be thinking Brian Cody wouldn’t want to be giving his team talk too loudly as it might have echoed through the stand. At the start of the third quarter Conor Browne had another five minutes left in the sin bin and Liam Blanchfield from Bennettsbridge was taken off for Thomastown player John Donnelly. Around the time Conor Browne came back on, it was evident Kilkenny had slipped into a false sense of security, allowing Antrim two goals in two minutes. First, Clarke took down a long ball in from Michael Bradley who let his hurl fly out to the side almost slicing through his management team. The Cú Chullain club man Conal Cunning got this ball and drove it into the net. Neil Mc Manus had a shot which was well saved by Darren Brennan. Ciarán Clarke then got on the end of the rebound leading to Antrim’s second goal, bringing the game to a draw and putting Kilkenny under sudden pressure. Kilkenny responded with seven unanswered points, three of them frees taken by Alan Murphy who was great in TJ Reid’s absence. Kilkenny were back in the driving seat from the 55th minute onwards. Antrim came back and scored three points, two from frees and one from James McNaughton.
Antrim manager and ex-Tipperary goalkeeper Darren Gleeson had been taking issue with Kilkenny’s hand passes throughout the entire match and a few minutes into the fourth quarter, the game was stopped and Gleeson was issued with a yellow card. The 62nd minute saw Neil McManus rifle a goal into the top right corner of the Kilkenny net followed by a KCLR commentator being overheard saying; “we’re not going home yet lads”. Kilkenny didn’t let it get the better of them and kept tipping away, building up point by point keeping Antrim at a comfortable arms length.
Kilkenny won by an easy seven points and must be generally happy with the performance but that lapse in concentration during the third quarter allowed Antrim back into the game. Antrim were sharp enough to capitalise on that window of opportunity. After their win against Clare and giving Kilkenny such a good game they should be feeling fairly confident ahead of next weekend. They will certainly put up a challenge to Dublin next Saturday in Parnell Park. On the Kilkenny side, Cillian Buckley and Padraig Walsh were moving very well and we saw some great running and fielding from Conor Browne. Cillian Buckley ensured the Antrim midfield stayed out of the game. In TJ’s absence Adrian Mullen certainly had some pressure on him being only back from an injury. John Donnelly came on from half time and really contributed to the game – he surely will be starting next weekend against Wexford. Thankfully the Kilkenny lads held on to the win, though they can’t afford to give Wexford any opportunities to get ahead next Sunday.