Cargin and Antrim's finest Mick McCann getting better with age
After a few years away winning back-to-back county championships with Cargin, Mick McCann tells Brendan Crossan why he decided to return to the Antrim set-up at 34 and why he's loving his football more than ever...
FEBRUARY 23 2020, Glenavy: The Antrim footballers are trailing Carlow by four points and going nowhere. The home side’s performance is laced with effort but not nearly enough craft. They're snatching at their shots and coughing up possession too easily.
Carlow are a streetwise crew; breaking up the play, making good fouls and converting just enough of their scoring chances to put themselves in the frame for promotion and looking like condemning Antrim to yet another soul-destroying season in the basement.
Lenny Harbinson made two changes at the break but Mick McCann, who returned to the fold after a time away earlier in the week, is held in reserve.
The Cargin playmaker is warming up along the sideline with one eye on the action and the other on Harbinson.
In the midst of watching Antrim’s promotion hopes slip through their fingers, one comment from behind the wire sticks in his head.
“It’s not too late to delete the tweet, Mick.”
McCann didn’t laugh at the black humour at the time, but he does now.
He hated the drum roll and the way Twitter “went a bit mad” after announcing he was coming back to play for Antrim at the ripe old age of 34. (He’s since turned 35).
Like every Antrim supporter in Glenavy, McCann is boiling with frustration at the countless unforced errors and Carlow’s canny game management.
On 52 minutes, McCann gets the nod.
Reflecting on that nervy afternoon, he says: “I was thinking, if I go on here people will be saying: ‘Oh, here’s the hype coming. Let’s see what you have you bum’, and I do nothing… and we get beat out the gate by 10 points… So in your head, you’re thinking that.
“I remember thinking: what am I fit for here? I didn’t want to come on and blow up after 10 minutes and be completely lost. I genuinely thought I would have been on earlier than I was – I got maybe 18 minutes.”
Harbinson posted McCann to full-forward but he was no longer on the edge of the square than he was out around the middle of the field, playing it simple and offering some sorely needed composure.
As it turned out substitutes Odhran Eastwood and Eoin Nagle – both of St Enda’s, Glengormley – were doing just fine inside and starting to cause the Carlow backline trouble.
In football terms, Mick McCann is a rare breed. With sirens ringing and too many Antrim players panicking in possession, McCann was a like a soothing balm.
Nobody does time on the ball better. In more recent years, he has turned the simple pass into an art form.
Antrim managed to pull the Carlow game out of the fire to grab a point and keep their promotions hopes alive. But it wouldn’t have been possible without McCann’s presence.
By the end of the game, he had over a dozen possessions and wasted none of them. A simple reverse fist pass would change the direction of an attack, a 10-yard kick pass right into a willing runner’s lap.
Simplicity was what Antrim needed and that's what McCann supplied.
“I knew when I went on, I just thought: ‘Get on the ball and don’t give it away.’ That’s always what’s in my head, to be honest with you. Keep the ball as much was possible.
“All I did was get on the ball and slow the game up a wee bit. That’s all that happened. I just felt relieved that I made a bit of a difference. I wasn’t slinging points over or anything like that.”
One of Harbinson’s master-strokes in the disjointed 2020 season was persuading old stagers like Paddy Cunningham and McCann back into the fold.
It was nearly four years since McCann last wore the saffron jersey. On that breezy sunny afternoon up in Glenavy, it was like he’d never been away.
A FEW miles outside Toome it’s business as usual in the McCann household.
Lola has taken centre stage this morning – to the point where it’s virtually impossible for Irish News photographer Mal McCann to get a few shots of Mick McCann without the family dog photo-bombing.
Lola wins the day. Everyone goes with the flow including Mick and Seainin’s three kids Charlie (6), Tom (4) and Max (3).
This is the first socially distant interview by The Irish News sports department since the pandemic struck in the middle of March.
It’s early June now but there’s light at the end of the lockdown tunnel.
A week after that drawn match with Carlow, Antrim re-asserted themselves in the promotion race by hammering Limerick in Portglenone, one of their better performances over the last number of years, before Covid19 brought everything crashing down.
Wicklow (a) and Waterford (h) await Antrim in the autumn.
A quantity surveyor, McCann’s work has carried on regardless throughout lockdown. When things settle he plans to swing a few clubs down in the Moyola Golf Club.
He disappeared from the inter-county scene a couple of times because of “babies, bottles, nappies, late nights” and helping get a family-owned gym off the ground.
After captaining Cargin to back-to-back county championships in 2018 and '19 and approaching his 35th birthday, what possessed him to go back to the unforgiving environs of the inter-county game?
Sitting in a spacious back room at his home, McCann sighs: “There are a few reasons: I’ve always wanted to play at that level. About four or five years ago when I pulled away we had the gym and really young children. My head was a bit melted.
“I could be down at the club in five minutes and play and be back home - and I was enjoying my football again. I kind of go through these cycles in my life where I need a bit of bite in terms of what I’m doing.
“Number one, the children were up a bit and more manageable. Number two, my wife works in Ballymena; she’s no longer going to Belfast and it wasn’t me going one way and her going the other. And number three, I wanted to see if I could do it at that level again.”
Harbinson rang McCann before Christmas and it was agreed the door would always remain open. After a couple of National League games, Paddy Cunningham – one of his old team-mates – fired him a few texts about coming back.
“I get on with Paddy well,” McCann says. “I played minor football with him… I think either Paddy or Tomas [Mick's younger brother] spoke to Lenny and Lenny rang me again. So I said: ‘F*** it, I’ll give it a rattle.”
SUNDAY July 19 2020, Erin’s Own, Cargin: Gaelic football has successfully side-stepped the threat of Covid19 to resume.
We’re still behind closed doors unless you own a cherry picker. On the field, Mick McCann is conducting operations, instructing his team-mates when to run and where to run.
Every time without fail, McCann lands the ball perfectly in their path. No matter how hard St John’s try, they can’t lay a hand on him. Everything looks to be a breeze to the veteran.
Few had a higher football IQ than Damian Cassidy when he played the game. Now in his third year with Cargin, Cassidy says: “I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve had exclusive use of Mick since I came to Cargin and the performances he’s put in over the last three years have been at a seriously consistent level.
“He is an absolutely super footballer. He’s got it all. Athletically, and he possesses an absolutely brilliant football brain. I’m very conscious saying that he’s had a fantastic career because he’s still playing. But I put him up there with all the top players in other counties.”
In his youth, there were times McCann couldn’t breathe in games. Feeling heavy-legged, over-trained and over-thinking the game.
When Liam ‘Baker’ Bradley arrived in Antrim in 2009 to start a revolution, he knew there was more in McCann.
“Mick was probably his own worst enemy,” ‘Baker’ says, “because at times he didn’t believe how good he was. He would have doubted himself at times. When I was with Antrim I said he was as good as anybody else in Ulster – and he was.”
Looking back, McCann says: “The ‘Baker’ was probably right. In my early 20s I used to go out and play Championship matches for Antrim and for Cargin and I knew in the warm-up my legs felt really heavy, I couldn’t get a breath. I was probably doing too much long-distance running and by the time I got to the pitch I was totally fatigued.”
He adds: “I was obsessed with winning, but I’ve probably played the best football I’ve ever played over the last five or six years.
“I think as you get older, it’s not that you don’t care about it as much, you don’t put as much pressure on yourself. Just enjoy this. I’m not thinking about it all the time.
“I enjoy my holidays more too. Now, I pick and choose when I go on them, but I enjoy myself more. I go skiing more, I have a few more drinks than I would have done and eat out a bit more, whereas when I was in my 20s I’d be saying, no drink at all.
“I wouldn’t have drunk for six or eight weeks before a big game - not that I’m a big drinker but I just wouldn’t have done that. Now, I just relax a bit more.
“Earlier in my career I wasn’t doing the right training either. I know myself now where exactly I need to be, whereas before I was doubting myself.”
AFTER five years in St Pius X College Magherafelt, McCann moved to St Pat’s, Maghera probably more for MacRory Cup football than academic reasons.
Laughing, he says there was “a lot of drama in my MacRory Cup years, a lot of fall-outs”.
Even though he was a lower sixth year he made the St Pat’s team, performing well and scoring in his new-found position of full-forward before being surprisingly dropped from the team.
“I remember playing the Abbey up at Casement and scoring 1-3 at full-forward. I played all the group games, did all the training over Christmas, boking and growling around beaches. Came to the quarter-final and was dropped. Never told. Dropped. Never got a second. Beat. So I said: ‘F*** that.’”
The following year - in 2003 - he had to be persuaded a few times before he agreed to return to the panel.
“The first two matches I didn't get a minute. I thought: ‘What am I doing here?’ They scraped through the group games. After Christmas I was asked to come back out and I played every game after that. Adrian McGuckin came in to give a hand, I’ve serious time for Adrian. We went on to beat St Mary’s, Magherafelt in the MacRory Cup final at Casement Park and beat St Jarlath’s Tuam in Breffni to win the Hogan as well."
Gerard O’Kane, Mark Lynch, Joe Keenan, Liam Hinphey, Johnny Bradley and Michael Friel were among the all-conquering Maghera team of ’03 with McCann the sole representative from Antrim.
“I play well for managers who totally trust what I do and how I do it,” McCann says. “'Baker' is one of those. Damian Cassidy is another. My brother Eamonn managed me - him and Martin Logan and Ciaran O’Neill. And I liked Jody Gormley. Jody trusted me a lot and taught me a lot about different things.”
AS soon as he kicked the equalising free in Baker’s first NFL game in charge against Wicklow at Casement Park in the spring of ’09, McCann was the new manager’s go-to man.
After winning the first of their back-to-back promotions, Baker wrong-footed everybody and moved McCann from midfield to full-forward for Antrim’s Ulster Championship opener against Donegal in Ballybofey, the first time he’d played there since his MacRory Cup days.
Under ‘Baker’, Antrim reached their first Ulster final in 39 years and while the Championship wins over Donegal and Cavan in the Ulster semi-final were special, it was the Kerry game in Tullamore, just a week after losing to Tyrone in the provincial decider, that stands out above all the rest for McCann.
“That game in Tullamore (11 years ago tomorrow) surpassed the Ulster final,” he says. “There were 30,000 people in Clones the week before. Two weeks before that there were 15,000 in Clones for the Cavan game on a Saturday night.
“Tullamore was stuffed for the Kerry game. This wasn’t football as I knew it...”
It showed just how far Antrim had travelled under Liam Bradley that McCann felt they were good enough to beat Kerry.
“At no point did I believe we were going to lose to Kerry,” he says. “It was point for point. We actually got ahead in that game.”
Kerry full-back Tommy Griffin couldn’t contain McCann on the edge of the square either as the Cargin man hit four points.
“I remember Griffin was nipping and pulling me and I hit him up the mouth with my elbow and he was bleeding, but we both stayed on the field.”
Jack O’Connor summoned Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper and Tomas O Se from the bench in the second half – both dropped for the Antrim game after breaking a drinks ban – to get Kerry over the line.
McCann says: “I remember when the game was finished and thinking: ‘That is football. That is the real thing.’”
McCann received rave reviews for his performances for Antrim and was rewarded with an Irish News Allstar, a GAA Allstar nominee and a trip to Kuala Lumpur the following year.
Antrim reached the dizzy heights of Division Two under 'Baker' and the Saffrons pushed Kieran McGeeney’s Kildare to a Championship replay in 2010.
But the Saffron revolution couldn’t be sustained as they tripped down the divisions.
At club level, Cargin could rarely get the better of Belfast rivals St Gall’s who dominated the county championship throughout the ‘Noughties’ and early part of the following decade.
“St Gall’s were so well drilled. It got to a point in the mid-Noughties to 2010 once they got ahead of you, you knew you weren’t coming back at them. They were an awesome team.
“I’d a lot of respect for all of them. Someone might say: ‘Maybe that’s your problem. You had too much respect for them.’”
Either side of St Gall’s imperious era McCann picked up five county championship winner’s medals and with the passage of time has become arguably a better player now than he was in his mid-20s.
“If I’d 10 county medals I’d still want to be playing at the highest level,” he says.
“The reason I’m back playing is I want to know at 35 can I still play at that level. At club level I can. Now, every year you’re thinking, is this the year the arse is going to fall out of this?
“Part of me thinks: ‘Should I just go? Go out on a relatively high note?’, because I’d despise the day I play shite and someone shouts: ‘You’re done lad.’”
Sitting back in his chair, Mick McCann laughs at the prospect of his own demise.
But it won’t be for a while yet.
Cargin and Antrim can breathe easily.