Darragh Rooney gathers the ball as team-mates Micheal McWeeney and Shane Quinn surround a fallen Antrim player last Sunday picture: Willie Donnellan
John Connolly reports on another dramatic injury time win for Leitrim as promotion push gathers steam
There is no disguising it now! Terry Hyland's Leitrim are the real deal and favourites for promotion after an inspiring and rip-roaring victory over a tough Antrim in Avantcard Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada.
Another battle, another crisis midway through the first half, another surge just before the break and, yes, oh yes, another match winning point in injury time as Leitrim pipped Antrim before an ecstatic and partisan crowd.
A much tougher test than what we witnessed in Aughrim a week previously, Antrim came ready to spoil Leitrim dreams and they came perilously close to it, dragging the home team into a fight, punching holes in the rearguard and raising more than enough questions that will leave Terry Hyland with plenty to work on over the next few weeks.
But when the game was there to be taken, as they had done against Wexford and Wicklow, Leitrim were the ones who grabbed first and they held on, Domhnaill Flynn's winner coming in the final seconds of the last of four minutes added time.
The victory leaves an increasingly confident Leitrim with a great chance of promotion with what are regarded as the easier games in the group still to come. There is a lot of hard work to be done yet but Leitrim are definitely on the right road.
Leitrim opened the scoring with a Ryan O’Rourke free after an off-the-ball foul on Evan Sweeney and the lead was stretched when Jack Heslin blazed over the bar following good work from Pearce Dolan, O’Rourke and Shane Moran.
But Antrim hit back with a spectacular goal from Ryan Murray as he collected a long fifty yard pass, turned and buried a rocket in the far right hand corner of Diarmuid McKiernan’s goal - incredible stuff from the forward.
Colum Duffin could have goaled as he pointed a minute later before Ryan Murray popped over a free. Antrim could have got struck yet again for a goal when they won the kickout and three passes later Matthew Fitzpatrick burst through and driving a shot slightly over the crossbar.
Murray, showing real class once more, would add a point after he collected a long ball when surrounded by three defenders and he still beat them to the score.
The niggly nature to the game started when Aidan Flynn and Murray were booked for an off-the-ball clash and they would be joined in the book by Ricky & Martin Johnston, Fitzpatrick and Patrick Gallagher for Antrim and Shane Moran, Damian Moran, Diarmuid McKiernan and Shane Quinn for Leitrim - all before halftime.
But it was the card that didn't come that had the fans talking as the Antrim full-back should have walked when he got involved in the second booking as a third man but referee Barry Judge exercised undue leniency.
Ryan O’Rourke tapped over a free before Murray hit two quickly for a dominant Antrim. But with halftime approaching, Ray Mulvey started a revival with a great point from the wing, followed up by a good point from sub Darragh Rooney to get the Leitrim crowd going.
That crowd thought they had a goal to cheer before the break when Rooney fisted home a Damian Moran shot but the Melvin Gaels man was clearly in the square, the ball going back for an O'Rourke free, duly pointed seven minutes into added time to leave the halftime score at 1-6 to 0-6 in favour of Antrim.
Just as they have in their games so far this year, Leitrim came out with all guns blazing in the second half with points from Darragh Rooney and O’Rourke to cut the lead to just a point inside two minutes.
Antrim hit back with a point from a Patrick McBride free but Domhnaill Flynn replied on four minutes as the game lurched in Leitrim’s favour when midfielder Mark Sweeney received a black card on 12 minutes for pulling down a player, Ryan O’Rourke missing the free.
This came after Damian Moran looked as if he was about to receive a second booking only for the official to examine his notebook and then put it away.
Antrim impressively stretched their lead when Matthew Fitzpatrick made a great catch from a kickout and kicked long to Ryan Murray. And when Murray turned to offload the ball, Fitzpatrick was on hand to collect and blast over the bar.
Ryan O’Rourke cleverly used the wind to drift his shot from the right wing over the bar on 18 minutes and after nine minutes of the black card, Leitrim drew level when Darragh Rooney scored a lovely point to tie the scores.
Leitrim pushed on and despite Antrim getting their full 15 back, they suffered a massive blow when wing forward Patrick McBride received a black card.
But this was quickly followed by a black card for Micheal McWeeney and even this came with fortune for Leitrim as referee Barry Judge blew for the foul as the ball went to Matthew Fitzpatrick bearing down on goal and a three pointer on the cards.
Ryan Murray put over the free but Leitrim levelled with a Flynn free on 64 minutes and they regained the lead for the first time since the second minute when Mark Plunkett surged into space and fired over from distance.
Controversy erupted when two umpires waved a point for Ryan Murray but the linesman over-ruled them and the equaliser was chalked off, much to the annoyance of the visitors. But Antrim didn’t have long to wait for an equaliser when McBride tapped over a free.
With so many yellow cards, it was inevitable that there would be a red card and Ryan Murray was black carded for protesting a free.
With a scramble for the ball, Antrim tried to come out of their defence but weren’t able to make it through a scrum and when Sligo official Judge awarded a free, it gave Leitrim a great chance to take the win as the four minutes of added time elapsed.
Domhnaill Flynn held his nerve to send the home side back in front and despite a black card for sub Sean Flanagan and repeated Leitrim fouls trying to stop the visitors, Antrim couldn’t find an equaliser so when an Antrim hand touched the ball on the ground, celebrations broke out with the final whistle seconds later.
MAIN MAN - Domhnaill Flynn took the plaudits with the match winner but there were great displays all around the field with Shane Moran, Darragh Rooney, Ray Mulvey, Evan Sweeney, Damian Moran all making big contributions but honesty would have me admit that Antrim's combative corner forward Ryan Murray was the stand out player on show, his goal a real show-stopper.
TALKING POINT - Nobody in the Leitrim camp will say it publicly quite yet but Leitrim have to be one of the favourites for promotion now. They top the table on scoring difference from Derry and have what are regarded as the “easier” games to come. Leitrim's fate is very much in their own hands from this point on and while it might be very early to say it, it might be time to start planning for a trip to Croke Park at the end of March!
TURNING POINT - Hard to pick just one - the black cards were huge in stalling Antrim and helping Leitrim, Sean McWeeney's vital block on a late Antrim point attempt crucial while Micheal McWeeney's might have saved Leitrim with a small bit of cynicism, dragging down an Antrim player as they were charging through and a goal on the cards.
REF WATCH - Not an easy day for young Sligo referee Barry Judge with a tough, bruising game as neither team conceded an inch. One red card, five black cards and 13 yellow leave you wondering how many more didn't take the long walk but it was decisions not to brandish a second card for Antrim's Ricky Johnston and Leitrim's Damian Moran that perplexed both camps, decisions that should have changed the course of the game. Did other things well in fairness but Leitrim probably benefited that little bit more in the 50-50 decisions, the crowd more than planing it's part.
HIGHLIGHT - Leitrim's never say die spirit, exemplified by Sean McWeeney's vital block on Antrim's Eunan Walsh seven minutes from time, has seen them grab two wins in their last two games very much against the odds. It's a new development for fans used to being on the other end of it - long may it continue.
LOWLIGHT - Some poor shot selection in the second half when Leitrim had the benefit of the extra man with two black cards in quick succession for Antrim has to be a worry while the way the visitors punched holes in the Leitrim defence in the first half must be a concern for Terry Hyland and the games that are coming.
WHAT'S NEXT - A welcome break next weekend after three brutally tough games before a visit to Mick Neville Park in Rathkeale to take on Limerick on Saturday February 23, at 5pm - another potentially huge encounter where a win would leave the Treaty county four points behind Leitrim in the chase for promotion.
TEAMS & SCORERS
Leitrim: Ryan O’Rourke 0-5, 4f; Darragh Rooney & Domhnaill Flynn (3f) 0-3 each; Ray Mulvey, Mark Plunkett & Jack Heslin 0-1 each
Antrim: Ryan Murray 1-5, 2f; Matthew Fitzpatrick & Patrick McBride 0-2 each; Colum Duffin 0-1
Leitrim: Diarmuid McKiernan, Micheal McWeeney, Paddy Maguire, Aidan Flynn, Shane Quinn, Mark Plunkett, Ray Mulvey, Shane Moran, Pierce Dolan, Sean McWeeney, Domhnaill Flynn, Jack Heslin, Damien Moran, Evan Sweeney, Ryan O’Rourke. Subs: Darragh Rooney for Heslin (29), Gary Plunkett for D. Moran (62), Emlyn Mulligan for Sweeney (64), Sean Flanagan for Dolan (69)
Antrim: Padraig Nugent, Patrick McCormack, Ricky Johnston, Patrick Gallagher, Niall Delargy, Michael McCarry, Declan Lynch, Mark Sweeney, Martin Johnston, Kevin Quinn, Stephen Beatty, Patrick McBride, Colum Duffin, Ruairi McCann, Ryan Murray. Subs: Conor Hamill for McCormack (HT), Owen McKeown for Beatty (52), Eoghan McCabe for Delargy (62), Ruairi McCann for Quinn (66)
REFEREE: Barry Judge (Sligo)