Paddy Purcell hit 2-2 and Enda Rowland produced a string of fine saves as Laois secured a place in the All-Ireland qualifiers while Antrim were relegated to the Joe McDonagh Cup.
Laois 2-27 Antrim 2-21
Laois refused to accept their part in the script.
A team who had their day in the sun under Eddie Brennan, but who would sink back to whence they came after the wheels came off over the winter.
The mudslinging was public and messy, and a poor league campaign under returning boss Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett underlined their trajectory.
They dug deep on Saturday to find an answer, out-hurling and out-muscling an Antrim side en route to a first competitive win for 504 days.
The result and the performance came against the head. Darren Gleeson had masterminded a Joe McDonagh Cup and a strong Division 1B campaign upon his side’s return to the top flight.
Form went out the window, however, as Laois brought the fire on a day when Paddy Purcell starred with 2-2.
Not that they did it the easy way. Anything but. With championship relegation or a spot in Monday’s qualifier draw on the table, there would be no smooth path to victory.
Laois played for six minutes with 13 men, with 14 for 15 minutes plus injury time, and allowed an 11-point lead on 40 minutes shrink to just two before the second-half water break.
Antrim substitute Eoin O’Neill stretched the net twice midway through the second half while Neil McManus also had a penalty batted away by Enda Rowland.
Laois had gone down to 13 men during that period as Sean Downey was issued a black card for the penalty while Ross King walked to the line after seeing yellow for a second time.
Character is built on such tests and it was Purcell, former All Star nominees Jack Kelly and Rowland, PJ Scully and Willie Dunphy who showed theirs to see the game out.
Laois’ puckout strategy of standing off Wexford had drawn huge criticism, but their setup going both ways reaped scores from the start here.
Rowland routinely landed restarts inside the Antrim ’14, with scores or pandemonium the result more often than not.
Early points by Podge Delaney, King, Ciaran McEvoy and Purcell had given Laois a strong platform, as Antrim laboured through sand.
Ryan Elliott’s restarts were being eaten alive, with Dunphy (twice) and Scully helping themselves to turnover points as Laois went 0-11 to 0-4 ahead.
McManus nabbed a couple of scores in reply, but then came the dagger on 34 minutes, again from a turnover.
Centre-back Paddy Burke adjusted to gather an errant Eoghan Campbell handpass just inside his own ’45, and ran into two tacklers as he stumbled out.
Laois won possession and countered hard, with King and Fiachra C Fennell combining to set Purcell off to the races.
The latter rarely needs an invitation to run up the guts of a defence, and he cut inside the ’21 to fire to the roof of the net.
That gave Laois a 1-16 to 0-9 lead, but Antrim came back. Keelan Molloy and McManus picked off points, and O’Neill breathed life into his team with a low finish to the net on 44 minutes.
Then came a frenzied spell as McManus failed with a penalty that would have reduced the gap to three, Laois went down to 13 men, and O’Neill found the net once more after a cute flick by Ciaran Clarke.
The momentum was flowing in one direction but, two men down, Kelly and then Scully (from a free won by Purcell) stemmed the flow by hitting the next two scores for Laois before Downey returned to the fray.
Antrim didn’t give in but they were searching for goals that weren’t there, as Rowland put together a string of saves that he would expect to make.
After four missed shots, Cha Dwyer finally found his range to extend to lead to 2-27 to 2-21 entering injury time, as Laois continued to counter impressively.
Plunkett’s side go into the qualifier pot considered the handy draw, but their main goal for the season has now been achieved.
Still a top-tier side, and enjoying that winning feeling for the first time since beating Carlow in the league on February 22 2020.
LAOIS: Rowland; Cleere, Downey, Hartnett; Delaney (0-3), McEvoy (0-1), Mullaney (Ryan, 53 mins); Fennell (0-1), Kelly (0-3); Purcell (2-2) (Keyes, 65 mins), Dwyer (0-1) (Comerford, 75 mins), Collier (0-1) (Lyons, 57 mins); Scully (0-10, 0-7f, 0-2 s/l), W Dunphy (0-3) (A Dunphy, 71 mins), King (0-2)
ANTRIM: R Elliott; McMullan (Crawford, 18 mins), Walsh, Rooney; Campbell, Burke, O’Brien (Donnelly, 72 mins); Molloy (0-3), Ciaran Johnston (Maskey h/t); McManus (0-4), Bradley (E O’Neill, h/t (2-0)), McNaughton (0-2, 0-1f); Conor Johnston (0-1) (Seaan Elliott, 59 mins (0-1)), Cunning (0-2), Clarke (0-8, 0-7f, 0-1 65)
Referee: Sean Cleere (Kilkenny)
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