Antrim 5-17 Laois 3-22
A dramatic last-gasp penalty goal from Ciaran Clarke ensured Antrim claimed a 5-17 to 3-22 win over Laois in the Leinster SHC at Ballycastle.
Condemned to Division 2A of the Allianz League for 2016, the Saffrons bounced back well to deliver their first win of 2015, with victory over Laois by the minimum margin.
Laois were sharpest in the opening half and led by 2-13 to 2-08 at half-time, with Zane Keenan and Tommy Fitzgerald netting their goals.
The visitors pushed six points clear on the restart, but could never shake off Antrim, with Conor Johnson claiming their third goal.
Laois looked likely winners when substitute Ben Conroy lobbed a 66th minute goal, but Antrim never gave up and cut the gap to two points before Clarke’s late winner.
Prior to throw-in, Laois manager Seamus Plunkett was forced into two late changes, after James Walsh replaced the injured John A Delaney, while Patrick Whelan started instead of Joe Campion.
Antrim boss Kevin Ryan stuck with the same 15 that he had named midweek, which included plenty of new faces as John Dillon and Dessie McClean made their Senior Championship debuts.
The Saffrons were keen to bounce back from a disappointing league campaign, which failed them win a game, and saw them condemned to Division 2A hurling in 2016, after a play-off loss to Kerry.
In contrast, Laois held their own in Division 1B, and were confident of getting their championship campaign off to a positive start.
The visitors settled quickest and had the first score on the board early on courtesy of a Ross King point, but Antrim didn’t make it easy.
Ryan’s charges firmly hit back with an unanswered 1-02, including a Neil McManus goal, which was their opening score of this match.
Both sides had their spells of dominance during an entertaining opening half, with Laois free-taker Zane Keenan particularly impressive from dead-balls.
Keenan got Laois back on track with two of the next three points to cut the gap to the minimum, and although Antrim responded with a 10th minute goal from Conor Johnson, Laois hit back strongly.
A minute later, Keenan had no hesitation in firing a bullet of a shot to the back of the Antrim net from a penalty, to ensure a 2-02 to 1-04 score-line.
Antrim claimed the next point, but Laois bagged an unanswered 1-04, with Keenan continuing to impress.
The Camross clubman fired all of Laois’s points during that spell, while Portlaoise’s Tommy Fitzgerald, in his 12th season with the O’Moore’s broke through for their second goal after 26 minutes.
2-08 to 2-03 ahead, Laois looked firmly in command, but Antrim failed to give up, with the Laois defence under huge pressure over the next few minutes.
The Saffrons cut the gap to two points, with a trio of unanswered scores, but Laois were strongest before the interval.
Keenan continued to prove outstanding from dead balls, with Willie Hyland, King and PJ Scully also claiming scores as Laois took a five-point lead at the break.
Laois scored three of the opening five points on the restart, with King, Fitzgerald and Scully on target, but the visitors could never shake off a determined Antrim side.
St John’s clubman Johnson broke through to smash the ball past Enda Rowland, to cut the gap to three points in the 42nd minute, and, following a quick brace of points, just the minimum separated the sides.
Keenan registered a much needed score for Laois in the 48th minute, but Antrim continued to work hard.
Clarke delivered the first of his two second half goals in the 50th minute to push Antrim into a 4-12 to 2-17 lead.
In front by the minimum margin, and leading for the first time in 31 minutes, Antrim looked like driving on, but Laois continued to work hard, with good scores from Paddy Purcell and Keenan.
The sides were tied on three occasions in quick succession, before the introduction of Conroy added hugely to the Laois attack.
His 66th minute goal handed the visitors a 3-22 to 4-16 lead, but this was Laois’s final score, as Antrim fired 1-01 without reply in the dying minutes.
Clarke the home side hero, and on his own club grounds, rattled the back of the Laois net with a well dispatched penalty deep into injury-time to give Antrim the victory.
Antrim: C O’Connell, R McCambridge, N McAuley (0-01), A Graffin, S McCrory, C McKinley, J Dillon, N McManus (1-02), M Bradley (0-01), M Dudley, P Shiels (0-03, 1f), E Campbell (0-01), C Clarke (2-07, 1-00 pen, 0-05f, 0-1 ’65), D McClean, C Johnson (2-01).
Subs: C Carson for McClean, T O Ciaran for Campbell, D Murphy (0-01) for Dudley
Laois: E Rowland, JA Delaney, C Healy, B Stapleton, J Fitzpatrick, M Whelan, C Dunne, Z Keenan (1-09, 1-00 pen, 0-07f), P Purcell (0-01), PJ Scully (0-03), J Campion (0-01), C Dwyer (0-01), R King (0-03), W Hyland (0-03), T Fitzgerald (1-01).
Subs: B Conroy (1-00) for King, J Campion for Hyland, D Palmer for Scully