A LONG delivery, the battle for possession and the sliotar squirts free, breaking kindly to Karl Stewart inside the penalty area who has the presence of mind to gather, dart inside and make the room for the shot.

A swing of ash and the ball goes up and between the posts. It puts Antrim ahead in the dying seconds and ultimately proved to be the winner as the Saffrons complete a remarkable comeback in the 2010 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Qualifiers against Dublin to book their place in the quarter-finals.

An Antrim team is yet to record a victory at Croke Park in either code since and as Stewart points out: “It was a long time before that too.”

Since the glory days of the late 80s and early 90s, Antrim hurling had been in something of a downward spiral. Defeats became heavier and by the turn of the millennium, it was Derry who were beginning to establish themselves as Ulster hurling’s kingpins, taking the Liam Harvey Cup in 2000 and 2001.

This was to prompt a change in direction in terms of county management, with Tipperary’s Dinny Cahill drafted in to revive Antrim’s fortunes and the Kilruane MacDonagh’s clubman wasted little time in doing just that.

In his first season, the Saffrons were to produce an outstanding display against defending champions Tipperary in an All-Ireland quarter-final before fading in the dying minutes.

The following year, they were pipped at the post having led Wexford for most of the game in a quarter-final, but a heavy defeat to eventual champions Cork in 2004 was to signal the start of a decline that would see Antrim relegated from the MacCarthy Cup in 2005 following a relegation playoff defeat to Laois.

Cahill made way for Jim McKernan who duly led the team to Christy Ring Cup success in 2006, but he was replaced by Terence McNaughton and Dominic McKinley who had presided over an impressive crop of minors who were hugely unfortunate to lose out in quarter-finals in successive years to Limerick and Galway.

Those young minors who would include Neil McManus, Paul Shiels, Shane McNaughton, Arron Graffin and Cormac Donnelly to name a few were to graduate into the senior team in 2007 as Antrim looked to the next generation to lead the way and there were some encouraging signs.

“I was about during Dinny’s first spell,” recalls Stewart, who would be a regular in county colours at the time.

“I was going to America during summers then, but I was back in during '04. We had been taking some beatings on the road then but we were competing for a good lot of the time. It always seemed we were keeping with teams up until half-time or 40 minutes and then they would just pull away from us.

“When ‘Sambo’ (McNaughton) and ‘Woody’ (McKinley) came in, they tried to push it on a bit too and they had their success with the Walsh Cup (2008).”

Antrim getting the green light to enter the Leinster Championship in 2009 seemed another step in the right direction in terms of getting up to the pace of the top teams having suffered heavy defeats to Galway and Waterford the previous year, but the first outing in their adopted province resulted in a disappointing defeat to Dublin at Croke Park before exiting the Championship altogether away to Laois.

A heavy relegation semi-final loss to Offaly set them up for a final playoff against Wexford, but their MacCarthy status was saved in the boardroom as the GAA decided to scrap relegation for that year. It wasn’t enough for the management duo who decided to step down and this saw Cahill’s return along with Bob Thornhill and Jerry Wallace.

At the time, there was certainly a feel-good factor in Antrim thanks to the exploits of the county’s footballers who had reached the 2009 Ulster final, while St Gall’s would take the All-Ireland Club football title in 2010 and just came up short in the Intermediate hurling decider in the same year.

The hurlers were also to benefit from this and it ultimately led to 2010 becoming the summer of the small ball in the county.

“I know a lot of boys from our team (St Gall’s) wouldn’t have feared anyone in the football and that showed in the Antrim team at the time,” said Stewart.

“That all switched across into the hurling panel with myself, Kieran McGourty and CJ playing.

“Loughgiel were also competing at a good level, so you had a lot of boys with confidence who wouldn’t have had any fears of playing most teams.”

One criticism of Cahill's tenure was that he perhaps didn’t put a huge emphasis on the League and Antrim’s Division Two campaign in 2010 was to give absolutely no indication of what would come in the summer months.

His first game back in charge saw Antrim eke out a one-point win over Carlow before taking the win in Kildare the following week, but these would be the only points they would register for the remainder.

There was a one-point home defeat against Clare, while Laois, Down, Westmeath and Wexford were all to get the better of Cahill’s charges to leave them nowhere near challenging for a place in the Division Two final.

“The league has always been tough for Antrim,” the St Gall’s man explained.

“We would always have struggled to get games before it began and when you were going up against the big teams, you’d need four, five or six games under your belt before you could start to try to compete with those teams, never mind take points from them and especially away from home.

“In terms of using the league, back then Dinny was just happy enough to get the games against those teams to lead into the Leinster Championship.”

Offaly would be the opposition on Sunday, May 30 at Parnell Park for a Leinster quarter-final that would see the winner set-up a meeting with National League champions Galway.

The Midlanders were not the force of 10 years previous but were still an established top-tier county that had comfortably remained in Division One that term.

Shane Dooley was one of the hottest marksmen in the game and most expected the Faithful County to advance with little fuss, but the Saffrons hadn’t read the script.

First-half goals from Neil McManus, Colm McFall and Karl McKeegan gave them a lead at the break and they would remain in front heading into stoppage time when an Offaly rally saw them draw level with a pointed Dooley free sending the game into extra-time. They would take full advantage as Antrim ran out of gas to run out 2-26 to 3-16 winners: “We really should have beaten Offaly that day down in Parnell Park.

“There were a couple of points in it before it went to extra-time and then we had our chances to beat them again but ran out of steam a bit. To get over the line against those teams, you needed to be playing regularly against them to get used to the pace.”

The Ulster title was secured before the All-Ireland Qualifiers began and it was Carlow - a county very much on the rise at the time - who were to visit Casement Park on a Saturday evening that doubled-up with the Antrim footballers’ replay against Kildare.

The Barrowsiders looked on course for a famous victory, but Antrim found the resolve to tell them in with three late points sealing a 2-18 to 3-12 win and book a meeting with Dublin.

“A few years before that, Carlow were beginning to pick up and we’d had a few close games against them,” Stewart continued.

“That was a great day at Casement. The pitch at Casement during the summer months was always incredible and there was a good crowd that day too, so the atmosphere was excellent. That gave us a bit of confidence going to Croke the next day.”

Initially, the game against Dublin was due to be played at a neutral venue, but perhaps it reflected the confidence of the Antrim team that they were happy to travel to Croke Park to take part in the first game of a doubleheader at Headquarters as Dublin’s footballers were due to face Armagh in the Qualifiers.

There weren’t too many Antrim jerseys in the crowd that Saturday as the stadium gradually filled throughout the game with most in attendance there for the football.

Those Dubs who did arrive early and began to pack Hill 16 were to see their team recover from an early PJ O’Connell goad to draw level at half-time before going through the gears early in the second period as they hit the first seven points and seemed on course for victory. However, Antrim dug in with Liam Watson, McManus and McNaughton finding the target, while an inspirational Sean Delargy score when storming out from the back suggested the tide was turning.

As the minutes ticked by and the Dublin lead began to reduce, there was a sense that it was a game there for the taking.

With just one between them, Dublin’s Liam Ryan had a chance to seal victory when through on goal, but he dragged his shot outside the post as Antrim went upfield and won a 20-metre free out on the Cusack Stand sideline into the Canal End. It was far from an easy chance, but McNaughton split the posts to level with the game in added time.

There was still time for a winner and it was Dublin’s Declan O’Dwyer who found himself free under the Hogan Stand, but his shot was off-target and sailed wide to the right. From the restart, Chrissy O’Connell went long and after a frantic battle for possession, Stewart found himself with the chance to win it and he didn’t need a second invitation, firing between the posts to secure a 1-17 to 0-19 win.

“In the second half, there was a huge crowd came in because the Dublin footballers were on after so they were getting a lot of support. Every time they scored there was a massive roar and when we scored there was hardly anything, but in fairness to the boys, we dug in.

“Shane (McNaughton) and Neil were on the frees and they kept putting them over. Near the end, they’d a massive chance that would have ended it, but he (O’Dwyer) put it out wide. The ball ended up coming down, broke to me and I managed to put it over that won it.

“It was massive - not personally - for the team. There were a lot of us who had been on the road for about 10 years at that stage and Dinny had been up and down the road to take us for a lot of those years too. It was nice to pull that one out of the bag for him and the rest of the boys too.”

It was to prove to be one of Antrim’s biggest wins and one that hasn’t been bettered since.

The following week, Stewart and his teammates returned to Croke Park for a quarter-final meeting with Cork and while they were a lot more competitive than when the teams met at the same stage in 2004, the Rebels were to win by 1-25 to 0-19.

Despite ultimately being sent-off late int he game, Liam Watson’s performance that day was such that it earned him an All-Star nomination, while many more of the Antrim players produced huge performances, but it was Niall Mccarthy’s goal just before the break that would give Cork a bit of daylight they would maintain throughout the second period.

“We knew we were up against it and would need a massive performance to beat them, but we managed to stay with them at a reasonable gap, so we would have been happy in a way.

“It was an All-Ireland quarter-final, live on RTE and for a lot of the boys, it was the highlight of their hurling career with Antrim. Once they stopped allowing the Ulster champions to go straight into a semi-final and then it was a quarter-final to go into playoffs or qualifiers, it made those days a lot harder to get to, so we definitely enjoyed it.”

Antrim had a fairly good League showing the following year but defeat in the final round of games at home to Limerick was to deny them a place in the final, while their Leinster campaign opened with a win over Laois before defeat away to Wexford.

The Qualifiers saw home wins over Westmeath and Carlow, but there was to be no repeat of 2010 with a quarter-final berth on the line as they were to be overpowered by Limerick in Parnell Park.

Despite the progress made, it was to be Cahill’s last game as manager as Wallace took over in what was to be an ill-fated appointment with the Cork man resigning in the wake of a Leinster Championship defeat to Westmeath.

Kevin Ryan would take over the following year and Stewart was to play under the Waterford man in 2013 and for the first part of 2014 before ending his inter-county career.

“The disappointing thing was that we didn’t manage to follow it up the next year, so that was tough,” he reflects.

“There was a lot of confidence about the team in those days. The wheels came off a bit after that with Dinny. Jerry Wallace was a great coach but he came in as manager and a few things unravelled with him. It’s just a pity it went the way it did because they were all good, solid guys and we had a great backroom team there but things fell apart.”

Stewart continues to hurl with St Gall’s, while his son Sean has swapped the saffron of Antrim for the canary yellow of Norwich City where he is a member of the Premier League club’s Youth Academy.

While the glory days of inter-county hurling are now in the rearview mirror, he still maintains a huge interest in the goings-on with the county set-up and believes there are shoots of light emanating from the camp.

The current lockdown sport due to Covid-19 means that Antrim are yet to play their Division 2A final against Kerry that could have seen them score that first victory at Croke Park since the day Stewart pointed the winner against the Dubs.

“It’s disappointing that League final at Croke Park was cancelled for the boys there because playing there was an exciting time for all of us,” he adds.

“We’d some great forwards like Liam Watson, Shane McNaughton and Neil McManus who were all top-quality. Any team needs that quality of they want to do anything.

“Looking at the team now, there seems to be great vibes coming out of it and there are some good forwards again. I was watching last year’s county final and you could see Seaan Elliott coming through. It will take them a few years before they can start to compete with the big lads in the south but it’s encouraging.”

The emergence of a fresh crop of talented hurlers has given all who have a grá for the game in the county a lift, just like it did back when Stewart and his colleagues wrote their own chapter.