GAA Football

Six of Antrim's top footballers of the past decade

Pádraig Ó Meiscill looks at six of the finest Antrim footballers of the last decade...

Padraig O Meiscill

Paddy Cunningham (Lámh Dhearg)

FOR commitment to the cause, leadership qualities and sheer deadliness in front of the posts, Paddy Cunningham is a shoo-in to be among Antrim’s best players of the past decade.

Take the 2010 National League campaign as a standout example of the Lámh Dhearg man’s scoring prowess. The Saffrons finished that campaign with promotion to the heady heights of Division Two and playing a final in Croke Park, with Cunningham racking up a total of 3-51 along the way. Cunningham’s scores alone made the difference between defeat and victory in three of Antrim’s games, tipping the balance between the topping the table and what would have been relegation form.

Antrim were unlucky in the draw for that summer’s Championship, but Cunningham was again to the fore as they ran Tyrone close in the Ulster quarter-final and hit 0-10 in the gripping All-Ireland Qualifier stalemate with Kildare at Newbridge.

After a period of retirement from the inter-county scene, during which time he led Lámh Dhearg to the Antrim Championship, Cunningham returned to Saffron duty at the sprightly age of 34 and proved influential in their promotion push from Division Four, which was unfortunately put on an indefinite pause earlier this spring.

Michael McCann (Cargin)

ANOTHER who returned to the fold in 2020 after an early retirement, the Cargin man initially completed a formidable midfield pairing with St Gall’s Aodhán Gallagher before his switch to full-forward earned him an Allstar nomination in the Ulster final run year of 2009.

A footballer of high quality, McCann can play anywhere on the pitch from 8 to 15, and frequently has for the Saffrons. Two-footed and one of the most naturally intelligent footballers the county has produced, his return was a big boost to manager Lenny Harbinson’s plans.

McCann enjoyed consistent success at club level in his absence from the inter-county scene, playing a key role in back-to-back to county championship wins with Cargin 2018 and ’19. In 2018, they ran eventual Ulster champions Gaoth Dobhair close at the quarter-final stage.

Regarded as one of the best players of the last decade and more in Ulster, the 34-year-old initially retired from inter-county football in 2014, but returned along with his brother Tomás in a bid to help Harbinson’s promotion bid from Division Four – a bid that was going all too smoothly until you know what struck.

Matt Fitzpatrick (St John’s)

ONE of the finest talents produced in Antrim in recent years, Fitzpatrick’s decision to focus on his soccer career at the expense of Gaelic football was undoubtedly a major blow to the Saffron set-up.

His pace, power and directness were on full show in 2019 especially, and his eye for goal followed on from that. The St John’s clubman was on the Antrim panel for only four years, but he left an imprint that will be very noticeable by its absence, the return of the McCann brothers and Paddy Cunningham notwithstanding, in the years to come.

Fitzpatrick, a Sigerson Cup winner with St Mary's, Belfast in 2017, produced a string of superb Championship displays on the inter-county stage that earned him an Irish News Ulster Allstar nomination in 2019.

In their Ulster Championship clash with Tyrone back in May last year, Fitzpatrick was the one attacker the Red Hands struggled to contain, raising a green flag and assisting for a host of other scores.

A few weeks later, the schoolteacher proved the match-winner in their All-Ireland Qualifier win against Louth – Antrim's first Championship victory since 2014 – bagging two goals in Drogheda. And although Harbinson's men were outclassed in their next outing against Kildare at Corrigan Park, Fitzpatrick was again a shining light in the Antrim attack. Fitzpatrick opted out of the Antrim squad in autumn last year to play for west Belfast soccer club Belfast Celtic in the Ballymena Provincial League and his performances soon led to him being snapped up by Danske Bank Premiership high flyers Coleraine, who he made his debut for in January this year.

Patrick McBride (St John’s)

ANOTHER St John’s man, McBride entered what was already his eighth season with Antrim in 2020, and during that time there are very few roles he hasn’t fulfilled.

His last few seasons have been of an exceptionally high standard, benefitting from Lenny Harbinson giving him a defined role in the team. A great finisher whose pace is a brilliant asset, the Coláiste Feirste teacher first caught the eye at senior level in Antrim’s turgid Ulster SFC defeat to Monaghan at Casement Park in June 2013.

That day, Antrim were never set up to win the game. They attempted to park the bus and made life difficult for Monaghan for 70 minutes. Because of the team’s ultra-defensive tactics, it was difficult for any player to shine in saffron. But McBride did. Making his Championship debut, his explosive runs from wing-back were the one glowing feature of Antrim’s display.

He’s been a Championship regular ever since.

Kevin O’Boyle (Cargin)

IN THE space of nine years, Kevin O’Boyle missed just one Championship game with Antrim, a 2011 All-Ireland Qualifier defeat to Down at Casement Park.

While he was capable of playing further out, the Cargin man was a superb man-marker, among the best in Ulster for a few years. Like many Antrim footballers of his generation, he really made his name in the 2009 run to the Ulster final, but it is his consistency and longevity that impress. Only for injury, he’d probably still be on the panel, 13 years after his debut.

Made captain of the squad for the example he set and his obvious leadership qualities, O’Boyle produced two of the most famous moments in recent Antrim footballing history. In 2009, he came off the bench at Ballybofey to kick a last-gasp winner from a tight angle against Donegal and put the Saffrons on the road to their first Ulster final in 30 years. In 2014, it was his outstretched foot on the line which prevented Fermanagh from overcoming a colossal margin and embarrassing Antrim at Brewster Park.

James Loughrey (St Brigid’s, Belfast/Mallow, Cork)

LOUGHREY may only have played four seasons in a Saffron shirt before moving to Cork, but he made a very significant impact while he was there.

He was brilliant all through the 2009 season, not least in the All-Ireland Qualifier against Kerry, where he was arguably the best player against a side he’d come to know very well later in his career.

A powerful defender with blinding pace, that Loughrey’s best years were played in red underlines his quality, but also what a loss he was when he moved south to live with his partner in her home town of Mallow. Known as an attacking wing-back with Antrim, even occasionally at half-forward, he became a tight man-marker for the Rebels.

Once described as a "perfectionist" by then Antrim manager Liam Bradley, former Cork manager Conor Counihan expressed similar sentiments about Loughrey shortly after his arrival in the Rebel county.

"James has done very well," said Counihan.

"He's a really genuine lad who works hard, trains hard and does his job in that jersey. In terms of attitude, he's a model player.

"He has great pace and he's strong in the tackle. His overall attitude is first class. Top, top class."

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