GAA Football

Antrim GAA is turning the corner: Officials Collie Donnelly and Terry Reilly

Antrim chairman Collie Donnelly has defended Saffron Vision's performance at county board level over the last two years

ANTRIM officials Collie Donnelly and Terry Reilly believe the county board is “breathing new life” into the county – but admitted they have failed to get Saffron Vision’s message across as the pair face challenges at next week’s convention.

Dunloy man Jim McLean and Aghagallon clubman Columb Walsh have thrown their hats in the ring for the chairman and vice-chairman’s roles, currently held by Donnelly and Reilly, ahead of county convention at Dunsilly Hotel on Monday December 4.

In an interview with The Irish News, Donnelly highlighted the county board’s success in tapping into the corporate sector, the improvements made at the county’s centre of participation in Dunsilly, the improved relations with the Casement Park social club as well as the £1.5m cash windfall from Croke Park to revive Gaelic Games in Belfast.

Donnelly remained “quietly confident” that planning permission would be granted to rebuild Casement Park in the near future and stressed the importance of Antrim’s place in the new west Belfast stadium.

Saffron Vision swept to power two years ago but since then some Antrim Gaels have been frustrated at the lack of communication with the clubs.

“We walked into a bomb shelter,” said Donnelly. “It wasn’t easy. I think the first thing that needs to be acknowledged is what we inherited wasn’t great. What people need to understand is it was like taking over a distressed business.

“Six weeks into the job people on the executive committee had to put their hands in their pockets to pay salaries. Now, that’s not something you want to tell the world. So it was a very low base, no structures. No disrespect that went before but it was in poor shape.”

Reilly also acknowledged the county board’s failure in not communicating better with the clubs that has, in part, led to election contests after just two years.

“We haven’t spelt this out,” conceded Gort na Mona clubman Reilly.

“Our biggest strength is also our biggest weakness. We don’t throw flowers at ourselves and promote this. But as convention will see, Antrim GAA is better off to the tune of in excess of £200,000 per annum from private ventures that we have encouraged and attracted people to.”

Both Donnelly and Reilly revealed Saffron Business Forum had brought in £115,000 while the Casement Park social club had raised over £60,000 since Saffron Vision took control of the county.

Reilly added: “We're like pilots on a 747, pulling the plane out of a nosedive and the important bit about this is we need to level it out before it goes up.

“[But] our income is up massively. We have far better governance in the county. We have a chartered accountant, making sure that everything is done correctly. The investment in our teams – top to bottom - is far greater than it ever was because we have seen a financial benefit over the two years.”

Donnelly also expressed his dismay at the early closure of Casement Park as the “worst decision in the history of Antrim GAA” and the poor state of the Dunsilly site upon taking the reins two years ago.

“This is a million-pound business and it takes a bit of watching,” Donnelly said. “We’re running a business with no headquarters. People understate the fact that we’ve no home. We’re like nomads. The cost and the logistical work to run Antrim GAA are huge.”

Despite the structural problems Saffron Vision claim they inherited, Donnelly and Reilly insist that are turning the county’s fortunes around.

“It’s only the start of this process,” said vice-chairman Reilly.

“We are trading positively for the first time. There was nothing before Saffron Business Forum. There was nothing coming from the social club. And there was nothing coming in for our championships [in terms of sponsorship].”

Donnelly added: “We inherited a minus and we’re now in a plus.”

However, both men defended the process that saw Frank Fitzsimons leave the senior football manager’s post in August.

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