Kevin O’Boyle has a few nice scrapbook moments with Antrim to his name, being in the right place at the right time. As a Championship meeting with familiar foes beckons, the marauding defender is keen to make new memories with a promising Saffron side. Kevin Farrell writes...
SHOULD Frank Fitzsimons and Gearoid Adams find themselves praying for a match-winner in the last gasps at Brewster Park on Sunday, Kevin O’Boyle is a man with precious Championship ‘previous’.
A Saffron scrapbook worth its salt would show Antrim have lodged just two victories in their Ulster openers since PJ O’Hare’s charges - Adams included - clipped Cavan in 2003. Take 2009. Balmy Ballybofey, John Joe Doherty’s Donegal in the quarters. Liam Bradley’s battlers stick to the misfiring hosts like clams to rock. It’s all square and on the blow. Sub O’Boyle lofts a bomb high and handsome from miles right. Boom. Antrim’s dizzy bandwagon to an Ulster final is up and away.
Take 2014: Pete McGrath’s Erne men die twice at Brewster. They keep on rising. Seanie Quigley and Brian ‘Bam’ Neeson have waged war. It’s Antrim by two. The clock crawls. Ryan McCluskey smells blood. Home fans dream then freeze. Corner-back O’Boyle to the rescue. The right place at the right time; it’s an uncanny knack for the county’s regular ‘number two’ who still prizes the shirt as much as the teenager trusted by Jody Gormley to face Derry nine summers ago.
A year later, he pocketed a Tommy Murphy Cup medal as an Antrim team danced in Croke. Yet the 28-year-old, as easy with a man-marking brief as with the sweeper role he nailed when detailed during this year’s promotion drive - including their Division Four final loss to Louth - is coy on the notion of another spot-lit cameo.
“Maybe it’s time for someone else,” he says.
The Erin’s Own, Cargin man, who won his second Antrim club title last October, is more bullish about the blend now underpinning the county ranks. The swinging doors and sour fall-outs appear to be in the rear view. And with the likes of skipper Kevin Niblock, Tomas and Mick McCann and Brian Neeson also back in tow via the ambitious sell of Adams and Fitzsimons, the vibe is a serious sea change.
Like 2009, the mission statement of promotion from the NFL basement has been met. Yet, those provincial finalists who dared to dream in Clones before flustering Jack O’Connor’s Kerry - All-Ireland champs to be - in Tullamore are perhaps edged quality-wise in O’Boyle’s book.
“It’s better. I’d say it’s the strongest panel I’ve been part of since my debut in 2007,” says ‘Kobo’.
“Yes, we’d some very good players that year  and then had the bit of luck against Donegal to kickstart something a bit special. We’d two promotions too, but this is our most competitive squad in years, we’re in a really healthy place.
“I missed last year, between getting married and building a house. I didn’t like being out of it, it felt surreal watching us from the stands. But Frank was just missing too many players last year and it showed in the two heavy losses to Fermanagh.
“Winning the county title with Cargin was great. I love the club football and there’s an ultra-competitive club scene in Antrim nowadays that’s really benefitting everyone. But county football and the training is just harder, it makes you a better player. And there’s still that wee thing about Ulster that’s so hard to describe, the buzz, the crowd...
“Other boys had their own reasons too for not being there, but the buy-in from the start this time has been our biggest strength. Then, the management are passionate Antrim people, great men to play under and it all just bleeds right down.”
The appetite, O’Boyle insists, remains fierce: “You saw through the league, we’ve now 15 determined boys out there and a subs bench pushing us hard. We’d lads who didn’t start the league final, Dermot McAleese, Patrick McBride, Mark Sweeney, Ryan Murray, they’d all be wanting to know why. We’ve players not making the match squad but still driving it on.”
Amid the green shoots, the man who has skippered Antrim under both Bradley and Frank Dawson is far from blinkered. He’s quick to mine some sharp perspective with fresh Fermanagh menace around the turn. The team in the league final reverse to Louth 20 days ago which checked the Saffrons’ unbeaten NFL run may have contained 11 starters who were part of ‘Baker’s’ batch that sunk the Erne men in that 2014 quarter-final.
Watch the Irish News Championship preview for Antrim:
Yet, Antrim’s second-half short circuit against the Wee county still exposed blind spots that will need to have been flagged and fixed if Quigley and co - coming from stiff-necked Division Two survival - are to be blunted.
Fermanagh, O’Boyle insists, have set Antrim’s bar. Beating a county that outscored them 2-34 to 0-19 over two meetings last season en route to that bold crack at Jim Gavin’s machine in the last-eight would be a leap towards emulating them.
“They are in good shape and are probably two years or so ahead of where Antrim want to be. They’ve raced through the divisions then sustained themselves in Division Two against some serious teams,” he adds.
“I mean, they gave Dublin a rattle with a packed house at Croke Park in the month of August [last year]. That’s just dream territory, it’s where I’d love us to be soon. We aren’t too far away. They set standards last year and showed everyone else how to get there.
“Pete McGrath is really putting his stamp on it. They’re so well organised and incredibly fit too. Yes, they’re ahead at the minute, but there’s not one of us who doesn’t believe we can match Fermanagh this time. There’s a carrot dangling for us... we start by trying to beat them over 70 minutes. I’d take a one-point win, but we can’t, for a minute, be forgetting how strong they’ve been.”
O’Boyle is also adamant Antrim won’t be found flagging in the hard rounds at Brewster and beyond. World champion boxer Brian Magee’s impact in honing and customising the conditioning was recently outlined in The Irish News.
The raiding defender echoes team-mate Sean McVeigh’s plaudits: “It’s been really interesting, Brian has been very, very clever in matching the fitness needs in well with the different times of the year,” he adds.
“Everything he has done is first class, it’s very telling that our injury bill has been fairly clear. But Brian’s another very positive voice, so astute. Not just in terms of the preparation and recovery, but also the whole psychology behind winning and trying to get over the line in games.”
A maths and science teacher at Holy Trinity, Cookstown, O’Boyle at least knows he has ‘God’ in his corner if solutions are needed. Sharing a staff-room with Tyrone icon Peter Canavan, McGrath’s predecessor at the Erne helm, for the past six years has fostered an intriguing mentorship as the school’s star on the Vocational GAA circuit continues to shine.
It’s an environment with rich pedigree. Martin McGirr, performance analyst for Tyrone’s All-Ireland U21 champions, and ex-Antrim defender John McKeever, who steered Cookstown Fr Rock's to an All-Ireland intermediate title in 2013, also work there.
Holy Trinity fell just short on St Patrick’s Day in striving to be the first Tyrone school in 44 years to lift the MacLarnon Cup: “Martin, Peter and myself took a good MacLarnon team, unfortunately we lost the final to [Patrician High] Carrickmacross," adds O’Boyle, a 2006 MacRory Cup semi-finalist with St Mary’s, Magherafelt.
“We’ve Armagh’s Stefan Forker and Ronan O’Neill [Tyrone] in the school also. There’s a few others from club teams too, so the craic can be good at break and lunchtime. I’ve taken teams here from I joined, I’d be keen to manage or coach down the line. Peter’s always there with an ear or advice and Martin and the other lads, so I’m learning every single day there, just soaking up whatever I can.”
If Antrim are to forge a path in the direction of August football, the bandwagon may need serviced 2009-style. The Championship miles will be punched in no matter the route. Casement Park was far from a fortress in recent hard times, but it’s still a sore void for Antrim.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re having to get used to playing without a true home venue. Corrigan was good to us in the league, we didn’t lose, but it’s not the same,” O’Boyle insists.
“Casement is a massive miss for the players, also for future generations and for attracting support. It was a pitch you always looked forward to gracing, even for training and preparing for the Championship. Hopefully, the scenario gets sorted soon, but the reality is we’ve just had to become used to travelling.
“We’ll have a very close and vibrant Fermanagh crowd first, but you accept that and do your best to silence them... I mean, Ulster Championship is live or die stuff. You’re capable of putting something special in that’s gonna live with you. You’re really making memories for down the line when you’re done and it’s all finished.”
Kevin O’Boyle isn’t done or finished yet, of course. Lighting the way and leading a charge is everything he knows.
Huge credit is due to Frank Fitzsimons and Gearoid Adams, who have breathed new life into a county left sagging by farce and fall-outs in recent seasons.
The Saffrons should head into the Championship with tails up after league promotion. That came thanks to an unbeaten Division Four campaign, where they had the meanest defence statistically across the divisions. Goalkeeper Chris Kerr had kept six clean sheets prior to their defeat to Louth in the final while, at the other end, Tómas McCann pegged 2-34 in total, serving notice of his sharpness. The second-half short circuit in their Croke Park defeat will have at least exposed the areas which need recalibrated before the Championship intensity kicks in.
Despite being trumped at Croke, Antrim displayed an excellent array of kickpassing and took some fine scores, with newcomer Matthew Fitzpatrick showing glimpses of his blistering talent. The return and availability of key players cannot be understated. Kevin Niblock, Brian Neeson, the McCann brothers, Mick and Tomas, Kevin O’Boyle and Martin Johnston all add experience and huge ability to the spine, while hunger and camaraderie are in place - as is rare strength-in-depth.
Brewster Park, meanwhile, will hold no surprise, having played three times there in two seasons. Fermanagh are worthy of huge respect - but Antrim might bear in mind the Erne men were only a kick of a ball away in their drawn final Division Two game against Tyrone from starting next year in the same division.
If Antrim needed a jolt after an unbeaten league campaign that delivered promotion in style and comfort, they got it in spades during the second half of the Division Four final defeat to Louth.
A strong finish in the opening half and some incisive attacking had helped the Saffrons lead by four at the break. But the worm turned once Louth went route one. A series of lofted balls into the Wee county’s imposing full-forward line caused havoc, Conor Burke and co labouring against the physicality of Conor Grimes.
Creggan’s Ricky Johnston arguably edged his battle with Seanie Quigley in the 2014 Ulster quarter-final defeat of the Erne men and comes in for Burke (who kept the same player scoreless in last year's quarter-final loss) ahead of Sunday's clash. He may have his work cut out if the bustling Roslea Shamrock has his mojo working.
Antrim kicked too many scoring chances wide or into the hands of Craig Lynch after the interval in the league final, allowing Louth to effect their direct approach, with the Saffrons labouring to funnel sufficient bodies back quickly enough. A 23-minute scoreless spell was also damning. Cuter game management and better accuracy will be crucial.
Mick McCann might prosper in a more advanced role, while all of Antrim will hope captain and playmaker Kevin Niblock, named to start at Brewster Park on Sunday, has fully shaken off his bout of tonsillitis.
With a trip to a brooding Donegal awaiting Sunday’s winners, a kind Qualifier draw may be Antrim’s best hope for progress deeper into the summer picture.