Brendan Crossan: Collie Donnelly and Terry Reilly made a difference as they leave Antrim's stage

GAA President John Horan (left) with Antrim chairman Collie Donnelly at the launch of 'Gaelfast' earlier this year
Brendan Crossan - The Boot Room

IT was on a Monday evening shift back in October 2015 an email dropped at the sports desk. Emblazoned at the top of the page read: ‘Saffron Vision: A new future for GAA in Antrim’.

The 11 paragraphs, outlining a brighter future for Antrim, was quite bullish in tone.

The statement held the “firm belief” a “new county board was required”, the entire county needed “revitalised” and that it would seek to “secure the necessary financial resources to support our development squads” and Saffron Vision would “immediately assess our strategy and our tactical approach” to Casement Park and the fledgling centre of excellence up at the Dunsilly site.

“We believe that the current structures operating within Antrim GAA are not serving the county well and we want to change that,” the statement continued. “The time has come to change Antrim.”

I envisaged these men wearing fatigues with a sprawling saffron flag providing the backdrop with the words 'Hasta la victoria siempre'.

If this statement had come from any other county in Ulster, the text would maybe have carried a bit more weight.

But this was Antrim. Journalists were conditioned to nearly always reporting negative stories about the county.

Moreover, I thought ‘Saffron Vision’ was a corny name, conceived from a bunch of well-meaning idealists, but this attempted coup would fall flat on its arse come county convention time and Antrim would carry on regardless.

You see, pessimism was etched on Antrim's psyche. Nothing ever changed. The Saffron Vision rebels would be buried amid the rubble.

It was similar to the time when Liam 'Baker' Bradley rang me on a Monday morning in the early throes of his first managerial stint with the Antrim footballers back in 2009.

The previous afternoon Antrim drew with Wicklow at Casement Park in their Division Four opener.

It was Baker’s first NFL game in charge. Antrim were by far the better side and should have won easily.

That morning’s headline in the Irish News read: ‘Bradley puts on brave face as Saffrons let victory slip.’

Baker was known for his abrasive nature but he was nice as pie on the phone.

He was disappointed with the headline and thought my report was a bit mean-spirited.

He explained he was trying to change the culture in the county and couldn’t understand why everyone’s glass was half empty.

“Give us a chance,” he pleaded.

The call ended amicably. Strangely enough, it always did with Baker.

But I came off the phone convinced Antrim’s new manager was deluded.

This was Antrim. This is how the county rolls. It took years of conditioning to be this pessimistic.

Five months later, Antrim – a Division Four team remember – reached their first Ulster final in 39 years. They put a spirited performance in against eventual provincial champions Tyrone.

A week later Baker’s boys had Kerry, eventual All-Ireland champions that summer, reeling for long periods down in Tullamore.

I recognised some of the names that put their name to Saffron Vision’s mission statement. Collie Donnelly. Terry Reilly. Pol Mac Cana. Alec McQuillan.

Two months later at county convention, the Saffron Vision rebels seized control, winning six out of eight county executive positions.

As the months rolled by the negative headlines around Antrim faded away. The new county board went quietly about its business and, bit by bit, started making a difference.

Of course, former county board members were often cast as the bad guys over the years.

They were nothing of the sort. They were hard-working volunteers doing the best they could for Antrim GAA, but some of them simply didn’t possess the skills set required for the new era.

The world had moved on. The GAA had moved on. The inter-county stage had become big business and Antrim were lagging behind.

The county needed different people at the helm, volunteers who had administrative expertise and business acumen to raise standards on every conceivable level.

A month after assuming the chairmanship, St John’s clubman Collie Donnelly said: “With respect, we’ve spent our time with Chippies and Chinese takeaways for sponsorship’ - 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 and to try and sell the brand.”

Three years on from receiving that giddy email with lofty ambitions of change, the leaders of Saffron Vision were true to their word.

While GAA tourists continue to gaze with a morbid fascination at the apocalyptic state of Casement Park, the new county board were getting their hands dirty in other areas of GAA life in the county.

“Closing Casement [in 2013] must have been the worst decision in Antrim’s history,” Donnelly said last year. “And in relation to the Casement Park project, if you were trying to do 10 things wrong they did them all.”

However, with the help of the new Saffron Business Forum, the financial fortunes of the county have been transformed. They have over 100 members who each donate £1,000 each every year.

At last Monday night’s county convention, Antrim’s accounts showed a surplus of £273k last year.

That in itself is a staggering achievement when you consider the deficit position the county was in when the the likes of Donnelly and Reilly assumed their chairman and vice-chairman’s positions in 2015.

“Six weeks into the job people on the executive committee had to put their hands in their pockets to pay salaries,” Donnelly revealed.

“Now, that’s not something you want to tell the world. So it was a very low base.”

Fractured relations with the Casement Park social club were repaired and the headache that became Dunsilly is now showing signs of its undoubted potential.

The GAA’s £1m investment into the much heralded ‘Gaelfast’ project – a scheme designed to re-invigorate participation in the primary school sector of Belfast – wouldn’t have got off first base without the commercial know-how of people like Donnelly and Reilly.

However, Antrim was left reeling at the tail end of August when the pair announced they were stepping down after three years in post.

Running the affairs of Antrim GAA is a 40-hour week, and both men have their own business interests to tend to.

As one wise old sage put it: “They have climbed a third of the mountain. It’s up to someone else to climb the next third.”

In Ciaran McCavana of St Enda’s Glengormley, Antrim delegates chose a dynamic successor at Monday night’s convention.

Collie Donnelly and Terry Reilly helped put Antrim’s house in order. For the last three years they did the unromantic stuff.

They proved the cynics wrong and got things done.

Their enormous contribution to the health and well-being of Antrim GAA life will be remembered for a long, long time.

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