Antrim crop of 2009 shows where the real issues lie
ON Sunday afternoon in Ballybofey, Donegal did what everyone expected them to do. They took the first significant step in the cycle of a brand new team.
Rory Gallagher has guided them well. The stamp of Jim McGuinness is fading and nothing would give Gallagher greater joy than to lead his own team to success.
There was much work done behind the scenes to produce a succession of excellent county minor teams, with the buy-in to development squads of particular consequence.
When they were a year young, many of the players that breezed past Antrim had been part of under-15 squads that ran as a supplementary to the under-16s a few years back.
They continued that pathway, operating as a separate squad at under-17 level despite a lack of competitive action.
You have to consider the commitment that requires in a county as big as Donegal. Some of the lads wouldn’t have been home from training until almost midnight.
But there was a pathway in front of them lit up by the gleam off the silverware they’ve brought home since the Ulster title in 2011.
Playing for Donegal is an attractive proposition. There are medals there for them. There is silverware. Men will know their names. Women will want to bear them.
You can picture Eoghan Bán Gallagher, Caolan Ward, Jason McGee, Michael Carroll, Ciaran Thompson, Cian Mulligan, Jamie Brennan and Michael Langan backboning a run of success in years to come.
Can you say the same about what you saw from Antrim at the weekend? There was an equal inexperience about their line-up but their fresh faces had such a comparatively youthful look about them.
It was like comparing granite to ash as the pace and power and composure of the Donegal players contrasted so heavily with what Antrim were able to produce.
This is a new cycle for them as well but the problem for them – and so many other counties like them – is that bits seem to break off the edge every winter.
Antrim made such an effort to get out of Division Four last year. They had everyone back playing. It led to an outing in Croke Park for the League final, and while the Championship was hugely disappointing, there looked to be building blocks there.
And yet from the team that played in Croke Park, the entire back six and midfield was missing from the starting line-up on Sunday. All of them. Niall Delargy, Conor Burke, Ricky and Martin Johnston, Kevin O’Boyle and James Laverty in defence, Niall McKeever and Michael McCann in midfield.
And up front, indeed, they were without Conor Murray, Brian Neeson, Kevin Niblock and John Carron.
It’s an incredible turnover but sadly for Antrim, that is the norm.
The average age of the team that took to the field against Tyrone in the Ulster final in 2009 was just 22.8 years.
Goalkeeper Peter Graham was 21 – he never played another Championship game.
Colin Brady (26), Andy McClean (22), Kevin O’Boyle (21), Tony Scullion (26), Justin Crozier (20) and James Loughrey (21) was a hugely exciting defence.
Michael McCann (23) and Aodhan Gallagher (24) looked like a midfield pairing that had all it needed to go and become the fulcrum for years to come.
Only Kevin Brady, who started centre-forward, was 30. Niall McKeever (20), Sean Burke (20), Tomás McCann (21) and Paddy Cunningham (23 – remember him?) were only just cubs.
Their half-back line was pivotal to their success with its pace and panache. Tyrone might, in the end, have enjoyed a certain degree of comfort in the decider but Antrim still scored 0-15 against the reigning All-Ireland champions that day.
They had fought their way past Donegal and Cavan to reach the decider and while neither of those were at a particularly high ebb, Antrim looked like it had a team that could go on to compete for the first time in years.
But by 2012, the team had already begun to break up. Of the 20 players they used that day, only Tomás McCann started at the weekend.
And yet if that team was to line out this afternoon, its average age would still be just under 31 years of age. So many of them are of playing capacity with their clubs.
They got a couple of competitive years out of that side under Liam Bradley but nowhere near what they should have.
Some like O’Boyle and Crozier and Kevin Niblock – a sub that day – have given wonderful service to an often unglamorous pursuit.
Everyone has their reasons for not wanting to play but when you boil it down, players usually walk away because they don’t have the belief that they – either individually or the squad - will actually be able to compete.
How do you resolve the issues in Antrim? That’s the million dollar question. Investment – and it is needed – is only a small piece of the jigsaw. Money is worth nothing if it’s squandered, as Dublin showed us from 1995 until 2011.
Antrim may have a huge population base but they have no tradition of success. And when they don’t have that, it’s hard to keep fellas at it.
“I want that whatever time myself and Frank go, that we’ve left a squad that you’ll still be looking at programmes eight years from now and those names will all be in it.”
That’s what Gearoid Adams said prior to the weekend’s game. A couple of decent minor teams in a row are the green shoots, but the sun has too often killed previous signs of recovery.
Summer comes and the Championship is short and demoralising. It’s a long time from early June until the McKenna Cup.
Plenty of time for club success or temptations from America or simply to lose hope or focus or belief.
If ever a county needed a tiered setup to give them a foot-up and help them climb their way out, rather than trying to hop six levels at once against a team like Donegal, then it is Antrim.
The players may not want to play in a ‘B’ championship but would they rather take an annual dose of the medicine Donegal held out to them?
They might win a Qualifier down the line, but look at the lack of lasting impact even the 2012 win over Galway had.
Sometimes you have to take people’s emotions and their own beliefs and make a decision for them. Antrim, and the Leitrims and Waterfords and those around them, are never going to truly progress if their summers keep going like this.
Those good minor teams on their way deserve better. They deserve to have a proper chance of success with their county.
They’re trying to run at a time when it’s a struggle to walk, and it’s doing nobody any favours.
Antrim team and ages at the time from 2009 Ulster final
Peter Graham 21
Colin Brady 26
Andy McClean 22
Kevin O’Boyle 21
Tony Scullion 26
Justin Crozier 20
James Loughrey 21
Michael McCann 23
Aodhan Gallagher 24
Terry O’Neill 25
Kevin Brady 30
Niall McKeever 20
Paddy Cunningham 23
Sean Burke 20
Tomás McCann 21
Kevin Niblock 23
Conor Murray 21
Ciaran Close 27
Deaghlan O’Hagan 24
Sean McGreevey 39