GAA Football

Still work to do in changing culture in Antrim: captain Declan Lynch

Antrim captain Declan Lynch grapples with Kildare's Tommy Moolick during last month's All-Ireland Qualifier Picture Seamus Loughran

ANTRIM captain Declan Lynch says the Saffrons are still in the early stages of “trying to change the culture” within the county after last month’s All-Ireland exit to Kildare.

Manager Lenny Harbinson, who has been at the helm for two seasons, will meet with Antrim officials over the coming weeks to discuss his future.

While the Antrim footballers failed to gain promotion out of Division Four this year they recorded their first Championship victory in four years by beating Louth in the All-Ireland Qualifiers.

In the immediate aftermath of the Kildare defeat, Harbinson told reporters he would reflect on whether his management team could “add value” in 2020.

Lynch insisted the management team was “handcuffed” from an early stage of the year due to the amount of players who either couldn’t commit or stepped away from the panel midway through their League campaign.

Despite the lack of experience, the Lamh Dhearg clubman felt the current squad was as fit as any Antrim team he’s been involved in since making his senior debut in 2012.

“When we were putting a League panel together boys couldn’t commit and boys were walking off for their own reasons,” Lynch explained.

“Once we were struggling in the League and boys knew we were playing Tyrone in the Ulster Championship it’s very hard to get boys in – and that’s the culture we’re trying to change.”

Antrim faced mission impossible against Tyrone in the Ulster Championship while Kildare were arguably more impressive in games the Saffrons both lost by 14 points.

“I don’t know what the management’s plans are for next year; they might want to re-charge the batteries and take a break because I know Lenny and Brendan [Trainer] were down in Ballymacnab in Armagh [before taking the Antrim job in 2018].

“We need consistency… A manager should be allowed to build and I think that’s what Lenny’s doing – he’s investing in youth and there’s obviously a lot of work to be done. If it’s Lenny next season, he needs to be given that assurance that he’s going to be there for a number of years.

“I know we’re not Tyrone but they weren’t winning Ulster titles a few years back and Armagh only won their first Ulster Championship match [against Down] this year under Kieran McGeeney who’s in his fifth season.

“I don’t know what Lenny’s plans are. He could have already made his mind up – I don’t know. It’s only right to give him the space and let him talk to the county board.”

Antrim’s victory over Louth in Drogheda was the first time many of the squad tasted a Championship victory, with Matthew Fitzpatrick and Patrick McBride in particular making an impact on the national stage.

“We were as fit as any Antrim team has been, and next year we’re going to be even fitter,” said Lynch, who gave a glowing appraisal of strength and conditioning coach Fintan Devlin of Loup.

“Fintan has given everyone an individual programme over the summer. In the past, Antrim would exit the Championship, the strength and conditioning was left and you picked it up again in November or December, and you were starting from square one again. We’re all sticking to our programmes and we want to get back next year and right a few wrongs.”

Antrim suffered three one-point losses in Division Four to Derry, Leitrim and Waterford which put paid to their promotion prospects and they’ll compete in the bottom division for a third consecutive season in 2020.

“I’ve had time to sit back and reflect on our season. In terms of achieving our objective you’d have to say we failed. You can’t gloss it up – well, we could gloss it up in some ways – but, at the end of the day, we set out to get promoted from Division Four and we didn’t do it.

“We suffered some small margin defeats but we were out of promotion after three games. Small margins. Regardless of who left the panel, we still had enough to get promoted. So we failed in that regard.”

Lynch added: “When we click I think we’re as good as the majority of teams in periods but we underachieved. Heading into the Ulster Championship against Tyrone we genuinely believed we could run Tyrone close. We trained well and had a good training weekend in Donegal.

“I would have no qualms in saying this: whatever we asked of the county board they delivered. We didn’t make unrealistic asks, but everything we asked for, we got.

“I can only praise the county board in terms of the relationship I’ve had with them this year. The chairman [Ciaran McCavana] is a proud Antrim man and he gets what we’re doing. Rome wasn’t built in a day – it’s going to take time and a culture change to bridge that gap and getting to the next level.”

The Kildare defeat also gave the Antrim players an idea of the road they still have to travel to compete against the bigger teams.

“We went five or six down against Louth and we ended up winning the game very convincingly. And leading into the Kildare team we really did fancy it; we pushed to have the game played at Corrigan Park... As it turned out, Kildare were light years ahead of us in terms of physicality. As a unit, we are probably four or five years behind those teams especially in strength and conditioning and speed development. That’s what our strength and conditioning coach, Fintan Devlin, has done for us.

"He’s been a massive addition. We have developed physically but it takes you to play against those teams to actually realise you have more to do."

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