GAA Football

Antrim must tackle schools issue to progress believes Harbinson

Antrim manager Lenny Harbinson. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

ANTRIM boss Lenny Harbinson has highlighted the county’s lack of representation in the MacRory Cup as a major issue that the county must look at improving.

The county has not had a winner in the ‘A’ colleges football competition since Belfast outfit St Mary’s CBGS won it in 1986, and their competitiveness waned soon after.

The Glen Road outfit were the only Antrim school to compete in the MacRory Cup since but dropped down into ‘B’ football until 2017, but found the step back up too tough and after two years, they dropped back down again this season.

St Louis’ Ballymena got a brief boost off the success of Dunloy underage teams in the last few years but haven’t gone beyond ‘B’ football, while Rathmore Grammar have bounced between ‘B’ and ‘C’ competitions.

Both Aquinas and St Malachy’s, who with Martin O’Neill in their ranks won the MacRory in 1970 and were beaten in the Hogan Cup final by a last-gasp goal, have both been playing ‘C’ football in recent years.

Harbinson believes that the current Gaelfast project – which will see £1m invested in the county’s coaching structures across five years – is only a part of the solution.

“At the end of the day, Antrim have been floating between Division Three and Four for a long, long time. We’re trying to convince people to come back, we’re trying to change some of our structures.

“We’ve tried to put in place a professional setup over the last couple of years, run by Oliver Lennon, well supported by the county board and Saffron Business Forum and Club Aontroma.

“We’re trying to put things in place off the field so that there’s the proper structure there. We’re trying to build momentum – it’s not easy but it’s the same for many counties.

“Outside the top six or seven teams who are looking at All-Irelands, the rest are left in the wilderness.

“That’s up to us. We have to fix our own house first, without looking over the hedge at neighbours. They’ve done the work.

“For us to fix our own house, part of it is Gaelfast, but also what else are we doing in the secondary grammar schools? I think it was 1986 the last time an Antrim school competed in the MacRory Cup [final].

“When you just think about that, we’re massively on the back foot until we get our structures in place.

“[You do that] by coaching, putting structures in. Gaelfast is a step in the right direction. I’d like to see a big focus put on our secondary grammar schools and get them competing at MacLarnon and MacRory Cup.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m here or whoever’s here the next number of years, we have to get that right.”

One potential solution that has been used in Derry city and the Inishowen area of Donegal is amalgamating several schools together.

Both Cathair Dhoire and Inis Eoghain stepped up into the MacRory Cup this year having both competed strongly in the ‘B’ competition, the MacLarnon Cup.

There would, however, be no guarantees that the move would succeed in Belfast, given that the individual schools are already individually working off big pupil numbers.

“That’s a possibility,” said Harbinson, before laughing: “I have my own problems trying to sort out senior stuff without looking at structures elsewhere!

“But what I’m saying is that we have to get our own house in order and try to get ourselves up the leagues. When we do that, then we can compete at another level.

“It’s about trying to get promotion out of Division Four, to consolidate in Division Three, and kick on. That’s easier said than done.”

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GAA Football