We want to make the Antrim jersey worth playing for says Kevin O'Boyle
NO matter what their results this year, Antrim’s footballers will once again be the lowest ranked Ulster team across the four divisions.
Not for the first time in recent years, the Saffrons are the sole Ulster residents in Division 4 of the Allianz Football League.
It doesn’t make pleasant reading for the long-suffering Antrim football supporter. In the 10 years since the league was structured into its current four division format in 2008, Antrim have been bottom of the Ulster pile on seven occasions.
At various times, they’ve had Cavan, Fermanagh or even Armagh for company in the lower reaches of the leagues, but there’s no Ulster derbies to look forward to this year.
Instead there’s trips to Waterford, London, Laois and Limerick, as well as home games to Leitrim, Wicklow and Carlow.
“Realistically, the league is our priority over everything else. We know we’re a Division 4 team, and it’s our objective to get out of there. I’ve been there before and every single game is a dogfight,” says team captain Kevin O’Boyle.
“Teams like London, Wicklow, I’ve played against them enough times to know that performance-wise you have to be good - but your attitude has to be right as well.
“It’s not a nice place to be. Every team is fighting to get out of there and if you get a one-point victory, it’s well deserved. Ourselves and Laois may be sitting favourites at the minute but we have to respond, we have to produce the goods.
“We’re going down to Portlaoise, Limerick, across to London, having to stay overnight and they’re all fighting for their lives too. Playing London, you’re sitting about waiting all day, there’s a lot of free time, it’s a bit of an eerie day, you’re expected to win and next thing you’ve a couple of scores against you in the first five minutes and you have to respond.”
As O’Boyle references, Antrim and Laois are the sides favoured for promotion. They both came down from Division 3 last year - relegation confirmed for both sides on the last day of the season.
For Laois a defeat to Offaly cemented the drop, while Longford earned a last-gasp draw against Antrim at Corrigan Park to condemn the Saffrons to Division 4.
But with a new season comes renewed optimism. A change of management, some new faces in the panel and a satisfactorily experimental McKenna Cup campaign during which new boss Lenny Harbinson fielded 29 different players ensures that Antrim go into their opener against Leitrim on January 28th in positive mood.
“We learned lessons from the Tyrone game, made seven or eight changes from the Tyrone game to the Cavan game and then made changes again for the St Mary’s game (in the McKenna Cup),” O’Boyle says.
“Players got game time, the new management got to look at them in game situations, seeing how players respond in a competitive environment, what they’re like, how they play, and how they’re going to shape up for the league.”
There are a number of big names missing from this time last year. Kevin Niblock called time on his county career due to injury, Tomas McCann is another who will not feature in the league campaign although back in the fold are Niall McKeever, Colum Duffin and Sean Burke.
O’Boyle missed the entire 2017 league campaign due to injury. He came on as a half-time sub in the Ulster SFC championship game against Donegal before sustaining a knee injury in the qualifier defeat to Sligo.
“The knee injury forced me to take a break. It was probably my own fault in that I kept trying to play through the injuries and maybe lost a year to 18 months of my playing career,” he says.
“I was getting frustrated with not playing so at this moment in time, I’m just enjoying playing football and getting back at it. People don’t really look forward to pre-season training but I did this year.
“I had a break after getting my knee done in the summer, got back playing just in time for the club championship, I got a good pre-season and I’m enjoying playing football again and hopefully it’s followed with a good year as well.”
The 30-year-old O’Boyle is a teacher in Holy Trinity College, Cookstown. Managing teams in the Tyrone school gives ‘Kobo’ an added perspective to the arrival of new management in the county. He describes Harbinson as a ‘thinker’.
“In terms of where I’m at in football, I’m looking at the coaching element of it as well. Lenny is a different type of person to what we’ve had before.
“Lenny is a thinker. He likes to see how things operate in front of him, how he can adapt to that and how he can communicate with his players. It’s definitely a different type of coaching to what we’ve had and he’s someone I’d like to learn from.
“I learned last year from Fitzy (Frank Fitzsimons) and Gearoid (Adams), I learned from Liam Bradley, from Frank Dawson, from John Brennan at Cargin and from different people in school too. You’re always looking to strengthen what you know, how you can improve as a player and the more bits of information you can pick off people the better.
“But he’s not going to change things overnight. Hopefully we can evolve, you don’t want to become predictable. We don’t want other teams coming to play us knowing that ‘Antrim play a certain way’.”
O’Boyle added: “He’s coming in with fresh ideas and it’s up to us to implement them. I’m working in Tyrone. Football is part of the culture there. We’d like to change the culture in Antrim football and make the jersey worth playing for.”
LOOK OUT FOR
THERE are a number of young rookies supplementing a relatively experienced Antrim squad. Last year’s under-21 goalkeeper Andrew Hasson from Rasharkin joins the senior ranks but may struggle to see much game time with Chris Kerr and Padraig Nugent currently first and second choice between the posts. Ballymena’s Connell Lemon is a new face in the Saffron rearguard which will also welcome Dublin-based Peter Healy, who missed the McKenna Cup, into its ranks for the league campaign. St Enda’s man Healy will hope to build on an impressive first senior season in 2017.
His brother Kristian gives manager Lenny Harbinson another option at corner forward as does St Enda’s clubmateOdhran Eastwood.
Still in the early 20s bracket, Creggan’s Ruairi McCann showed his versatility last year and Matthew Fitzpatrick, who made his debut in the 2016 championship, has grown into a hugely influential player for the Saffrons.
ANTRIM will be familiar with many of the teams and venues they’ll be facing in the next couple of months. Like Antrim, many of the Division 4 teams have been about the basement for quite a while and every team is capable of taking points off one another.
The Saffrons will be targeting a spot in the final but it’s likely to be a division that will go down to the wire. Antrim should take points off London but need to be wary as despite propping up the Division 4 table for the past three years, they always manage at least one scalp. The same can be said for Leitrim.
The away games against Laois and Limerick are likely to be the Saffrons’ toughest outings while Carlow took a point on their last trip to Belfast.
Without doubt Antrim have the ability to win promotion at the first time of asking but will need to develop a winning, perhaps more cynical mentality. On the last day of the 2017 league, Antrim were tied with Longford in stoppage time. They needed a draw to avoid the drop. All they had to do was maintain possession or – if the need arose – commit a tactical foul here or there.
Instead the foul was given away within striking distance of the posts, Longford converted the free and Antrim were back in the basement.
The have a new manager with a great pedigree at the helm. Lenny Harbinson led his club St Galls to the All-Ireland senior club title in 2010 and he will bring the same cerebral approach to the county job this year.
In 2017, Antrim started slowly but improved with every game, just falling short by the end of the season. If they can hit the ground running this year, there’s no reason why they won’t be lining out in the March 31st final.
ANTRIM NFL SQUAD
Chris Kerr, Padraig Nugent, Andrew Hasson, Conor Hamill, Niall Delargy, Connell Lemon, Patrick Gallagher, Ricky Johnston, Pat Brannigan, Kevin O' Boyle, Paddy McAleer, James Laverty, Peter Healy, Ruairi McCann, Mark Sweeney, Stephen Beatty, Niall McKeever, Sean Burke, Jack Dowling, Sean McVeigh, Michael McCarry, Paddy McBride, Matt Fitzpatrick, Conor Murray, Odhran Eastwood, Colum Duffin, CJ McGourty, Ryan Murray, Kristian Healy