Antrim County Focus 2017: Frustrating year for the Saffrons but a few shards of hope
Antrim's football season crashed at the gates of Division Four then burned after Championship clippings from Donegal and Sligo and the departure of the managers. There were a few shreds of optimism in the chaos. Kevin Farrell writes...
STORY OF THE SEASON
RELEGATION to Division Four and sharp Championship lessons in Donegal and Sligo. That was the net loss come mid-June, yet it doesn’t begin to paint the whole picture. It rarely does when you’re Antrim.
Sifting through the cinders of a messy year that flatlined with the joint-managers grabbing their coats last month, lumps of despair and slivers of promise all meet the eye.
If Antrim’s 2016 was launched on a diplomatic gather-up of old dogs for the hard road that branched to promotion, 2017 demanded a rejuvenation in light of experienced hands now off radar for a raft of reasons.
The mission statement was about kickstarting “a legacy of youth”.
Gearoid Adams and Frank Fitzsimons charted a fresh course with a speculative draft of greenhorns for McKenna Cup sparring.
Last-gasp defeat to Sigerson Cup strivers St Mary’s UC and wicked skelps from Monaghan and Fermanagh were taken on the nose in the name of blooding.
Shorn of Mick McCann, Brian Neeson, Niall McKeever, Mark Sweeney, Ricky Johnston and Kevin O’Boyle, preserving Division Three status as the spur for making some hay on the summer beat seemed a hard station.
CJ McGourty recommitted to the complicated relationship. It was a timely lift with the St Gall’s forward vowing to make up for lost time in the Saffron jersey.
For shy of an hour against Tipp, Antrim thrived in Thurles. Two goals, though, turned the worm. Despite the reverse, Adams hailed their opening display as a solid platform.
The stage buckled under them in Tullamore a week later. Five down at the break, they shipped 0-8 without reply from the restart as Offaly coasted.
That 13-point aberration would come back to gnaw.
Gutsy Corrigan Park wins over both Sligo and Laois – McGourty in the zone – sandwiched a loss in Louth where first half profligacy cost dear.
Red mist then fell in an Athletic Grounds nail-biter as a shower of black and red cards were flashed at both teams in a frantic finale.
Armagh surfaced by two, but only after McGourty’s saved spot-kick and missed free had denied the visitors any dividend for their grit and effort.
Antrim now piled into last chance saloon. Survival was in the bag at home to Longford. Yet naive game management allowed 13 men to snaffle a draw at the death which flipped the trap door.
Adams cursed fine lines and Offaly’s lethal damage to their scoring average.
The lead-in to a daunting Ulster quarter-final in Ballybofey was treacherous. Tha Armagh game rebounded back into the foreground.
Forward Matthew Fitzpatrick would twice have a one-match ban for ‘striking’ quashed when a video clip – originally supplied by Armagh for an unrelated appeal – was dismissed by the Central Appeals Committee after GAA ‘prosecutors’ had erred with the rules and then failed to prove their case when the player and others present were unable to confirm his identity.
The rub was that the charge had been issued on both occasions after the Antrim secretary, without consulting team management, had ‘identified’ Fitzpatrick via text and then email correspondence upon request from Croke Park.
A stark letter to the county board – signed by the Antrim squad – prior to the St John’s clubman’s second appeal had underscored the internal rift.
Central Hearings Committee then wheeled out extended footage of the same spot of ‘handbags’ which they had previously possessed yet, oddly, hadn’t shown during the player’s second hearing.
Six days before Donegal, frazzled Fitzpatrick had a 48-week ban because he supposedly ‘gave deliberately false evidence and deliberately misled the hearing, a breach of rule 7.3’.
Joe Brolly’s fee for counsel ahead of Wednesday’s ‘appeal number three’ was a pint of Guinness.
@JoeBrolly1993 soon told Twitter “the case v Matt Fitzpatrick was thrown out on the well known legal basis that it was complete bollocks”.
A chronic knee injury would claim the county career of skipper and standard-bearer Kevin Niblock in the mouth of Ulster battle, while Conor and Ryan Murray, James Laverty and Martin Johnston were all unavailable for the Tir Chonaill encounter.
A youthful Antrim stood tall, but a quickfire brace of goal chances went untaken shortly before a Donegal goal opened a first stretch of daylight between the teams.
Fitzpatrick, playing like a man minus a millstone, was then stretchered off with an ankle injury while Michael Murphy and co loped away towards a 16-point win.
Twelve unanswered scores against the Saffrons’ 14 men in a second-half blitz would hand Sligo a Qualifiers win by six at Markievicz Park.
Glimmers of a reprieve hung on reports the Yeatsmen had used too many subs. That was soon put to bed and the Saffrons’ back door hope was stone dead and buried.
WHAT THEY NEED
A big, but not too big, shiny, new and very safe stadium bowl with sporting and community facilities to drop like a castle from the air into the heart of west Belfast. That’s surely not too much to ask for, sooner rather than later, please...
Back in the real world, Antrim’s out-going joint-manager Gearoid Adams recently told the Irish News what is definitely needed in the here and now; a five-year term for his and Frank Fitzsimons’s successor plus vastly-improved resources to help a team in transition fulfil its potential.
It’s as hard to argue against that for starters, as much as it’s easy to argue that Adams and Fitzsimons should still be the men behind the rewiring project despite them, one by one, stepping away on principle. The ultimate wrenches of relegation and quickfire Championship exit by June was putrid medicine this year, yet there was enough cause for hope if you checked the margins.
More than a dozen players were handed inter-county debuts from pillar to post out of bold necessity. Some cut impressive teeth.
The average age of the side that stuck with Donegal for most of the first half was one of Antrim’s youngest ever for a Championship game and contained half-a-dozen men making their Ulster debuts.
Of the four defeats and the draw that cost their Division Three status, the ill-fated hammering in Tullamore was the only game that Antrim never looked like taking something from.
It’s why one miserable point from Tipp, Armagh, Louth and Longford was hard to swallow.
The vagaries of youth perhaps flared up. Streetwise decision-making, tighter discipline and better economy and accuracy with chances galore (and there were plenty) all might have helped save their skin.
The Saffrons shipped black or red cards in six of nine games – Louth, Longford and the Ulster defeat to Donegal the only exceptions, while regular spates of second half slumber need to be addressed too.
In terms of personnel, Kevin Niblock’s inspirational boots will be huge ones to fill.
The likes of St John’s pair Matthew Fitzpatrick and Patrick McBride may be the men for that job long-term, while the return of Portglenone skyscraper Niall McKeever would also provide a welcome fillip after a Masters degree and a new job checked his involvement last year.
Central to any shafts of light was Antrim’s number one prodigal son, CJ McGourty.
The mercurial St Gall’s man and the Saffron cause haven’t always been easy bedfellows for all shades of fall-outs. Yet his latest return ahead of the Division Three campaign was a shot in the arm for a panel rookie-deep in transition.
McGourty assumed the dead-ball mantle and more. Often the go-to man during an erratic season, he linked well with Fitzpatrick and Conor Murray.
He also bagged 3-47 of Antrim’s 8-94 total in nine League and Championship outings – albeit just 1-9 of his haul coming from play.
It wasn’t always foot perfect. There were spurned chances too... the penalty and last-gasp free in Armagh, the goal that got away in Donegal... but he was a positive force and never hid or shirked responsibility.
END OF THE LINE?
IF Sean McVeigh had a pound for every year his name has appeared under this question mark, he’d be a few quid better off.
Yet when others on the hilly side of 30 have fallen away with injuries or had their fill of the slog, McVeigh has always charged back for more – even after his serious groin injury in 2016.
He featured chiefly as a sub during the League, but started both Championship games. The robust All Saints, Ballymena man is now 32 with big miles on the clock, though he’s fitter than before and his loyalty remains unswerving.
Whether full-back, midfield, man-marker or option from the bench, his physicality, reliability and zeal should be retained given the relative dearth of experience down the roll call.
Cargin’s Justin Crozier and Portglenone’s Niall McKeever sat last year out and it remains to be seen if they, or indeed Conor Burke and Marty Johnston, will return to the mix.
THE NEW BREED
UCD student and St Enda’s, Glengormley corner-back Peter Healy stood out with some composed displays in a novice full-back line, while tenacious teenage Creggan forward Conor Small always showed and cooly netted that late consolation against Donegal.
Aldergrove’s Seamus McGarry featured in the McKenna Cup, but served sharper notice of his gift with 0-8 – six from play – in a flying show for the U21s in their provincial loss to Monaghan in March.
He made his senior bow as sub against Sligo before starting the Laois game and is one to watch.
St Mary’s, Magherafelt’s MacRory Cup winners boasted eight Antrim minors – five starters – in the final and they formed the core of Hugh McGettigan’s U18 batch that clipped Donegal.
Along with Moneyglass defender Eamon Kelly, Creggan and St Mary’s forwards Tiarnan McAteer and Liam Quinn were pivotal in that Ballybofey curtain-raiser, while their team-mates Kevin Small and Caolan McCann impressed too.
That corps, alongside the likes of Healy, [Conor] Small, St Gall’s forward Brendan Bradley and Glenavy defender Conor Hamill could form a new Antrim nucleus down the track.
Aghagallon’s Ruairi McCann, Rossa forward Sean Pat Donnelly and his ball-winning clubmate Stephen Beatty, a converted hurler, also slot into that bracket.
Antrim will be steered next season by a new manager after the opening of a nominations process saw Gearoid Adams step away mid-August.
Joint-boss Frank Fitzsimons also ended his two-year stint in the role once the deadline for nominations was extended and other candidates emerged despite the Lamh Dhearg man having been the only nominee at the original cut-off.
Armagh All-Ireland winner Aidan O’Rourke and ex-Antrim players John McKeever and Lenny Harbinson were all interviewed. The county board is scheduled to meet on Monday night to receive the recommendation of the football review panel.
Harbinson steered St Gall’s to an All-Ireland Club title in 2010, Coalisland boss McKeever led Cookstown Fr Rock’s to an All-Ireland intermediate crown in 2013, while Queen’s boss O’Rourke has also managed Louth and assisted Kieran McGeeney with Armagh and Kildare.
Ulster SFC quarter-final:
Antrim 1-9 Donegal 3-19
All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers Round 1A: Antrim 3-7 Sligo 0-22
CHAMPIONSHIP TALLY FOR (average): 4-16 (14)
CHAMPIONSHIP TALLY AGAINST (average): 3-41 (25)
TEAM KNOCKED OUT OF ALL-IRELAND
All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers round 1A, Markievicz Park, June 17:
Antrim 3-7 Sligo 0-22
Antrim: C Kerr; C Hamill, P Gallagher, N Delargy; P McBride (1-1), D Lynch, P McAleer; S McVeigh, S Beatty; M Fitzpatrick (1-0), C Murray (0-3), R McCann; CJ McGourty (1-2, 1-0 pen, 0-2 frees), T McCann (0-1), M Sweeney Subs: K O’Boyle for P McAleer (11 to 35, blood sub), O Gallagher for R McCann (25), J Dowling for S Beatty (35), R Murray for T McCann (62), B Bradley for
CJ McGourty (62)
CJ McGourty 1-8 (1-0 pen, 0-8 frees), P McBride (1-1), C Murray (0-3), T McCann (0-3), C Small (1-0), M Fitzpatrick (1-0), S Beatty (0-1)
Final position: seventh
Tipperary 2-12 Antrim 0-13
Offaly 0-23 Antrim 1-7
Antrim 0-11 Sligo 1-7
Louth 2-10 Antrim 1-11
Antrim 1-10 Laois 0-11
Armagh 1-12 Antrim 0-13
Antrim 1-13 Longford 0-16