GAA Football

Antrim players split over talk of tiers: Lenny Harbinson

Kildare were simply too powerful for Antrim, as talk inevitably turns to tiers Picture Seamus Loughran

ANTRIM manager Lenny Harbinson says his squad is split over whether the GAA should introduce a tiered Championship.

After suffering a heavy loss to Kildare in last weekend’s All-Ireland Qualifier at Corrigan Park and Dublin’s one-sided Leinster final defeat of Meath, the volume will be turned up once again on breaking the football Championship into tiers.

In between beating Louth in the All-Ireland Qualifiers – Antrim’s first Championship success since 2015 – the Saffrons lost by 14 points to Tyrone and Kildare, both of whom would be regarded as among the game’s elite teams.

London senior football manager Ciaran Deely tweeted his unambiguous approval of a tiered Championship.

He posted: “All eight Division Four teams gone by June 23. Fellas spoofing about Down putting it up to Mayo on big day out. Still out. Players expect more nowadays. Meanwhile, look at the these lads [attached images of Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher winners from Saturday] – devastated at winning ‘only’ tiered competition.”

In principle, Harbinson is in favour of a tiered Championship too, but says his players are divided on the issue.

“The feedback that I’ve received from the GPA and from some of the Antrim players is that yes, some of them would be [for a tiered Championship] and some of them wouldn’t be,” said the Saffrons boss.

“The reason why is they are fearful the GAA would treat the second tier competition similar to how the Joe McDonagh Cup has been treated and so on, whereby it doesn’t really get any coverage and yet its teams are at the correct level, playing against each other in a very competitive structure.

“So there is merit in doing it but it needs to be promoted. Or else what’s going to happen is you’ll have a situation where the top eight or nine counties are going to kick on and leave everybody else behind. Is that an Association that was envisaged way back in 1884 down in Thurles? I don’t think so.”

Harbinson, who guided his native St Gall’s to the 2010 All-Ireland Club title, was non-committal over his future as Antrim manager after last weekend’s Kildare defeat.

He has held the post for two seasons and his biggest disappointment during that period has been not gaining promotion out of Division Four.

While not ruling himself out of staying on in 2020, Harbinson says Antrim must somehow unearth another batch of players in the county that are capable of competing at inter-county level and are committed to it.

“There is no doubt about it, whoever is involved in Antrim has to try and find another four or five players from the clubs during the summer. That’s a big challenge. Not only that, there is a lot of work to be done in speed development, strength and athletic development and that takes a number of years – and we’re slightly behind the curve on that.

"We’ve tried to close the gap with the guys I’ve brought in over the last 18 months. But that’s a four or five-year process.”

There has been no representation from serial county champions St Gall’s or Cargin this season, but rather than this being seen as a snub, a lot of those players are either injured or the wrong side of 30.

Over the last two-and-a-half years, Antrim have haemorrhaged roughly 20 starting players of county standard.

Regardless of who leads Antrim next season, Harbinson stressed the importance of retaining the current group of players.

“There has been continual changing of managers in Antrim after one or two years and also losing too many players in one go with changeovers. So they are two elements that need to be addressed, there needs to be continuity going forward.

“There is a real good nucleus of talent there, and we just need to add to that from the U20 squad...

“It’s a big challenge because stuff that you’ve been doing in year one, you’re revisiting that in year two [because of the turnover of players].

"Lots of counties have challenges in terms of player turnover but we have turnover of too many players in a short space of time and so we need a bit of stability from a playing group.

"There is a real good nucleus of players, a lot of talent there that didn’t translate against Kildare but for the critical eye to look at, and we just need to add to that as well."

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