Frank Fitzsimons's treatment leaves bad taste in the mouth
AMID the pre-match hype to last week’s All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Tyrone, it was a good time to bury bad news.
Last week Frank Fitzsimons decided to walk away from the Antrim senior football manager’s post. This news was swept away under the weight of a Dublin-Tyrone semi-final tsunami of big interviews, tactical analysis and opinion pieces.
On a personal level, I was disappointed to see Frank go.
Frank’s a hugely likeable man who epitomises what the GAA is about.
He's a proper GAA volunteer.
For several seasons, he managed Antrim for the love of it.
How many GAA managers can actually say that?
Over the last few seasons I’ve had many conversations with Frank when he'd express his dismay with how thousands of school kids in west Belfast had little or no connection with Gaelic Games and the massive amount of work that's needed to change the face of the GAA in Ireland's second city.
He's a man who cares deeply about Antrim GAA. There were no agendas with Frank. He was straight down the middle.
Over the past couple of seasons he formed an excellent managerial partnership with former Antrim defender Gearoid Adams.
Together, they gained promotion out of Division Four last year but lost Championship games to Fermanagh and Limerick.
Between 2016 and 2017, several experienced players called time on their inter-county careers.
The absentees blew a hole in the Antrim squad, the extent to which was sorely felt when they fielded against Monaghan in the Dr McKenna Cup earlier this year.
Monaghan started with eight Ulster medallists on the pitch while their hosts had seven or eight players who had never played inter-county football before.
Antrim’s prospects weren’t helped when Kevin Niblock, arguably the team’s best forward, suffered a bad injury in that game which later forced him to retire on the eve of the Ulster Championship.
With so many rookies in the squad it was an achievement in itself that Antrim were competitive in each of their NFL Division Three games – bar Offaly.
Their Ulster Championship tie with Donegal in Ballybofey was always unwinnable and perhaps brought into sharp focus the need for a National League restructure rather than moving the Championship furniture around.
Sligo footballer Neil Ewing offered arguably the most sensible prescription to an uneven Championship.
“It’s very disappointing for ourselves when you only play a Division One team [Mayo] once a year," said Ewing.
“You learn loads of lessons and the week after that you’re trying to implement all those lessons, but you’ve to wait 12 months… Players go back to their clubs and they come back in and they play a full round of games in the lower League and then they’re thrown back in against a Division One team.”
Changes, Ewing argued, needed to be made in the League and that the smaller teams required more exposure to the stronger teams.
Ewing added: “I remember when there was Division 1A and 1B and there was a more even split of teams. Smaller teams were probably playing bigger teams more often and there were bigger teams coming down to the smaller grounds playing so-called weaker teams.
“The GAA is an amateur organisation in a very small country. We’re about participation – it’s not about an elite and developing the best teams in the country.”
The cards are stacked against lower teams like Antrim.
That's why I always felt Frank and Gearoid were actually doing their county a favour because they were on a hiding to nothing on every level.
The biggest disappointment, of course, was the last 20 minutes against Sligo in the All-Ireland Qualifiers when Antrim put up little resistance in Markievicz Park.
On paper, both Fitzsimons and Adams had performed poorly. Antrim were relegated and were gone after two Championship games.
But when you survey the individual graphs of all the new players, whose average age is 20, that’s where the greatest progress was made.
On that basis, Antrim’s hardcore following imagined that the pair would be given another year in post.
Frank and Gearoid sat in front of a three-man review committee – which turned out to be only a two-man committee on the night – to discuss the 2017 season.
But once the word ‘nominations’ was mentioned, Frank and Gearoid’s time was up.
The latter knew enough about how these things worked and walked.
Frank allowed his name to go forward.
In hindsight, he should have walked with Gearoid because this is where it all got messy and left a sour taste in the mouth.
The nominations deadline was August 14. Lo and behold, Frank was the only name put forward by the clubs.
The review committee, however, had the power to basically ignore that false deadline and seek out ‘expressions of interest’ from other candidates.
A week later, Aidan O’Rourke, Lenny Harbinson and John McKeever were announced to club delegates as managerial candidates.
Some club delegates vented their spleen with how the process was conducted.
In anyone’s estimation, Frank Fitzsimons deserved a bit more courtesy and respect.
Rather than go through the façade of nominations, someone in authority should have shown a human touch, called to Frank’s house and told him that they were going another direction.
GAA volunteers like Frank Fitzsimons are a dying breed.
It’s a pity another role – possibly working with development squads in the county – wasn’t offered to him.
But once the nominations process effectively ‘gerrymandered’ him out of the post, it created a bitter atmosphere and any hope of Frank’s skills being retained in another capacity was gone.
So Frank walked, belatedly.
Of course, running Antrim’s affairs is a poisoned chalice.
Those who put their hand up to try and further the county deserve praise.
They’re volunteers too.
The new board – that swept to power under the banner of Saffron Vision a couple of years ago – has tried to make in-roads into the corporate sector and they’ve successfully lobbied Croke Park to get more much-needed coaches in Belfast schools.
They’re also chipping away at the county’s historic debt. It’s a slow, arduous process.
But even those Antrim officials who have got their shoulder to the wheel would probably agree that the football management position could have been handled a little bit better.