By Michael O Connor.
Clare are in pole position for the league final and a return to Division One following this hard earned unspectacular win over Antrim. Should the Bannermen overcome Laois and get at least a draw against Wexford they will be safely into the final.
D Day for both squads after impressive first round wins against Limerick and Wexford. Antrim over the last two years ran Clare to the minimum so a sense of nervousness was enveloping the Clare camp that despite the apparent improvement that the Northern side would prove a stumbling block especially after the win over Wexford.
Enda Barrett and Daire Keane replaced the sick James McInerney and Sean Collins in the only changes from the Limerick game. Nicky O Connell opened the scoring from play with Daire Keane who made a number of darting runs throughout the game that led to little fruition adding the second point before Neil McManus was booked by referee Brian Gavin. Indeed over the game's duration McManus was most impressive until receiving a second yellow card near the games end.
Clare were once again involved in the short game and losing possession that against top grade teams might have been detrimental to their chances. A clare sounding name for Antrim PJ O Connell with a well taken score opened the visitors account after eight minutes before Conor McGrath was wide from a scorable free. Shane McNaughton, son of Antrim legend Terence Sambo levelled the game after 10 minutes from a free. Nicky O Connell and Neil McManus exchanged scores as Antrim were also playing a short game and their physical power was helping them in this matter.
Fergal Lynch who was the target for a number of Pat Kelly puck outs was booked before a score apiece from McManus and John Conlon left matter tied (0-4) apiece at the end of the first quarter. Colin Ryan and Cathal McInerney added much needed points in the 18th and 20th minutes before a major let off for Clare occurred with two scorable Antrim frees by McManus and McNaughton were left short and cleared. Neil McManus (2) and Conor McGrath (free) left Clare ahead by the minimum after 30 minutes.
Five minutes of time added on resulted in a number of chances for both sides especially Clare yet only a point each resulted with Karl Stewart and Nicky O Connell (2) on target as Clare went in at the interval ahead by the minimum, (0-8) to (0-7). Even at this stage Clare looked more like winners but mistakes, over elaboration and getting hit hard when in possession was costing them. On the plus side they stayed loyal to the plan and a little bit of return to the traditional style did deliver a number of scores when needed between the 55th and 65th minutes that ultimately sealed the tie.
Nicky O Connell who might be best suited to left half back when the season heats up opened the second half scoring as he along with a number of Clare players got a number of hits trying to carry the ball. Four more scores between the 37th and 42nd minutes from Ryan (2) and McGrath (2 frees) surged Clare (0-13) to (0-7) clear as it was Antrim who looked unlikely to even hit one real goal chance. Colin Ryan teed up the inrushing McInerney for a goal shot but his effort was smothered and cleared in the middle of this Clare revivial. Shane McNaughton after watching Clare score 5 in a row finally got Antrim on the scoresheet and he added two more in the 49th and 51st minutes with O Connell responding with another free.
Clare were now four clear with twenty minutes to go as Antrim really needed a goal to make the last ten minutes worthwhile and Clare to kill off the tie. The sending off of Domhnall O Donovan on a straight red opened up the game as both sides reverted in some respects to "normal" hurling. Shane McNaughton (free) narrowed the gap to four in the 58th minute after McGrath had stretched it to five in the 55th. This was as good as it good for the Antrim men as the introduction of Caimin Morey saw more directness and accuracy with the Bridge man striking two well taken efforts in the 64th and 69th minutes with McGrath(2) and O Connell from long range and all these scores coming from play rounding off the scoring with Barry McFall hitting a consolation score as the long whistle was eagery awaited.
Over the course of the hour Clare hit 11 wides as opposed to 7 for the Glensmen as the best for Clare were Cian Dillon in the second half, Conor McGrath, Conor Cooney Nicky O Connell, Fergal Lynch, Domhnall O Donovan who had a solid outing until sent off, Colin Ryan and Caimin Morey when introduced. Antrim tried hard and at times played the Clare game better than Clare but were unable to create even one goal chance and this cost them. Their best performers included Neil McManus, Neal McAuley, Karl Stewart, Shane McNaughton, Aaron Griffin, Simon McCrory and KB McShane.
CLARE: Patrick Kelly, Domhnall O Donovan, Cian Dillon, Conor Cooney, Brendan Bugler, Patrick O Connor, Enda Barrett, Nicky O Connell(0-6), Patrick Donnellan, John Conlon(0-1), Daire Keane(0-1), Fergal Lynch, Conor McGrath(0-6), Colin Ryan(0-3), Cathal McInerney(0-1). Sub: Caimin Morey (0-2) for McInerney, Jonathan Clancy for Lynch, Liam Markham for O Connell
ANTRIM: Chris O Connell, Aaron Griffin, Cormac Donnelly, Kieran McGourty, KB McShane, Neal McAuley, Simon McCrory, Neil McManus (0-4), Michael Gettens, Karl Stewart (0-1)t, Michael Herron, Colm McFall, Shane McNaughton (0-5), Conor McCann, PJ O Connel (0-1). Subs: Kevin Sheeran for McCann, Barry McFall (0-1) for McGettens, Darren Hamill for O Connell. Declan Lynch for McFall
REFEREE: Brian Gavin (Offaly)