Brendan Crossan: Current Antrim footballers paving the road to a brighter future
AFTER politely declining a couple of previous invitations to attend events organised by Saffron Business Forum, I made my debut at last Friday’s Sports Lunch at Belfast’s Crowne Plaza.
One of the first men I saw in the room was Collie Donnelly, who stepped away from the county chairmanship last year. It was under his and Terry Reilly’s stewardship that Antrim began to get its act together.
Upon assuming the chairman’s role in 2015, Collie told The Irish News: “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-and-a-half years on, the sprawling function room in the Crowne Plaza was jammed with people who wanted to further the cause of Antrim GAA.
Personally, I just loved the swankiness of the event.
Comber potato and leek soup, Antrim smoked bacon and breads, a Daube of Irish beef, wild mushroom stew with black pepper and whiskey cream and to finish off Armagh apple and rhubarb crumble and toffee apple ice cream.
Pre-lunch, the 500-strong audience was treated to the sublime footwork of the Maginn School of Irish Dancing – only serial Ulster and All-Ireland winners.
And just before the sumptuous apple and rhubarb crumble arrived – all the way from Armagh – we were treated to three fantastic tunes from the irrefutably magnificent ‘Runabay’ – a local band that hails from the Glens of Antrim.
Vocals and melodies to die for.
With the lightest touch, the inimitable Gerry Donnelly kept everyone entertained with majestically delivered one-liners, while special guest Peter Canavan was engrossing from start to finish on stage with Kieran ‘The Star’ Donaghy making a cameo appearance.
County chairman Ciaran McCavana delivered an update on Antrim GAA affairs with more than a touch of passion about the GAA-backed ‘Gaelfast’ project and the importance of participation.
Dunsilly – Antrim’s fledgling centre of excellence – is ready for phase two and Corrigan Park will soon have a roof over its head especially without Casement Park.
John McGuckian of main sponsor Tughans kept his speech nice and light too.
This was perhaps what Collie and his colleagues imagined what a proper Antrim fundraiser would look like back in 2015.
This was the professionalisation of Antrim GAA right in front of us.
In just three years, Saffron Business Forum has raised £350,000 for the county – money that is poured straight back into Antrim teams, development squads, equipment and facilities.
It has been nothing short of a revolution.
Cut away to tomorrow night at The Athletic Grounds and the Antrim senior footballers face mission impossible against the might of Tyrone in the Ulster Championship.
For as long as time can remember the Antrim footballers have yo-yoed between Division Three and Division Four – apart from brief residence in Division Two under Liam ‘Baker’ Bradley.
Ulster Championship victories have been few and far between, a dramatic win over Fermanagh in 2014 being their last.
When the wins came, they were savoured: Down 2000, Cavan 2002 and Donegal 2009 are the ones that stand out.
Derry may have been derided for their poor performances at senior level in recent years, but it appears they’re getting their ducks in a row at underage level.
“With the minor teams coming through there is definitely the potential to win an All-Ireland in the future,” said young Aidan McCluskey, Derry’s minor captain last month.
“We’ve qualified for four Ulster finals out of four over the last four years and to win Ulster U20 last year, I can’t see us not competing at senior level in the future.”
The cornerstone of Fermanagh’s success at inter-county level has been the pursuit of sporting excellence at St Michael’s, Enniskillen.
Meanwhile, Belfast, the much-maligned ‘second city’ of Ireland, has GAA participation rates of just six per cent in its primary schools.
That’s why ‘Gaelfast’ was conceived in the first place.
If ‘Gaelfast’ can maintain its early energy and develop its prudent strategies, then their work will bear fruit.
But not any time soon. Not for at least 10 years.
And that’s the frustrating bit for many Antrim GAA people.
When you delve into talk of 'B' Championships, the idea is in many ways a convenient prescription by the GAA.
It is not a remedy.
What Antrim needs is more investment, more lateral thinking, higher participation rates to invigorate the county.
Like Fermanagh, Antrim's schools need exposed to MacRory Cup football.
They have a clutch of colleges holding their own in the McLarnon Cup but there is no consistent presence at elite level.
This season, Antrim’s promotion bid out of Division Four hit the hard shoulder after three games.
Antrim managed to finish out their NFL campaign with some encouraging performances ahead of their daunting assignment in Armagh tomorrow night.
Since the end of the League, manager Lenny Harbinson has lost 10 players.
“After those three opening League games you watched boys dropping like flies,” said Antrim player Stephen Beatty, with more than a hint of derision.
People outside the camp bemoan the amount of training the Antrim team has done since November.
They were going five nights a week. It may or may not be too much.
But the Antrim players who stayed and who will be either on the pitch or on the bench in The Athletic Grounds tomorrow night deserve everyone’s respect.
They play for little reward or adulation. They play because they care about their county.
In an interview with The Irish News last month, team captain Declan Lynch summed it up better than anyone.
“I want to do something about it and being there is doing something about it.”
Bear in mind Lynch has had five hip operations.
If all goes according to plan, in 10 years’ time, the rewards for playing for Antrim will be much greater than they are today.
The current crop of players are the ones doing the hard yards.
Beatty, Lynch, the Murrays, McBride, Gallagher, Fitzpatrick, the Johnstons...
By being there they are doing something about it. And those who crammed into the Crowne Plaza last Friday afternoon and dug deep are doing something about it too.