In the opening game of this year’s hurling championship a physically stronger Antrim side exacted revenge for their defeat in the corresponding fixture last year against a game Westmeath side who gave as good as they got for much of the game. In front of a disappointingly small crowd in Cusack Park the home side showed marked improvement from their lacklustre display in the division 2A final a few weeks before.
After a slow start which saw them fall 0-4 to 0-1 behind, a brilliant Niall O’Brien goal levelled matters. Two minutes later man of the match Neil McManus restored the Glensmen’s three point cushion with a second goal for the visitors. The home side then hit a purple patch which saw them hit four unanswered points to lead 1-9 to 1-7 at the break.
Westmeath extended their lead to three points through Eoin Price before being awarded a penalty after the classy Niall O’Brien was hauled down on his way through. Derek McNicholas had the chance to put the underdogs six points clear but unfortunately his drive was deflected over the crossbar.
Trailing by four points The Saffrons got the perfect tonic when McManus found the net from a 43rd minute penalty. This was followed by a Jason McGreevey point which restored parity at 2-8 to 1-11. Antrim then moved up through the gears and dominated the remainder of the game. Both sides were reduced to 14 with Karl Steward getting a straight red in the 49th minute and Derek McNicholas following suit on two yellows a few minutes later.
Points from Shiels, McNaughton, and Donnelly gave them some breathing space before Conor Carson delivered the knockout blow when he fired his side’s third goal. Tommy Doyle did manage a consolation goal with a few minutes remaining but it was too little too late.
Having exited the Leinster championship, Hanley’s men must wait until June 22 for their next outing in the qualifiers. Martin Breheny, writing in the Irish Independent during the week, highlighted the difficulty faced by counties like Westmeath in trying to build a team when they are only guaranteed one competitive game between last Sunday and the end of next February. It is a point well made. Antrim however can look forward to a meeting with Laois in the first round proper.