Antrim footballers made to sweat against canny London to clinch Tailteann Cup quarter-final spot

Wides give home side the jitters at Corrigan Park but they are in the hat

Antrim v London Tailteann Cup Quarter Final at Corrigan Park in west Belfast
Antrim's Ruairi McCann gets the all-important goal to eventually sink London at Corrigan Park PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Tailteann Cup preliminary quarter-final
Antrim 3-11 London 2-10

THERE were a few times during this nervy Tailteann Cup joust at Corrigan Park that the London footballers threatened to elbow their way onto Monday’s back pages – but Antrim steadied themselves to kill off any talk of an upset by sealing their quarter-final place.

Ruairi McCann – the Aghagallon version – grabbed his second goal of the day in stoppage-time to calm the nerves of the home supporters. But London made them sweat for it.

The Exiles grabbed two goals of their own in the opening half – Ruairi Rafferty pouncing to open the scoring on five minutes and the resourceful Michael Carroll fisted home on 29 minutes.

Both majors were more than a show of strength from London; they didn’t arrive in Corrigan Park to merely give a good account of themselves.

The sides couldn’t be separated at the break – 1-5 to 2-2 – and although Antrim fashioned a five-point lead when Dermot McAleese’s long punt dropped into the net on 47 minutes, largely thanks to Ruairi McCann distracting the London full-back line and goalkeeper, the visitors responded magnificently.

Antrim v London Tailteann Cup Quarter Final at Corrigan Park in west Belfast
Antrim's Colm McLarnon tries to evade London's Oran Kerr PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

Michael Maher’s side hit four unanswered points between the 48th and 53rd minutes, but they could never draw level.

Tactically and physically, London matched Antrim and might have raised another couple of green flags in the second period.

Having completed five years as London manager, Maher was “proud but frustrated” after watching his brave charges eventually go down by four points.

“I think we’ve given away three poor goals today and at the other end we could have scored four or five,” said Maher.

“That’s a very good Antrim team. I hate hard-luck stories. We need to be seen as a county that is improving and doing things the right way, and we brought Antrim to the brink there.”

Given the deficit position he finds himself in with London at the start of each season, Maher deserves to be in the shake-up for manager of the year every time.

The visitors had devised an exceptionally shrewd kick-out strategy that directly led to a couple of goal opportunities.

Lining out in a straight line before darting left and right, London packed their own half of the field but, invariably, Exiles ‘keeper Andrew Walsh went long, aiming for Daniel Clarke.

Four London players at the back of the straight line of bodies, turned and sprinted to assist Clarke.

If Clarke won the ball or broke it, Antrim’s goal came under stress. The home side eventually got to grips with the clever kick-out strategy.

Antrim centre-back Joe Finnegan won a couple of important high balls and got on a heap of possession in the final quarter which gave Antrim a badly needed platform to wrestle control.

Marc Jordan was Antrim’s decisive line-breaker. The Lamh Dhearg clubman assisted for Ruairi McCann’s first major of the day on 13 minutes and again it was his hard running that enabled the big Aghagallon attacker to find the net from close range in the 73rd minute to wrap up the win.

It was one of those days when Antrim were around a dozen wides away from a really decent performance. They also dropped a handful of balls short which frustrated their manager Andy McEntee.

“Last week we scored 13 out of 16 chances,” said the Meath man. “Now, you have to say London defended in numbers and were putting pressure on the shots that were being taken.

“But I liked the fact that we stuck at it. A team that defends like London, if they get a lead on you, it can be very hard to drag it back.

“So, I liked that bit. When we moved the ball at pace, we looked dangerous, but the bit I didn’t like was our option taking up front and our execution. It just wasn’t good enough. There were shots that should have been scored.

“We’ve definitely stuff to work on but I’m glad we stuck at it because it wasn’t looking good a few times.”

Antrim had their hands full with wing-back Oran Kerr playing a canny game as did midfielder Stephen Dornan, attacker Daniel Clarke and Ciaran Diver on the flank.

For Antrim, Kavan Keenan proved yet again that he’s been the find of the season with another gutsy defensive display.

Eunan Walsh stepped forward from full-back to hit an important score on the stroke of half-time, while Creggan’s Ruairi McCann and Jordan made telling contributions at crucial times.

Antrim journey deeper into the Tailteann Cup for a second successive season - a competition the management team and players have fully embraced while London’s season ended in west Belfast.

Whether Maher puts his hand up for a sixth season with London remains to be seen.

“I’ve had an unbelievable journey with London, and we’ll see what the future holds,” he said.

Antrim: M Byrne, D Lynch, E Walsh (0-1), E Keenan; N Burns (0-1), J Finnegan (0-1), D McAleese (1-0); P McAleer (0-1 mark), C Hynds; C McLarnon, P McBride (0-1), R McCann (Creggan); R McQuillan (0-2, 0-1 free), R McCann (Aghagallon) (2-0), M Jordan (0-1) Subs: D McEnhill (0-2, 0-1 free) for R McQuillan (53), C Hand (0-1) for P McBride (53), J McDonnell for K Keenan (63), C Johnston for P McAleer (68), P Healy for R McCann (73)
Yellow cards: K Keenan (33), R McQuillan (38), C Hand (53), D Lynch (63)
London: A Walsh, D Rooney, O Walsh, N McElwaine; O Kerr (0-1), C Healy, A McLoughlin; S Dornan, R Rafferty (1-0); C McKeon, M Carroll (1-2), C Diver (0-3, 0-2 frees); J Obahor (0-1), D Clarke (0-1), S Rafter Subs: DJ O’Flaherty (0-1) for J Obahor (48), T Barry (0-1) for N McElwaine (57), M Miller for O Kerr (70), S Tucker for M Carroll (71)
Black card: C Healy (17-27)
Referee: C Dourneen (Cavan)
Antrim v London Tailteann Cup Quarter Final at Corrigan Park in west Belfast
Antrim manager Andy McEntee knows his side will have to improve for the Tailteann Cup quarter-finals PICTURE: MAL MCCANN