Down come close but Antrim qualify for Ulster Hurling Final - 18/05/03

Ulster Senior Hurling Semi Final at Casement Park, Belfast - Sunday 18th May 2003

Antrim 0-21 Down 2-12

Dinny Cahill's Ulster champions advanced to the provincial final at Casement Park. All despite the concession of two second-half goals, most notably Stephen Clarke's net bulger from a Simon Wilson through ball, just one minute after the break. Antrim, winners of the Division Two league final a fortnight ago, strengthened their 0-10 to 0-5 lead at the break with three unanswered scores. The introduction of Liam Watson, back from a four-week ban, on 25 minutes saw an edge develop to Antrim's play - though Down keeper Graham Clarke brilliantly saved Brian McFall's overhead goal attempt on 31 minutes.
With little over eight minutes remaining, Down had clawed their way back to level pegging at 2-12 to 0-18. But rallying scores from half-forwards McGuckian, Richmond and substitute Aidan Delargy, also back in the squad following a suspension, closed out a handsome advert for northern hurling.

A determined Down fightback almost caused an Ulster upset. Favourites Antrim were coasting towards a place against Derry in the decider for three-quarters of the game but a strong last quarter rally by the Mournemen almost left the Antrim men severly embarrassed. Brian McFall was in his usual sharpshooting form from placed balls as Antrim eased into a 0-10 to 0-5 interval lead. Stephen Clarke kept Down in the hunt with points from frees but points by McFall (two) and Watson in injury time gave Antrim that five points half-time cushion.

Antrim started the second half as they finished the first and added another four point to the socre board within 10 minutes. As thunder rattled over the ground Down stormed forward to hit a goal and two points inside two minutes in the 52nd and 53rd minutes - the goal struck home from an acute angle by Gary Savage. That left the score at Antrim 0-14, Down 1-8 with the action now being play at championship pace. From there to the end the hurling may not have been out of the top drawer but it was fast and furious with Down storming forward. Points by Adair, Johnson and Stephen Clarke offset scores by Paddy Richmond and McFall and when Johnson set up Stephen Clarke for a 70th minute goal it was level pegging at 0-18 to 2-12 and Down looked capable of causing an upset.

It was then that Antrim turned on the power play for those late scores that won the day and proved the Saffrons have the determination to hold on to the Ulster title. If it had not been for the brilliance of man of the match Graham Clarke between the Down posts the game would have been wrapped up long before that.

Clarke brought off two tremendous double saves as well as a number of other first class stops and clearances. "I'd rather have played badly and we won the game," reflected the young Ballygalget star after his side's defeat.

Antrim: B McFall 0-7 (0-6, 1 sideline), L Richmond 0-4, C McGuckian 0-3, G O'Kane, L Watson 0-2 each, P Richmond, A Delargy, Darren Quinn 0-1 each.
Down: S Clarke 1-7 (0-7f), G Savage 1-1, G Johnson 0-2, G Adair, S Wilson (f) 0-1 each.

ANTRIM: DD Quinn; M Kettle, K Kelly, J Campbell; M McCambridge, K McKeegan, C Herron; C Cunning, J Connolly; P Richmond, C McGuckian, L Richmond; G O'Kane, A Mort, B McFall.
Subs: L Watson for Mort (25 mins), A Delargy for McFall (64), Darren Quinn for O'Kane (67).

DOWN: Graham Clarke; T Coulter, Gabriel Clarke, E Dorrian; L Clarke, G Savage, G Adair; B Milligan, P Monan; M Coulter, S Wilson, E Trainor; G McGrattan, S Clarke, G Johnston.
Subs: M Braniff for Pucci (48), B Coulter for M Coulter (48), A Dynes for Adair (66).

REF: B Kelly (Westmeath).

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