Antrim boss calls for complete calendar change
THE narrative for Antrim footballers ahead of the start of a new league campaign is a frustratingly familiar one for manager Lenny Harbinson who feels the GAA calendar needs a complete overhaul if the association is to compete with other sports.
The high profile loss of Matthew Fitzpatrick is only the tip of the iceberg for Harbinson, who will be without a third of his first-choice starters for the 2020 campaign.
Fitzpatrick made his debut for Coleraine in their 1-0 defeat to Crusaders last Friday night following his transfer from Belfast Celtic while his former colleagues Stephen Beatty and Padraig Nugent opted to remain with the west Belfast club rather than resume their inter-county careers.
Ryan Murray, Antrim’s top scorer last season, remains unavailable for the foreseeable as he is currently in Dubai while defender Paddy McCormick has taken a year out as he is studying in Galway.
“It has been an issue since I’ve came in. Since I’ve been involved, every year there has been 10 or 12 changes in personnel,” said Harbinson.
“It is difficult because the work that you are doing one year, the strength and conditioning work, the structure work, the following year - you aren’t starting again, but there are new guys coming in and you are trying to get them into a certain way of training and thinking. There is a big difference in county football and club football.
“This year we’ve brought in around 10 new players. There isn’t a lot of continuity year on year, but that’s just the way of it. Lots of guys are opting out for various reasons. Ryan Murray, our top scorer last year, is away travelling. Matt Fitzpatrick is playing soccer for Coleraine. They are quality players who aren’t easily replaced.
“Paddy (McCormick) was probably our best defender last year and maybe our best player. Paddy came in from the U20s and totally embraced everything we were trying to do. He is down in Galway for a year and we toyed with the idea of him coming back for the weekends, but it isn’t easy to commute from Galway.”
With less than two weeks to their Allianz Football League opener against Wexford at Glenavy, Harbinson will have to try and settle on a replacement for Nugent with Oisin Kerr (Creggan), Michael Byrne (O’Donovan Rossa) and Andrew Hasson (Rasharkin) all vying for the number one jersey.
The Antrim boss also says he has to be mindful of members of his squad who are playing for their universities in the Sigerson Cup.
“We have two players, Odhran Eastwood and Eamon Fyfe, involved with Queen’s and also Adam Loughran involved with the Antrim U20s who are playing in a development league,” said Harbinson.
“We have to look after their well-being and make sure they aren’t being run into the ground.
“The calendar, which has been well-documented, needs a complete overhaul.
“For me, with the way the fixtures are going at the minute, the university games probably need to be played before Christmas. That would allow the students to play with the counties in the league and to concentrate on their exams.”
An overhaul of the GAA calendar could see come way away and Harbinson revealed he has taken steps to ensure his players aren’t being overloaded by reducing their training sessions.
It might go against the grain, but it has helped entice the likes of former Antrim skipper Paddy Cunningham and Cargin sharpshooter Tómas McCann back to county football.
“What we’ve tried to do this year is reduce the training load. In lots of counties, players are training five or six nights a week,” added the Antrim boss.
“We know that other counties have really heavy training schedules, but what we’ve tried to do to reduce the number of days our players are out. Last year, it was five and this year it is three - a Tuesday, Thursday and a Saturday. What we do is we try and double up the sessions and do a bit of gym work at the beginning of the session and then pitch work afterwards.
“That leaves more time for the players for studying or family time or whatever.
“It is like everything else, if we do well in the league, it was the right call to make. If not, everybody will think Antrim aren’t as committed as other counties. There is a fine line, but we think we have the balance right and we have the player buy-in. Time will tell if it works.”