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Despite the weeds in Casement Park, Antrim GAA are still scaling other mountains

The way Casement Park was envisaged.

EVERY now and then you scroll through your Twitter feed and old photographs pop up.

Earlier this week, more Casement Park images appeared on social media. It’s hard to say how recent or old they are.

All we know is that the weeds colonised the famous turf a while ago, once the best playing surface in Ireland.

Some of the mainstream media picked up on the images and the decrepit state of the old west Belfast venue that is still waiting on planning permission.

Antrim GAA's official Twitter account posted four ghastly images of the overgrown mess and the damp concrete walls and terraces.

For dramatic impact, the photographer picked a grey day to take the pictures.

Below the images, Antrim GAA wrote: “How many children will miss out playing at Casement Park? We deserve a county ground. It would be nice to sort out and move on.”

It was followed by the hash-tag: ‘Left Behind’.

At the last count, 1,600 people 'favourited' the message and over 500 re-tweeted it.

It doesn’t seem that long ago Antrim officials were swanning around Casement Park proud as punch with their blinding new floodlights. They used to light up half of west Belfast and the M1 motorway.

A new security tower, courtesy of Sport NI, sprouted up in no time at all.

The little add-ons gave Casement a bit of prestige.

The last major game that was played there was an Ulster Championship match between Antrim and Monaghan in 2013.

It was a beautiful sunny day. Antrim might have lost but at least the future looked bright.

There was plenty of enthusiasm and energy for a new provincial ground to be built on the site.

But the previous county board acted with unnecessary haste by deciding to close Casement Park’s gates. Not only was it desperately premature, relations between the county executive and the Casement Park Social Club, still residents on the site, were at an all-time low.

In an interview with The Irish News in November 2017, county chairman Collie Donnelly described the previous board’s decision to close Casement Park as “crazy”.

“It must have been the worst decision in Antrim’s history,” said an exasperated Donnelly.

“I have to say that. And in relation to the Casement Park project, if you were trying to do 10 things wrong they did them all.”

Donnelly was part of the Saffron Vision that swept to power in 2015, winning six of the eight posts available at county executive level.

Despite the fanfare, no-one was quite sure about Antrim’s new revolutionaries because the county was so conditioned to being sceptical of anything resembling progress.

In the first year, nobody heard much from the new men. They went quietly about their business; put their heads down, got fundraising bodies established, put new structures in place and, bit by bit, started eradicating some of the county’s historical debt.

In January 2016, Donnelly articulated where Antrim was at in fundraising terms and where it needed to go.

“Someone said to me: ‘With respect, we’ve spent our time with Chippies and Chinese takeaways’ - and I don’t mean that in a bad way because a lot of them have been very good to Antrim over time. But we want to establish more links with the corporate sector for fundraising.”

In the few years Saffron Vision have been in power, Saffron Business Forum has been a resounding success and is building up Antrim GAA’s brand again.

At last December’s county convention, delegates were told that Antrim GAA was better off to the tune in excess of £200,000 per annum.

The new executive successfully lobbied Croke Park to back their ambitious ‘Gaelfast’ project earlier this year with former Sport NI chief and former Antrim hurler Paul Donnelly heading it up and adding more clout to the scheme to re-invigorate Gaelic Games within the Primary School sector.

The GAA is also keen to give Corrigan Park a facelift, particularly in the absence of Casement Park.

But as was revealed in The Irish News last week, Donnelly, vice-chairman Terry Reilly and Treasurer Pol Mac Cana announced their decision to step down from their respective roles ahead of this year's county convention.

The initial feeling was that Antrim had reverted back to their fractious old ways but it quickly transpired there was no acrimony associated with their departures.

The three men simply have other, more pressing personal and business commitments outside of Antrim GAA and could no long punch in 30-plus hours per week on top of their own work.

It’s the way the GAA has gone. The top posts in county executives aren’t hobbies. They require huge time commitments.

So, after three years, Donnelly, Reilly and Mac Cana have done their bit.

As one observer put it: “Those guys have climbed a third of the mountain. It’s now someone else’s turn to take us up the next third.”

Given the poor state of Antrim GAA in 2015, the current county executive has worked minor miracles over the last three years.

It’s a genuine pity that they’ve been hamstrung by a decision they couldn’t reverse, which was closing Casement Park five years ago.

Now, successive Antrim senior football teams can’t be drawn at home in the Ulster Championship because they don’t have a home fit enough to host such a game.

And when southern Gaels turn their gaze northwards and see those weeds running wild in Casement Park, they probably think: typical Antrim – going no-where - when the reverse is true.

Meanwhile, in other parts of Ulster, Gaels are waxing lyrical about Clones and its burgers and pubs.

There is good work being done in Antrim. And it’s important the county finds the same calibre of people to replace Donnelly, Reilly and Mac Cana.

But Casement Park is the bugbear. It’s always on the long finger. It can’t stay there forever. A decision must come sooner rather than later.

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