ANTRIM rounded off their Dr McKenna Cup campaign with a morale-boosting win over Down on Wednesday night, but the victory was overshadowed by a serious looking knee injury to Sean McVeigh.
The Ballymena man was body-checked by Dan McCartan around the centre of the field in the 60th minute - a challenge that earned the Burren man the game’s only black card - and as McVeigh fell, he appeared to twist his knee and was taken off the field by stretcher.
It was an even bigger blow considering the All Saints man was about to be replaced anyway by Conall Kelly and was a dark cloud on what was otherwise a great night for Liam Bradley’s side.
Victories over the Mournemen in Newry are a rare occurrence but Antrim were full value for Wednesday’s win. Throughout the field they had big performances with goalkeeper Chris Kerr making a smart stop from Liam Doyle, who was through on goal four minutes in after Doyle and Paddy Cunningham had traded early scores.
McVeigh, named at full-back, did not stick in that position as he was given a job to track and nullify Down talisman Benny Coulter, who was a constant threat in the opening quarter of the game.
The Ballymena man eventually ended up in midfield, with Martin Johnston dropping back and Mark Sweeney moving to centre-back and these series of moves completed the jigsaw for Antrim, who really pushed on in the second quarter of the game.
By this stage, the sides were locked at 0-3, with two Cunningham points in reply to scores from Aidan Carr and Darragh O’Hanlon.
Niall Madine did edge the hosts in front, but on 23 minutes came the key score of the game and it was a testament to hard work as-well-as creative flair.
As Down moved the ball out of defence around 45 meters out on the left sideline, tenacious work from Conor Murray and Michael McCann forced a turnover that Michael Pollock gathered before setting off towards goal.
Pollock out-paced the chasing Down defenders and as he bore down on goal, unselfishly squared to Cunningham who had the simple task of getting his fist to the ball and diverting it into the net.
This really spurred on the Saffrons, with the impressive Phillip Maguire thumping over a beauty with the outside of his right boot from under the stand, while at the other end, Martin Johnston put his body in the way of a goal-bound shot from Coulter to maintain the Antrim lead.
Maguire kicked his second of the night while Paddy Kelly got in on the act with a good score inbetween two Madine frees, but by now Antrim were in overdrive.
Quick ball into the forwards was causing havoc as Down’s policy of going man-to-man was giving the Antrim forwards acres of space to play in and three scores from the outstanding Michael McCann, Pollock and Colm Duffin gave Antrim a 1-9 to 0-6 half-time advantage that in no way flattered the Saffrons.
The break was probably the last thing Liam Bradley’s side wanted as they were so on top and it showed as the interval certainly interrupted their momentum.
Both sides were slow to settle in the second half as the visitors kicked two early wides when a score would have settled them. Down were not faring any better and had to wait until the 43rd minute to open their account from a Liam Doyle free.
O’Hanlon and Madine then converted frees to leave a goal between the teams after 51 minutes and two minutes later, that goal seemed certain but for an incredible interception by Niall Delagry.
The Portglenone man somehow got his fist to the ball after Coulter had borne down on goal and squared to Sean Bell who seemed certain to apply the final touch, but Delargy saved the day.
This lifted Antrim and two minutes later, substitute CJ McGourty flighted over a long free with his first touch before Mark Sweeney hit a point his efforts deserved to extend the gap to five.
This effectively sealed the win as Down were unable to breach the Antrim rearguard. O’Hanlon did tap over a late free after the incident that saw McVeigh stretchered off and McCartan black carded, but this was cancelled out by an excellent score from play by ‘Bam’ Neeson in injury-time to round off a fine victory for the Saffrons.
DOWN: B McVeigh; D McCartan, J McCarthy, S McNamee; C Garvey, A Carr (0-1), R Boyle; K King, P Fitzpatrick; D Turley, L Doyle (0-2, 1 free), D O’Hanlon (0-3, 2 frees); N Madine (0-4, 3 frees), B Coulter, S Bell. SUBS: B McArdle for D Turley (30 mins), D O’Hagan for L Doyle (46 mins), P Turley for K King (55 mins), E McCartan for D McCartan (Black Card, 60 mins), G McArdle for P Fitzpatrick (63 mins), M Lively for C Garvey (67 mins).
ANTRIM: C Kerr; K O’Boyle, S McVeigh, N Delargy; M McAleese, M Johnston, J Lavery; M Sweeney (0-1), M McCann (0-1); C Murray, P Maguire (0-2), P Kelly (0-1); P Cunningham (1-3, 0-2 frees), C Duffin (0-1), M Pollock (0-1). SUBS: J Crozier for M McAleese (42 mins), B Neeson (0-1) for C Duffin (43 mins), CJ McGourty (0-1 free) for P Cunningham (53 mins), T McCann for P Kelly (53 mins), C Kelly for S McVeigh (60 mins).
REFEREE: S McNamee (Tyrone)