A Niall Loughlin inspired Derry advanced to an Ulster Under 21 Quarter-Final meeting with Donegal in Ballybofey next Wednesday evening after defeating Antrim in a match that should have been more comfortable than it proved.
Derry were excellent in the first half but faded badly after the break as Antrim, while never looking like over-turning the home side’s advantage, looked the better team in the second half. In the end Derry were indebted to Loughlin’s dead-ball expertise which brought him five frees and four superb ‘45s’.
Derry were in charge from the throw-in and much of the opening quarter was played inside the Antrim 45m line. The Oak Leafers were three points to the good in as many minutes as Peter Hagan, Loughlin and Aidan Keenan all pointed before Ruairi McCann managed to registered the Saffrons opener on five minutes.
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Despite the Antrim point, Fergal McCusker’s team continued to dominate with Niall Toner causing havoc every time he ran at the Antrim defence. The Oak Leaf forward line was boasting plenty of senior experience with the likes of Loughlin and Terence O’Brien as well as Niall Keenan and Michael McEvoy from last year’s Ulster Minor Championship winning squad.
Doire Trasna’s Thomas McCrossan was the Waterside club’s first ever representative at Under 21 level and the full-back didn’t disappoint with an assured display that will give him something to build on.
A further three points from Toner, Hagan and Loughlin, from a delightful ‘45’ left Derry 0-6 to 0-1 up with only 10 minutes up, a Seamus McGarry free Antrim’s second score but the Saffrons attacks were only sporadic at best.
Derry continued to make light of the difficult underfoot conditions and moved the ball well with Meehaul McGrath, Claudy’s Jamie Donaghy and Loughlin providing a 0-09 tom 0-03 lead.
A first half goal would probably have killed the game as a contest and Derry had the perfect opportunity to score when another brilliant Toner run and exchange of passes with O’Brien resulted in Toner being dragged to the floor for a penalty. Up stepped Toner but his low penalty was superbly turned away by Antrim keeper for Ronan Hanna for a 45 which Loughlin scored. Another Loughlin free sent the home side in leading 0-12 to 0-3 and it was little more than Derry deserved.
The second half was a different game but Derry brought much of their problems on to themselves with strange shot selection and an over-eagerness to go for goals they didn’t need.
Danny Tallon was sent clear on goal but saw Hanna save brilliantly again while Jason Rocks also sent a shot inches wide of the post when he had men in acres of space either side of him. Those misses will cost Derry against better sides.
For their part Antrim set about picking away at the Derry lead with the free-tacking of Odhran Eastwood and Seamus McGarry helping bring them within six points of Derry by the end of the third quarter.
Yet for all the visitors improvement, Derry were always in control with a late black card for Saffron corner-back Gerard McCorley not helping the visitors cause.
So Derry advance but the Derry manager will be under no illusion that his side will need to improve before they make the trip to Ballybofey.
Derry: Ciaran McCloy; Niall Keenan, Tomas McCrossan, Oisin Hegarty; Jason Rocks, Michael McEvoy, Peter Hagan (0-2); Jarlath Bradley, Meehaul McGrath (0-1); Danny Tallon, Terence O’Brien, Jamie Donaghy (0-2); Niall Toner (0-1), Niall Loughlin (0-9, 5f, 4 forty-fives), Aidan Keenan (0-1). (Subs) Oisin Duffin for P Hagan, 45mins; Ruairi McElwee for N Toner, 47mins; Dean Curran for T O’Brien, 55mins; Conor Convery for A Keenan, 57mins
Antrim: Ronan Hanna; Ronan Delargy, Oisin Hamill, Gerard McCorley; James McAuley, Peter Healy, Ross Hannigan; Oisin Leneghan (0-2), Ciaran Loney; Ruairi Scott, Ruairi McCann (0-1), Seamus McGarry (0-2, 2f); Odhran Eastwood (04, 4f), Domhnall Nugent, Conor Small. (Subs) Ryan McNulty (0-1) for C Loney, 38mins; Conan Lyttle for R Hannigan, 38mins; Ben Rice (0-1) for R Scott, 48mins; Padraig Mackle for G McCorley, (Black Card) 55mins; Joe Maskey for R McNulty, 57mins;
Referee: Shaun McLaughlin (Donegal)