GAA Football

We could be in for a long haul: Antrim boss Lenny Harbinson

Antrim manager Lenny Harbinson is still planning for a brighter day after coronavirus Picture: Cliff Donaldson.

'The western land, nervous under the beginning change. The Western States, nervous as horses before a thunder storm. The great owners, nervous, sensing a change, knowing nothing of the nature of the change.' - John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath ,1939.

IN a parallel universe, Lenny Harbinson would have been on the sidelines down in Aughrim yesterday afternoon, adrenaline coursing through his veins, trying to move the Antrim footballers a step closer to promotion out of Division Four.

From the start of the year, it has been their be-all and end-all.

Instead, the Antrim manager was out for a brisk walk around his Glenavy home feeling the cool in the air and contending with a stiff breeze that made his stride a little tougher than it should be for early March.

"I was thinking that the wind would probably have ruined the game against Wicklow as a spectacle," he said.

In these times you look for the tiniest consolations. The deadly outbreak of Covid-19 – a name we never knew existed a few weeks ago - has changed everything.

Through the team's WhatsApp group, Harbinson has asked his players to continue to train remotely, not knowing when they will be able to meet up as a team again.

Harbinson’s thought processes have been like the rest of the population: Initial disappointment that life and sport can’t proceed as normal to the brewing realisation that the very fabric of society will be tested to its limits as coronavirus sweeps through the globe like wildfire.

“When Leo Varadkar made his announcement on Thursday afternoon, before the GAA made theirs, I thought gatherings over 500 people being banned that we would still be able to play our games,” Harbinson says.

“The numbers at our games would generally be lower than that. Or, I thought, we could play behind closed doors. So you were trying to balance out the health of the nation, minimising risk and the government saying we’re not in 100 per cent complete lock-down, but just reducing crowds and stuff like that.

“Ahead of our Wicklow game, we had hotels booked, everything was in place and [we thought] games will be played behind closed doors. It would be a case of putting a gate man on and closing the gates once the teams were in.

“I still thought the GAA’s move was draconian, but once you hear what has been happening and once you take a step back, you realise: ‘That’s it. It’s closed down.’

“You accept it and then you move into the next mode and the reality dawns that nothing is going to re-start on the 29th of March.

“You just have to look at what’s happening in Italy and Spain, we’re allegedly two weeks behind the curve, and you realise we’ll face a lock-down situation in Ireland. Forget about the football season. It’s gone.”

Still, not only as football managers but as human beings we’re wired a certain way.

The Antrim footballers are still preparing for brighter days.

“What we’ve done with our players - because you just can’t abandon things - we’ve given them individual training plans and we’ll have a conference call with them next week because a week further on, we might have a better idea where Ireland and the UK are in relation to the coronavirus,” Harbinson explained.

“It’s my intentions to plan a week ahead and we’ll see how the players have got on, and we’ll then outline the following week. We’ll basically plan week by week because we can’t leave everything high and dry.”

Last time out, Sunday March 1, Antrim played dream football, arguably their best display for several seasons as they took apart Division Four leaders Limerick in Portglenone.

Two wins from their last two games – Wicklow (a) and Waterford (h) - and promotion was theirs.

Just a few days ago, sports fans were consumed with resumptions of league title races and promotion pushes. Now, thoughts of resuming sport couldn’t be further from people’s minds as this dangerous, evil disease moves at a pace.

Harbinson, a telecommunications consultant, added: “From the feedback in Europe, this could be a long haul. They’re talking about a vaccine taking the best part of a year to 18 months.

“You look at it through the lens of your family and then you look at it from a work perspective. My work allows me to work from home. I’m moving from face-to-face meetings to conference calls.

“And the third element is through the lens of sport. You look at the English Premiership; what’s their key thinking: We’ll award the title to Liverpool and we’ll promote the top two teams in the Championship?

“They’re thinking out loud and they’re trying to gauge opinion. From our own perspective that tells me: is the GAA thinking about just suspending everything and start over again next year?

“If there is any football this year, they could revert back to the old Championship and it gets it done and dusted. Or everything is just scrapped, depending on how fluid this coronavirus situation is and how fast it moves.

“We might have a fair bit of time on our hands, a lot of thinking time. People say your health is your wealth, and that’s true. When key incidents happen in your life, you do take a step back.”


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