Nothing but the same old story for sorry Saffrons
An ultimately disappointing league, influential players opting out and a Championship campaign that showed promise at one stage only to fizzle out in Fermanagh – Kevin Farrell looks back at a predictably malfunctioning season for Antrim...
STORY OF THE SEASON...
THE soothing strains of The Green Glens of Antrim danced across O’Moore Park as the final whistle sounded. It was June 20 and Frank Fitzsimons’ Saffrons had seemingly risen from the dead.
Nine points down after 22 minutes then eight adrift early in the second half of an All-Ireland round 1A Qualifier, something was summoned from somewhere. Shell-shocked Laois were picked off by a team in mismatching shirts. In the closing stages, they got beat out the gate – a 1-4 skelp without a murmur back.
A two-point win against a county two divisions higher, the die-hards dared to daydream. Back page headlines yelled for the right reasons. But we could nearly have guessed how this one would flat-line. In Antrim, it’s the hope and the despair that kills you...
When Fitzsimons stepped up last September after an irked Liam Bradley had stepped down, the mission statement from ‘Baker’s’ ex-selector was bullish but doable: Quiet escape from the wailing walls of Division Four as the springboard for a respectable Championship effort. Mike McGurn had weighed in to strengthen and condition. McKenna Cup sparring passed off with early exit. Yet the twin-headed bogeyman of crisis and controversy had hardly been the county’s deepest sleeper. It wouldn’t take long for it to stir.
Fitzsimons was forced to draw on his three-year stint as U21 boss to fill early cracks in the NFL panel. Springtime in purgatory can be a hard sell. A welter of quality ducked out through injury, choice or other commitments. Deprived of the rich service of Kevin Niblock, Brian Neeson, Kevin O’Boyle, Paddy Cunningham and Marty Johnston amongst others, Antrim still contrived to post notice of intent on both ‘home’ and away travels.
The St Gall’s axis of CJ McGourty and Mickey Pollock toyed with basement defences and scored for fun – chalking up 4-59 of the Saffrons’ 5-87 total. Despite losing midfield pillar Niall McKeever to a long-term quad injury after the drawn opener to Carlow, Antrim wedged into the mix. But it was their late single-point loss in the Longford fog in week two which would come back to bite.
After four wins on the spin, a final day trip to Tullamore for a do-or-die tie with Offaly hit the wall. The Faithful booked their ticket into Division Three – alongside the O’Farrell county. Antrim’s latest boss was left to trot out the dog-eared refrain of “it just wasn’t Antrim’s day today”.
The rainclouds remained. The McCann talismans, Mick and Tomás, had joined the exiled, citing work commitments. And while Fitzsimons quickly reiterated his open-door policy for the tranche of talent out of the loop – including long-absent ‘quarter-back’ Seán Kelly – the Ulster SFC first round trip to face a rewired Fermanagh smacked of a tall order.
Antrim may have won a 2014 nail-biter at Brewster Park, shooting 2-18 in the process. Yet it said plenty that 2-16 from that tally belonged to five footballers – Niblock, Neeson and the three McCann brothers – nowhere to be seen a year and a day later. For an hour of this error-ridden renewal, the Saffrons stayed in touch care of sub CJ McGourty’s placed ball precision. They largely frustrated Pete McGrath’s patchy Erne men, even after the dismissal of key midfielder Seán McVeigh five minutes from the turn.
Championship debutant Conor Burke blacked out Seánie Quigley from play – what about that Dublin? – yet Antrim posted a lame 0-8, with a late Erne surge delivering a flattering double-score win.
Scant hopes of a Qualifying win in Portlaoise a fortnight later faded thanks to a club/county carry-on. Conor Burke, CJ and Kieran McGourty opted to play for St Gall’s in a hurling relegation decider fixed for the night before. The trio then made the long Saturday morning trek with the Saffrons only to be informed as throw-in neared that they had been dropped, reportedly on the county board’s direction.
The usual faff of finger-pointing cast a shadow over Antrim’s shock victory.
With another visit to Brewster Park in the offing, a few pre-booked Stateside flights would spawn the next fiasco. Burke and fellow 21-year-olds Patrick McBride and Paddy McAleer headed for Boston’s bright lights before Antrim’s race was run.
Seánie Quigley wasn’t so quiet this time around. Fourteen points, seven from play, took out the sagging Saffrons who had come for a gunfight with backfiring weapons.
The Ernemen skipped deep into the summer picture as malfunctioning Antrim – always Antrim – died a sorry and all too predictable death.
WHAT THEY NEED...
THE Monday after Fermanagh flicked the switch on the Saffrons’ season, Irish News columnist Kevin Madden wrote: “Antrim have many peripheral issues holding them back, from support at board level, the training centre of excellence, Casement Park, investment in development squads and the old chestnut of colleges’ football. But these won’t be tackled anytime soon.
“In the meantime, the Gaelic games culture in the county needs to take steps in a different direction. Otherwise, what is the point?”
The summary from the ex-Antrim forward was damning yet accurate. A spiral of negativity continues to spit out a dysfunctional county whose seniors now start next season marooned at least two divisions beneath the rest of Ulster.
Contagious apathy and the frosty disconnect between the county board and some players make it easy to understand why Antrim spawns problems galore.
In spite of that broad audit, the well-respected Frank Fitzsimons has the task of kick-starting progress on the field. Whether that will emerge from the Lamh Dhearg clubman’s open-door policy is debatable.
The first step for reinvention should be buy-in. Yes, it would be lovely if the 15 best footballers in Antrim could take the field. Yet an approach that enables players to parachute in and displace others who have committed from the off is likely to stunt any effective transition from the fated cycle of ‘short-termism’ which currently chokes the county.
Antrim require scoring power beyond CJ McGourty’s gift. With Brian Neeson out of the picture they were 20th highest scorers across the League in 2015.
A sharper onus is now on Lámh Dhearg’s Murray brothers Conor and Ryan, along with Glenavy’s Owen Gallagher and St John’s Patrick McBride, to kick on and convert clear talent into regular point-taking.
Better ball retention and more creative use of hard-won possession are also crucial – especially in claustrophobic Ulster. The return of a fit Niall McKeever provides a reliable ball-winning outlet and should help refresh Chris Kerr’s kick-out strategies.
Fusing the freedom and enterprise shown in the Laois comeback with a less restrictive defensive straitjacket than that which delivered a paltry two points from play in the first loss to Fermanagh is the magic formula. Keeping 15 men on the pitch would be helpful.
Promotion should be viewed as essential. Moulding a unified squad with a mentality for progress that can be sustained would arguably be the bigger challenge and achievement as the season unfolds.
THE NEW BREED...
THIS year’s minor batch under Seán McGoldrick got within sight of an Ulster final having beaten Fermanagh in Enniskillen before losing their way and fading in the last 15 minutes of a semi-final against Cavan. Captain Conor Small and fellow forward Odhran Eastwood were the eye-catchers.
Creggan dual player Small, a Colleges Allstar with St Mary’s, Magherafelt, can score off both feet and is likely to feature in Gerard McNulty and Sean McKenna’s U21 plans after two stellar minor campaigns, while St Enda’s livewire Eastwood is also a composed score-getter. Both might be fast-tracked.
Former U21 boss Frank Fitzsimons can never be accused of being reluctant to trust the vagaries of youth – albeit with a heavy touch of necessity. Niall Delargy, Owen Gallagher, Ryan Murray, Paddy McAleer, Dermot McAleese, Paddy McBride, Conor Burke and Declan Lynch are all barely into their 20s and will benefit from featuring prominently during 2015.
Matt Fitzpatrick, Ruairi Wilson, Niall O’Neill and full-forward Ronan McGrady may enjoy more game time, while St Brigid’s midfielder Jack Dowling, at 23, impressed as a sub in the second Fermanagh defeat and offers a sound option.
CJ McGourty and Mickey Pollock lit up the way in the league, shouldering 70 per cent of the scoring burden before the promotion tilt fell just short.
Come the summer, both had their moments – McGourty in the first loss to Fermanagh and Pollock’s points in Portlaoise – but niggling injuries, and in McGourty’s case the farce in Laois, served to limit their overall contributions.
Cargin stalwart Tony Scullion was his usual steady presence too at number five, bar an iffy first half in the Qualifier defeat in Enniskillen.
Goalkeeper Chris Kerr perhaps edges it. The St Gall’s stopper, an Irish News Ulster Allstar nominee, was far from foot perfect, sometimes misdirecting his kick-outs during a busy year. Yet a series of superb stops against Laois included a pivotal penalty save from Ross Munnelly when eight points down and set the tone for that Portlaoise comeback. Kerr’s one-handed reflex stop from Paul McCusker’s piledriver in the Qualifying loss to Fermanagh was up with the best on the Championship ‘save-o-meter’.
END OF THE LINE?
TO SAY Antrim will miss the graft and nous of Tony Scullion this season is an understatement.
The Cargin half-back has been Antrim’s bellwether for over a decade, his raiding gallops and line-breaking setting the example – minus a short and sour 2013 hiatus on Frank Dawson’s fated watch.
The 32-year-old is the only confirmed retiree, but it has been reported that St Gall’s Kieran McGourty and a disillusioned Mickey Pollock (pictured) are unlikely to return to the well for the new Division Four campaign.
Fitzsimons’s steadfast open-door policy means any retirement will be a player’s choice, so it remains to be seen if the lengthy list of absentees from last year shortens.
Tomás and Mick McCann showcased their class in Cargin’s county championship defeat of St Gall’s and their potential return along with that of St Gall’s playmaker Kevin Niblock are the biggest question marks.
Soccer goalkeeping commitments with Carrick Rangers are likely to rule Brian ‘Bam’ Neeson’s scoring touch out of the picture, while it will be interesting to see if Lamh Dhearg’s Paddy Cunningham still has any role to play.