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Antrim GAA would be foolish to throw the baby out with the bathwater

Under brooding grey skies, Antrim is still putting its best foot forward

I REMEMBER the Antrim senior footballers being locked out of their temporary training facilities at Woodlands Park back in the mid-noughties.

The caretaker couldn’t be found.

I remember being told the Antrim starting team for a Championship match before the players were told.

Another time, two Antrim players found out via Ceefax that they had been dropped for an upcoming game.

I recall a couple of Antrim senior football and hurling managers chasing around trying to find a pitch to train on.

I recall an Antrim player bemoaning the post-match culinary choices of microwaved pizza and sausage rolls.

It’s only a personal view but I wouldn’t have complained about this.

At other times club fixtures involving county players were run off on the same weekend as important inter-county games.

In short, there are too many examples of poor governance to mention within Antrim GAA over the years.

Nobody courted negative headlines quite like Antrim did.

They turned bad news stories into an art form.

As a consequence, media relations with Antrim officialdom were perennially strained.

I remember entering Casement Park one Sunday afternoon trying to wrestle back my press pass from an over officious turnstile operator.

I was mad for about five minutes before seeing the funny side of two grown men with clenched teeth and furrowed brows fighting over a piece of laminated plastic.

Despite everything The Irish News generally received a courteous welcome on our countless visits to the old west Belfast venue.

The vast majority of Antrim officials and volunteers over the years were decent, hard-working people, but always fighting a rising tide.

Every new administration claimed they were merely sweeping up the debris left by the previous regime. And so history repeated itself.

Some county boards made progress.

John McSparran’s chairmanship is a case in point.

During that time, Liam ‘Baker’ Bradley guided the senior footballers to an Ulster final in 2009.

Terence McNaughton and Dominic McKinley nurtured a fine minor hurling team in 2005/06 that still backbones the the current senior team.

But Antrim never really got ahead.

If relations were constantly strained between the county board and the God-awful ‘meedja’ they seemed permanently fractured with the clubs.

Of course, it didn’t stop Loughgiel Shamrocks or St Gall’s winning All-Ireland titles at senior level and, if anything, showed that success could be Antrim's at any level.

Previous Antrim County Board officers can rightly feel aggrieved that Croke Park didn’t intervene with decent funding, until now.

Belfast, albeit belatedly, will receive in the region of £1.5m over the next five years to try and rejuvenate Gaelic Games in schools.

Two years ago, the much heralded ‘Saffron Vision’ swept to power at county convention in a spectacular coup, with six of its eight members gaining office.

All that was missing at Dunsilly Hotel that night was fireworks blazing across Antrim’s skies.

Spool forward two years and some feel that the ‘Saffron Vision’ has lost some of its fizz, evidenced by a handful of election challenges coming up at their December 4 convention.

Some mistakes have been made over the last two years.

The county board’s perceived lack of communication with the clubs has been cited as one of the biggest criticisms of the new regime.

Others were annoyed at the handling of Frank Fitzsimons’ exit as senior football manager in the summer.

In an interview that will appear over the coming days with chairman and vice-chairman Collie Donnelly and Terry O’Reilly - both of whom face challenges at convention - they readily acknowledge some of the board’s shortcomings.

But are these shortcomings really enough to depose two key members of the county board (there are other challenges for Ulster Council delegate positions) both of whom have helped Antrim GAA put its best foot forward in financial terms?

Croke Park is finally committing €300,000 per year to revive Gaelic Games in Belfast.

The county board has tapped successfully into the corporate sector thanks to the hugely successful Saffron Business Forum.

Relations with the Casement Park social club have been mended too with its members raising £40,000 this year for Antrim GAA.

Remember, it was only a few years ago the social club was being threatened with legal action by the previous county executive.

More money has been ploughed into Dunsilly's ‘Centre of Participation’ complex - a project beset by teething problems in the early days.

Critics of Saffron Vision are right when they say the new board’s communication skills are lacking.

Yes, there has been the odd cheque presentation photograph appearing in the press but they have fallen woefully short in spreading the good news stories and the significant amounts of money being raised over the last two years.

In financial terms, Antrim GAA has made massive strides. But it’s the best-kept secret in the country.

Jim McLean (Dunloy) and Columb Walsh (Aghgallon) will contest the chair and vice-chair positions in Dunsilly on Monday week.

McLean and Walsh obviously believe there is a better way of doing things at county executive level than the current men at the helm.

McLean, a former county officer, has aired his disappointment at the lack of transparency from 'Saffron Vision'.

Over the years there were countless occasions when Antrim was crying out for a changing of the guard.

But to make a challenge now seems badly mistimed, particularly when new relations are being forged with the business community and sponsorship money is rolling in from shirt and competition sponsors.

Antrim GAA is finally moving forward, and at a decent pace too.

For as long as I’ve reported on Antrim GAA this has never been the case.

'Leaks' to the press complaining about pizza, sausage rolls and absent caretakers have long since dried up.

The current board is not perfect and they have made mistakes - but the positives heavily outweigh the negatives over the past two years.

Change now would be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

It simply wouldn't make sense.

But delegates will decide for themselves on Monday week.

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