Antrim will play Liam MacCarthy Cup hurling in 2021 after holding firm at Croke Park to repel courageous Kerry and secure the Joe McDonagh Cup title.

In the fourth and by far most significant meeting of the counties this year, The Saffrons maintained their 100 per cent record over Fintan O'Connor's side to return to hurling's top flight.

Strong performances in both the first and third quarters were significant from Antrim's perspective as was the scoring power of Ciaran Clarke who sniped 0-11.

Clarke struck 0-08 from frees while the introduction of talisman Neil McManus in the third quarter following injury was crucial too as the Cushendall man contributed 0-04.

Kerry will be happy to see the back of Antrim after being denied by Darren Gleeson's men in two finals in 2020, the Division 2A League final and this McDonagh decider, as well as in the group stage of the League and the championship.

This two-point defeat was as close as Kerry came to Antrim in those four meetings though, in truth, they were always chasing the game despite the narrow margin.

Antrim led by six points at the hour mark and could afford to be outscored 0-07 to 0-03 in the closing stages and still get over the winning line.

They resisted the temptation to include talisman McManus from the start despite taking his place among the subs following a hamstring injury.

John B O'Halloran preventing a first-half Kerry goal

McManus suffered that setback in the League final defeat of Kerry in mid-October and missed all of their McDonagh Cup group games.

Antrim got by without him in those games and, initially, hinted that they would have little problem again in his absence as they surged 0-06 to 0-02 clear by the water break.

The Saffrons were dominant and Clarke was their key man with four of those six points, two of which came from placed balls.

The half would swing on two bizarre moments, the first of which occurred two minutes after the water break and resulted in a Kerry goal.

Antrim full-back Matthew Donnelly should have dealt with a speculative Shane Conway ball in from the wing but somehow missed his catch, leaving Mikey Boyle in space to gobble up the loose ball and strike to the net.

Conway slotted a free for the Munster men soon after and suddenly the sides were tied at 0-06 to 1-03.

Kerry were clearly energised by the goal gift and a tit-for-tat scoring encounter played out until the interval with the teams level three more times.

Michael O'Leary of Kerry and Joe Maskey contest for the ball in the winter sun

The Kingdom took the lead for the first time three minutes into stoppage time when Michael O'Leary opened his account with a point.

But Antrim were so unfortunate not to have grabbed a goal themselves moments earlier during the second remarkable episode of the half.

Niall McKenna's shot looked set to roll over the goal line but 'keeper John B O'Halloran was adjudged to have gotten back in time to clear the ball before all of it had crossed the whitewash.

Kerry led 1-07 to 0-09 at half-time but it was clearly anyone's game and a Clarke point seconds after the restart for Antrim levelled it up yet again.

Antrim reasserted their authority throughout the third quarter and reeled off six points in a row to put real daylight between the teams for the first time.

McManus was sprung from the bench in the 45th minute and within three minutes split the posts with an audacious effort from way out on the right wing.

The momentum was all Antrim's and they'd have preferred to have kept going to build on their 0-16 to 1-8 lead instead of stopping for another water break.

The stoppage appeared to favour Kerry as they pinched two points after the restart but three more on the trot for Antrim left six in it with 10 minutes remaining.

They needed that cushion as it happened because Kerry refused to relent and with a strong impact from their bench got the deficit down to just two points at one stage.

They couldn't get any closer though as Antrim held on with back to back stoppage time McManus points from frees proving to be the insurance scores.

Antrim: Ryan Elliott; Phelim Duffin, Matthew Donnelly, Stephen Rooney; Joe Maskey, Paddy Burke, Gerard Walsh; Eoghan Campbell, Keelan Molloy; Niall McKenna (0-02), James McNaughton (0-01), Michael Bradley (0-01); Daniel McCloskey, Conor McCann (0-01), Ciaran Clarke (0-11, 0-08f).

Subs: Conal Cunning (0-02) for McCloskey h/t, Neil McManus (0-04, 0-02f, 0-01 65) for Molloy 45, Donal Nugent for McCann 45, Conor Johnston for Bradley 64, Aodhan O'Brien for McKenna 70.

Kerry: John B O'Halloran; Bryan Murphy, Tomas O'Connor, Eric Leen; Jason Diggins, Fionan Mackessy, Michael Leane; Brandon Barrett, Paudie O'Connor (0-01); Michael O'Leary (0-02), Shane Nolan, Shane Conway (0-09, 0-08f); Daniel Collins (0-02), Mikey Boyle (1-00), Maurice O'Connor.

Subs: Barry O'Mahony for M O'Connor 42, Padraig Boyle (0-01) for P O'Connor 49, Colm Harty (0-01) for M Boyle 55, Brendan O'Leary (0-01) for Barrett 61.

Referee: Liam Gordon (Galway).