Antrim manager Lenny Harbinson trawls county to find new talent for 2019 campaigns
LENNY Harbinson was officially ratified for another season as Antrim senior football manager on Monday night.
Originally appointed for a three-year term with an annual review, anything less than another year would have been a massive shock and a major mistake by the county board because the former St Gall's All-Ireland Club Championship winner is already putting in the spadework for next season's League and Championship campaigns with his native Saffrons.
2018, his first year at the helm, didn't result in promotion from Division Four and Antrim exited the Championship after losses to Down (Ulster) and Offaly (the Qualifiers) but Harbinson and his backroom team began a process of improving fitness levels, coaching and introducing video analysis to the squad. Since Antrim's season finished he has trawled the entire county for new talent and has identified several new faces who could play a part next year.
“The management team and myself were very keen to go again this year,” said Harbinson.
“We'd only been in a year, and when you say ‘a year' it's only really eight months and there's very little you can do in eight months.
“You're not allowed to start training until the middle of November and we went out of the Championship in June. We've done a lot of work in eight months but there's a hell of a lot more to do and we're looking forward to the challenge.
“The Championship for me is secondary because we have to try and move up the divisions so it was disappointing we didn't achieve promotion last season albeit it was a very tight League between us, Laois and Carlow and we saw how they both performed in the Championship.”
Harbinson and his management team focused on making improvements in three key areas last season – fitness, video analysis and tactics and team structure. A lot was crammed in and the work may not bear fruit until next year or perhaps even the 2020 season.
“We put a lot of things in place last year and it's building on that now,” explained Harbinson.
“From a fitness point of view there is a gap between us and some of the top teams and we know we have to close that but it doesn't happen overnight.
“As well as that we introduced a lot of video analysis last year which the players hadn't been used to. It's trying to give them the visual evidence of where they're at and what they're doing – what's good and what needs to be worked on. That's an area we'll be working on this year.
“And then tactically and structurally you're trying to coach things and you have the challenges of what the clubs are telling their players about how to play versus what you're trying to do from county level. You're almost trying to reprogramme players to suit what we're trying to do.
“Those are three key streams that we want to continue to work on and take them all to another level.
“It almost sounds like an excuse to say it takes time.
“But if you're trying to change a lot of things it does take time. The players would confirm that there was a hell of a lot of coaching done – that's not to say the previous managers didn't coach – but we threw a lot of stuff at them and we'll be doing the same again next year because we have to close the gap as quickly as we can.”
Antrim will start next year without two players who have proven credentials at inter-county level. Conor Murray (knee injury) and Paddy McAleer (abroad) won't be available but Harbinson has made a serious effort to find replacements.
“Last year I went with a small panel of 28 outfield players but this year we're going to be working with a panel of 42,” he explained.
“Around Christmas it'll be a matter of reducing panel down to around 32-34. Taking some feedback from the players we've decided to go with a larger panel and we have identified a lot of boys to come in and it's up to them – it doesn't matter who they are, what age they are or what club they're from – to pick up the baton and go with it.”
U20 players James Smith and Patrick Finnegan (St Brigid's) and Owen Nagle (St Enda's) are expected to step up senior level and Harbinson is also planning to welcome Martin Johnston and Kevin Small (Creggan) back into the fold along with Lamh Dhearg pair Owen McKeown and Kevin Quinn.
“There is a lot of new blood there and it's going to take a bit of time to blend the youth and experience and get people in the right positions and see who can do a job for us,” said Harbinson.
“The nine guys on my management team have extensively watched Division One, Two and Three games right the way throughout Antrim and now we're watching the senior, intermediate and junior championship games,” said Harbinson.
“It's hard to say how many games we've watched but I'd say it's around 80 per cent of the senior players in Antrim.
“Last weekend we were out all day on Saturday and Sunday from Ballymena to Creggan to Sarsfields to Glenavy…
“I've always believed that there's talent in Antrim and what I and the management team are trying to do is create a structure and a framework where you maximize that talent as much as possible to build momentum and confidence.
“Confidence comes with winning and we need to win in Division Four to build momentum and also to get the Antrim public interested in our games because people will follow a winning team.”