How Antrim football can restore its lost greatness
LIKE four great bowed heads to the left of the M1 on entering Belfast, the floodlights stand a guard of honour over the remains of Casement Park.
By now a great new stadium should have risen up from this place, but maybe such magnificence dare not appear to disturb the ongoing impasse and so provoke the great empty building on the hill a few miles away.
Yet everybody knows that the long decline in Antrim football and the decline of the old stadium are two different stories, that the truth is more like the chorus from a song that the McPeakes might have sung, that "Casement Park is come and gone since Antrim last were seen, m' boys, since Antrim last were seen."
An enormous amount has happened in Ulster football since Antrim last were seen. Back in 1951 when the county won their last Ulster title, neither Tyrone, Derry, Down or Donegal had even won an Ulster never mind the 11 All Ireland titles they hold between them today.
So what has happened to Antrim over that period that reaching two Ulster senior finals (1970 and 2009) is their lot?
One thing that happened was, of course, 'the Troubles', which left a major indentation, especially in Belfast, as they did in other parts of the North. But the Troubles are away and gone a quarter of a century ago.
After a long absence of success, counties can sometimes settle into the comfort zone of cynicism, shake their heads that 'the stuff's just not there,' or 'the city and the country will never come together', or 'bad blood between clubs,' or 'a waste of time', and so on.
As everybody knows, Antrim have superior resources in terms of population after Dublin, and are followed in this regard by Cork, then Down; Derry are sixth, Tyrone 11th, Armagh 12th and Donegal 13th - even though it is true that a sizeable number in any county are not 'GAA-minded'.
Each of these counties mentioned has the resources to seriously contest the Sam Maguire Cup - as the latter seven have shown.
The absence of Antrim from the fields of success over the past almost 70 years represents a lost immensity to Gaelic football, a lost source of great uplift, colour, achievement and excitement, a lost presence on the heroic stage.
But a major effort has now been undertaken to move out of this long impasse and raise Antrim football along with other GAA games into a new beginning. A lot of planning, money, and enthusiasm have gone into the 'Gaelfast' project and related programmes.
There have been strong calls too for extra under-age investment comparable to that given to Dublin. Such investment is important, but I think this particular emphasis of parity with Dublin is misplaced, and the focus should be on another factor, the most critical of all, but one which, as far as I can see, is not being attended to.
Senior team strategy
All the underage development and investment undertaken will come to little if there is not a parallel project regarding a totally new and active structure for the radical development of the county senior team.
The notion of a structure in this regard might be defined as the creation of an entity within which the maximum potential of its components is realised in every respect toward a given end.
The reality is that the absence of success in Antrim at senior county football level has little to do with the lack of players or lack of managerial ability.
Look down the list of Antrim managers over the years and the truth forcefully presents itself that they never had a chance, nor did the players.
Every season is naturally filled with goodwill, that a big effort is promised to raise levels of success and so on. But when it is seen that things are remaining much the same, players naturally wonder why they should made such sacrifices for so little return. Managers are quickly disillusioned as well.
Lessons from the past
Armagh learned this lesson way back in the mid-Seventies when the county senior team were widely considered the second worst in Ireland after Kilkenny.
Things got so bad that there was a problem fielding a side against Leitrim in early 1974 and the entire county board subsequently resigned with talk of contacting Croke Park officials so that Armagh might remove themselves from inter-county football competition.
As with Antrim today, it was not a matter of the absence of good players or good managers. Armagh went through manager after manager including enlightened people such as Mal McEvoy, Jimmy Whan, Paddy O'Hara (Antrim ), Gerry O'Nelll, and Gene Larkin, and each - without exception - resigned through 'lack of co-operation from clubs' and players simply refusing to come to training.
I was involved in the aftermath of that collapse and a few of us, including chairman Tommy Lynch and treasurer Joe Canning, decided that the problem was a lack of proper structure at senior level, that there was nothing concrete to manage.
So we went to footballers' homes inviting largely the same players to take part in an intensive new programme, a grand new adventure with fresh aims and ambitions and with full back-up facilities. None refused.
When the details were all in place, Gerry O'Neill was invited back to manage the new structure and less than three year later, the same Gerry O'Neill who had earlier resigned in frustration had largely the same group of players in the All-Ireland final.
If the vast potential of Antrim is to be realised, I am convinced as an interested outsider that the following needs to happen:
The County Board leaders and management, along with other interested parties, must sit down around a table with one single item on the agenda as follows: To set up a structure, as a matter of priority, based on the dynamic of aiming higher, reaching further, digging deeper than anything that has gone before in the history of Gaelic football, to unlock fresh possibilities of the game - and all in order to win the Sam Maguire Cup within the next three years.
If this seems preposterous, read on.
Away back in 1957, Down had scant championship tradition, had never won an Ulster title and, as was quite normal, were defeated in the first round of the championship earlier that year, this time by Armagh.
But some visionary people in the Down County Board felt they had enough of the old comfort zone and literally sat down around a table with the same item on their agenda as just mentioned, to win the All-Ireland in three years.
The only well-known Down footballers at the time were Kevin Mussen and Kieran Denvir and the players who later became household names were not on the scene at all at the beginning of things.
Kevin O'Neill told me how the radical new thinking was put into effect in a sort of pact between Co Board leaders and players, that "We'll look after you in every respect if you look after us."
The chosen footballers were literally lifted out of their environment and brought into a new system of training and teamwork surpassing anything previously undertaken in the game.
Three years later Down were All-Ireland champions, the greatest team of the age.
Potential for improvement
There seems to be a general law in this respect, that a given footballer of county potential outside such a structure is performing at less than 40 per cent of their ability. But when this is merged into teamwork, where everybody knows what everybody else in doing in a given system, this rises to perhaps 70 per cent.
Then strict individual development brings this up to the high 90s in a total transformation of things and such is the key to the success of all modern teams including, of course, the present Dublin team.
The record is clear that footballers will readily and totally follow a distinctive call that promises a new sense of adventure, of bonding, belonging and brotherhood in the quest for greatness, for individual and team perfection, for the status of the heroic, to push the game into new possibilities.
In this manner, 10 or 11 of the same Antrim players who are now languishing in Division Four will probably be in the projected All-Ireland winning set-up.
Donegal this decade
Recent history is full of such examples. The Donegal team that won the All-Ireland in 2012 were largely the same group of players who were well-beaten in the All-Ireland qualifiers by Armagh in Crossmaglen just over two years beforehand, having been humiliated at home in the League by the Orchard County earlier that year, in what was effectively a promotion decider for a place in Division One.
Remember too that Donegal had lost at home to Antrim in the 2009 Ulster SFC.
Jim McGuinness totally transformed them in the formidable structure he set up and created the scene for a specialised defensive style of Gaelic football.
But perhaps the rise of Crossmaglen Rangers from the mid-Nineties provides particular evidence related to Antrim's case as it shows specifically how underage development does not automatically rise into senior success, that it will disintegrate unless a proper structure is created at senior level to meet it and harness it.
For a decade between 1986 and 1996, Rangers were in an unaccustomed lull, had won no trophy and had slipped away from the scene.
But in 1995, their neighbours Mullaghbawn did the unthinkable by winning the Ulster Club championship and so moved onto a pedestal above the proud Rangers, whose success was limited to winning Armagh championships.
So how did it happen that the following year Rangers climbed out of their decade-long lethargy and went on to win the All Ireland club title, the first of six and the first of the 11 Ulsters, and became the greatest club team in the history of the game?
The opening factor is that they were shocked into creating a totally new structure and system of play under the management of Joe Kernan with the exact aspiration to win the All-Ireland club title in the coming season at all costs.
But what had happened to the superb work of the celebrated Rangers underage coach Tim Gregory throughout that barren decade that his work did not naturally convert into a successful senior team?
Former youth players including Oisin McConville assert that at least 13 of the players who formed the backbone of Rangers' glory years, including himself and the McEntee twins, had been introduced to the game and taught the basic skills in every respect to a very high level by Gregory.
Yet until Big Joe and his background team created the critical structure at senior level, the outstanding work at underage had nowhere to bloom and blossom into its full greatness, little to aspire to, and largely drifted by the wayside.
So two basic factors came together in the creation of this great club side, superb underage preparation and superb senior team structures and leadership at the top - all bolstered by appeals to the proud club tradition since its formation.
Lead from the top
The conclusion is clear, that unless there is a special concentration of development at the very top involving the highest level of aspiration and planning, all below it will simply drift from the scene because there is no special status to aspire to, no heroes to imitate, no genuine ambition to develop into full potential.
When management changed hands at Rangers, the structure did not, and the fresh leadership of Donal Murtagh took a fourth All-Ireland and this was followed by the joint leadership of Tony McEntee and Gareth O'Neill, who organised the team to two further All-Irelands.
The ongoing underage work of Tim Gregory was a constant in all success, including last Sunday when Rangers won their 45th Armagh senior championship and the 21st since the new revolution began back in 1996.
This all points to a general rule that if there is appropriate leadership in a strong structure, such as the tradition in Kerry football, or modern Dublin or Crossmaglen, young people will naturally gravitate toward that which gives them status in their community or county, and so there will be a constant supply to meet the demand.
New players then naturally enter into the philosophy of the structure, are quickly absorbed into the system of play, and so there is a seamless flow of success - as long as the leadership guards the structure.
While it is true that from time to time, a high number of outstanding players come together at the same time, they still need to be organised to a high degree if they are to break fresh barriers.
Derry, for example, had many strong teams in the past but they never won the ultimate prize until 1993 when they got the maximum out of a very talented and powerful group.
While they were well trained under coach Mickey Moran, there was something in the persona and 'Derryness' of manager Eamonn Coleman's leadership that conferred a special unity of purpose and drive to finally make the Sam Maguire breakthrough.
Armagh's great year of 2002 followed the initiative to create a strong "total football" defensive and quick break-out system and with it with the first setting up of a professional "team behind the team," and where Joe Kernan brought his critical expertise as manager of All-Ireland club champions Crossmaglen Rangers to the scene following the earlier organising work of the two Brians, McAlinden and Canavan. It was all highly organised.
Art McRory was a superb pioneering figure in the organising of Tyrone's potential at senior county level, and on two occasions, in '86 and '95, came within an inch of winning the All-Ireland, taking his county closer to ultimate success than anyone before him.
Mickey Harte arrived on the senior county scene in 2002 with a base of players that he had managed to an All-Ireland minor title and two All-Ireland U-21 victories, and organised this base along with other players of potential to a high level when he took over.
In many ways he adopted - and later perfected - Armagh's "total football" defensive and quick break system, which other teams, notably Kerry, found it difficult to cope with, and brought unprecedented success to Tyrone. But again, proper organisation of the forces was the key.
Many natural outstanding footballers were present in the Down teams of the early 90s, but all that talent had to be properly structured and given unity of purpose and lofty sense of ambition by the leadership of Pete McGrath.
Antrim, at present, in their long absence from senior success are closer to Down of 1957 with echoes of Armagh of 1974, and require the totally radical approach mentioned above.
The current Gaelfast initiative represents the first major sign of intent in moving into a new age, but it must be immediately linked up with a revolution at senior county level.
Then Antrim will have a Crossmaglen scenario in their sights, or the Down team of the early sixties, or the modern Dubs in all their pomp and glory.