Lenny Harbinson bemoans Casement loss as Antrim lose potential 'home' game
AN Antrim football boss rarely has his troubles to seek but the ongoing inability to host Championship matches adds to their task, reckons Lenny Harbinson.
It's six years since Antrim last had home advantage in an Ulster Championship game – and it is a situation that won’t change this summer, even though they are scheduled to host the winners of the preliminary round clash between Tyrone and Derry.
If the Division Four-winning Oak Leafers manage to upset last year’s All-Ireland finalists at Healy Park on May 12, they would then host the Saffrons at Celtic Park on May 25.
However, if – as expected – the Red Hands progress, the Saturday evening quarter-final would most likely have to be played at either the Athletic Grounds in Armagh or Pairc Esler in Newry as Antrim don’t have a ground capable of hosting the game.
It is six years since the Saffrons last held home advantage in Ulster, losing out to eventual champions Monaghan at Casement Park in their 2013 quarter-final clash. Since then they have faced Fermanagh at Brewster Park three times in-a-row (2014-2016), Donegal in Ballybofey (2017) and Down in Newry last May.
It once again highlights how Antrim Gaels have been left without a home to call their own, and manager Harbinson admits the loss of Casement remains a constant source of frustration.
“If it’s going to be an Ulster Championship match, they’re going to anticipate – depending on who you’re playing – between five and 10,000 people. The grounds that are fit for purpose and close by are the likes of Armagh and Newry,” he said.
“It’s frustrating from the point of view that we don’t have Casement as our home venue, and unfortunately a generation of footballers have missed out on the opportunity to play in what was once a great arena.
“That’s very disappointing from a management point of view – who wouldn’t want to manage a team and be involved in the new Casement?
“From a practical point of view, having your own dressing room, having your own analytics installed in that dressing room to allow and facilitate visual coaching, we can’t do all that because we don’t have our own home dressing room.
“If you had an iconic ground like Casement, I’d say there would be lots of players who may have been interested in playing with Antrim who would put their hand up and say ‘Yeah, I want to be involved because I want to play in one of the best stadiums in Ireland’.
“Because that’s what Casement would have been, should have been and hopefully will be.”
That knock-on effect on his potential playing pool is one thing, but Harbinson also feels Antrim must look at the successful templates laid down by the likes of Fermanagh and Monaghan.
Under Rory Gallagher the Ernemen reached last year’s Ulster final, while the Farneymen were All-Ireland semi-finalists and continue to harbour genuine top level ambitions.
“You look at Fermanagh and the great job Rory has done, then you look at their feeder schools - that’s the challenge for us in Antrim,” said Harbinson.
“If you look at the fantastic job Malachy O’Rourke has done down in Monaghan with limited resources in terms of senior clubs, Monaghan at minor and U21 level, their record in the last 10 years is very impressive.
“At underage level, schools’ level, club level you need to have a co-ordinated plan so that by the time whoever is managing Antrim in the future, players have experienced some sort of Ulster success. That’s just not there at the minute.”
Harbinson is operating without several key men as they head towards the summer, however the recent form of Matthew Fitzpatrick has been a big plus according to the Antrim boss.
Fitzpatrick is studying in Liverpool and had been commuting back and forth through Antrim’s ultimately unsuccessful League campaign.
Now based back in Belfast on placement, the St John’s ace starred in the Saffrons’ last two Division Four games – bagging two second half goals as they sank Wicklow at Corrigan Park – and could be a big player against either Derry or Tyrone.
“That was a big challenge for us because Matt was studying in Liverpool, so it meant that during the League he wasn’t training with us and then we were flying him home at the weekend.
“He’s been back with us the last three or four weeks, training away and you could see his performances against Wicklow and Limerick were stand-out.”