Lamh Dhearg's Kevin Quinn embracing the challenge of facing Tyrone
THEY are a bunch of forlorn, misguided patriots, the country’s gutsy basement battlers - and lambs to the slaughter on Saturday evening at The Athletic Grounds when Tyrone roll into town and take care of business.
You enter the idyllic surroundings of Tir na nOg Randalstown GAC on a crisp Thursday evening for Antrim’s Championship press night. The apathy that swirls around the county’s senior football squad doesn’t get beyond the gate.
“For me,” Kevin Quinn says, “you couldn’t ask for better. We’re going down to play against one of the best teams in the country in front of maybe 10,000 people.
“You’ve a chance to showcase your skills. This squad has the chance to put some pride back into the Antrim jersey and to show what we’re about.
“To me, anybody that doesn’t want to play for Antrim is a disgrace, if I’m being honest. I see it as a great honour and I think everybody should as well. I’m really looking forward to it and I want people to say: ‘That’s a good Antrim team.’ And you’d hope people would want to come and watch us and play for us.”
Over the last two-and-a-half years, Antrim have haemorrhaged close to 20 key players.
When there were players walking away from Antrim, Kevin Quinn was banging down the door trying to get onto the panel.
Two years ago Quinn “got the chop” after the Dr McKenna Cup trials concluded under his Lamh Dhearg club-mate Frank Fitzsimons, and before that injury curtailed his involvement in Liam ‘Baker’ Bradley’s squad.
“I suppose I always wanted to play for Antrim,” said the 25-year-old wing-forward.
“If you’re told at one stage you’re not good enough, you just keep working away and try and get back on the panel. I did that this year and I took my chances and it’s good to be here now.”
For Antrim manager Lenny Harbinson, Quinn fitted the profile he was looking for: fit, mobile, strong skills set and ferociously competitive.
“I played for Antrim right the way up - U14, U16, minor and U21 - so I was on all those panels. I suppose the transition into seniors is a bit different; the size of people and the fitness that comes with that, which I didn’t really take on board the first few years, but I kind of got my act together in the last year or two.
“I really wanted to get on the panel and I suppose Lenny saw that with the club and I’ve just worked hard since.”
Winning a county club championship in 2017 was the shot in the arm that Quinn needed to push on and test himself at a higher altitude.
“Winning with the club was amazing,” he says.
“When you’re growing up you want to win a championship with your club and if you’re playing good football and you’re asked to play for your county then you go and do that. It’s a great privilege.
“And I feel far fitter, maybe twice as fit. I’m playing a role at the minute where you have to get up and down the pitch. The energy that you need and the running that’s asked of you - you’re more or less busted after 50 minutes and that’s when you need your finishers into the game.
“You want to get the best out of yourself. I’m only 25 and you want to be able to play the football that you know you can.”
Since taking the reins last November, Harbinson has placed big demands on his players – demands that some players thought were too great and therefore stepped away.
“You have to have the energy in your legs and the strength and conditioning.
“We’ve got Fintan Devlin in there and he does a great job with Brendan [Trainor] and Lenny. It’s just a different level altogether on and off the pitch. I’ve taken all that on board and I’m reaping the rewards of it and I want to play well going into Championship.”
Quinn started six of Antrim’s seven Division Four games this year and came on in the other one and has scored five points.
They had high hopes of getting out of Division Four this spring.
Desperately unlucky to lose by a point to Derry in their NFL opener at Corrigan Park, Harbinson’s men were still expected to recover and push themselves into the reckoning. But a string of hard-luck stories followed.
Further defeats to Wexford and Leitrim – both away – ruined their chances. Another defeat followed down in Waterford before a couple of morale boosting wins over Wicklow and Limerick.
In all, Antrim suffered three one-point defeats.
“It’s hard to tell people - we lost by a point, and they think you’re just making excuses for another defeat,” Quinn says.
“Had we beaten Derry we could have gone on to beat Wexford and Leitrim and we would have fancied ourselves to get promotion and play in Croke Park.
“A few things just didn’t go our way, a few silly mistakes. We were down in Waterford and we were five points up with like 10 minutes to go and we got beaten by a point. I suppose we’ve learned from them now. We’ll look towards Championship and try to get into Division Three next year.”
Quinn reckons the talent in Antrim compares favourably with any other county in Ireland and before he reaches the end of the road with the Saffrons the fiercely proud Lamh Dhearg clubman wants to be competing for provincial honours.
“There are great footballers in Antrim - it’s just coming here and committing… There is a gap there between ourselves and Tyrone and Donegal but the players are there if we get the commitment levels. I firmly believe we can close the gap and maybe compete at that level.”
If selected, Kevin Quinn will be making his Championship debut against Tyrone on Saturday evening.
He will put his right boot on before his left – a superstition he’s carried since his underage days – and he’ll be nervous.
“If you’re nervous then you care about the game.”
Kevin Quinn is one of 30 Antrim patriots that truly believe – in the words of his captain Declan Lynch – that being there is doing something about it.
He’ll play until his county retires him – and he will embrace every moment wearing the saffron jersey.