Allianz Hurling League Division 2A final
Antrim 2-23 Kerry 2-20
ANTRIM booked a return to Division One hurling in Tullamore yesterday as they produced a display of power, pace and attacking flair to overcome Kerry in the Division Two final.
Three points separated the teams at the end and this was in large part down to a stunning display from Kerry's Shane Conway who recorded an eye-watering 1-14, but in many ways this also highlighted the over-reliance on the wing-forward as Antrim had a much greater balance with eight different scorers.
Any time Kerry appeared to be finding a way back, Antrim could always respond with their two goals coming minutes after Kerry found the net in each half and this was a day when they simply wouldn't be denied.
The Saffrons were dealt a blow early with Neil McManus forced off injured after just four minutes and it took them a little while to settle, but they gradually got into their stride and opened the scoring through the excellent Conal Cunning.
Shane Conway took little time to get into this game and he hit the first four Kerry scores, but Antrim had a better spread with Joe Maskey, James McNaughton and Niall McKenna adding to another pair for Cunning - one the undoubted scores of the day when displaying beautiful touch, control and accuracy to take the ball down and sling over from the left sideline - as Antrim took a 0-6 to 0-4 lead at the water break.
The sides went score-for-score with Paddy Burke and Cunning replying to Mikey Boyle and Conway efforts, but Kerry were beginning to get on top around the middle third and this saw them get out in front with Michael Leane bouncing off a challenge to bring them to within one and then on 23 minutes, as long Conway free broke to Mikey Boyle who whipped to the net.
After an exchange of points, Antrim replied with their own goal on 27 minutes as Domhnall Nugent got onto a long Joe Maskey delivery and popped inside for Conor McCann to collect, dart inside and find the net to put the Saffrons one ahead.
Ryan Elliott was called into action to deny Boyle a second goal from point-blank range just before the break as Antrim led 1-12 to 1-11.
Kerry struggle to find their range early in the second period with a trio of wides, while Antrim were much more clinical and were close to a goal seconds in when Nugent - now deployed at full-forward - pulled overhead with the ball coming off the base of the post, but the ball was recycled with Michael Bradley pointing.
Scores from McNaughton (two), McKenna and Cunning followed with Shane Conway getting Kerry off the mark in the second period with a free eight minutes in.
Antrim were five clear on 57 minutes before Kerry roared back in as a Conway free inside his own half dripped and deceived Ryan Elliott who couldn't prevent it hitting the net.
Another Conway free followed as the gap was down to one, but just as in the first half, Antrim found a reply as Eoghan Campbell did great work to get inside and play an excellent ball across goal for James McNaughton to gather, burst through and rifle low to the net.
Antrim were five in front once more as the game moved into added time thanks to the accuracy of Cunning and McNaughton from frees, but Kerry continued to press with Conway leading the charge, hitting three of the last four points to leave as goal in it, but this was as close as they would get as Antrim held firm to claim victory and promotion back into the top flight.
ANTRIM: R Elliott; P Duffin, M Donnelly, S Rooney; G Walsh, P Burke (0-1), J Maskey (0-1); E Campbell, K Molloy; N McKenna (0-3), N McManus, M Bradley (0-1); C Cunning (0-10, 0-7f), C McCann (1-1), J McNaughton (1-5, 0-2f). Subs: D Nugent (0-1) for N McManus (4), C Clarke for K Molloy (42), A O'Brien for N McKenna (55), D McCloskey for M Bradley (61), Ciaran Johnston for D Nugent (66).
KERRY: M Stackpoole; J O'Connor, B Murphy, T O'Connor; C O'Keefe, J Diggins, F Mackessy; B O'Leary, S Nolan (0-1); S Conway (1-14, 1-9f, 0-2 65s), M O'Leary (0-1), M Leane (0-3); J Buckley, M Boyle (1-1), B Barrett. Subs: E Leane for C O'Keefe (27), C Harty for J Buckley (52), M Slattery for B O'Leary (59), D Goggin for B Barrett (62).
REFEREE: Liam Gordon (Galway)