GAA Football

Antrim footballers lose three key players ahead of next season

Antrim's Conor Murray is expected to be out for a year after suffering a nightmare knee injury

THE Antrim senior footballers will be without three key players next season with Matthew Fitzpatrick, Patrick McAleer and Conor Murray unavailable.

The loss of the trio will come as a huge blow to manager Lenny Harbinson as he looks to year two in the job.

Murray suffered a bad knee injury midway through the first half of Antrim’s All-Ireland Qualifier defeat to Offaly in Tullamore on June 9 and is unlikely to play again for 12 months.

An MRI scan revealed that Murray had torn his ACL and medial ligaments and badly damaged his meniscus. He will undergo surgery at the end of July.

“The injury was a pure accident,” said Murray, who has been in a protective cast since the injury. “After surgery, the rehab is between six and nine months. I’m disappointed for my club as I was looking forward to playing for them this season.”

Despite the seriousness of the injury, Murray hasn’t given up hope of wearing the Antrim jersey again.

“I’m coming 30 but I’m aiming to get back for next year’s Championship,” he said.

The Lamh Dhearg attacker has been one of the most consistent performers for Antrim over the last few years and his absence will be keenly felt next season.

“When we lost Conor from our midfield against Offaly, we lost momentum,” said Harbinson. “He was a huge loss in that game and will be a huge loss next season.”

Fitzpatrick and McAleer have already informed the Antrim management team of their unavailability next season. Fitzpatrick is moving to Liverpool to complete his teaching qualifications while McAleer is moving to Dubai for a year to gain teaching experience.

Like Murray, Fitzpatrick and McAleer will be huge losses to Antrim next season.

“Losing players through injury or players pursuing careers or education is disappointing but it’s a reality you have to deal with,” said Harbinson.

“The challenge is can we find new, young blood – and that’s what we’ll be spending our summer doing. Can I find another four or five players. To play this game you need to be very fit and very mobile and have good footballing skills. But that’s easier said than done.”

Harbinson hopes to retain captain Kevin O’Boyle next season and stressed the importance of the Cargin man’s leadership.

“Kevin O’Boyle was made captain and he was made captain for a number of reasons,” Harbinson explained.

“One is he’s a role model on and off the field. He’s somebody who is there for lots of players not only the younger players. And he’s got the football ability, he’s got the temperament and his attitude is second to none.

“If Kevin O’Boyle was playing in Tyrone or some of the other top counties he would be a highly recognised footballer.”

Asked if he hopes the 30-year-old defender will be involved in 2019, the manager replied: “I sincerely hope so. You need a combination of youth and experience. It’s a matter of trying to get the right balance. What’s foremost in my mind is holding onto that experience and hopefully an injection of youth will help us next season.”

Antrim bowed meekly out of the Ulster Championship to Down on a 1-18 to 0-14 scoreline before exiting the All-Ireland series to Offaly by 2-20 to 1-15.

The Saffrons finished third in Division Four, with resurgent Leinster pair Carlow and Laois gaining promotion to Division Three.

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