Antrim must equip young talent for step up to senior level says Lenny Harbinson

Michael McCann's experience and class helped Antrim to push Cavan all the way in the Ulster Championship last year. Picture Seamus Loughran.
Michael McCann's experience and class helped Antrim to push Cavan all the way in the Ulster Championship last year. Picture Seamus Loughran.

TO make sustainable progress at senior level, Antrim need to equip their talented young footballers with the physical conditioning and mental resilience to handle the step up to inter-county level, says former manager Lenny Harbinson.

After three years at the helm, Harbinson stepped down as bainisteoir of his native Saffrons at the end of last season. A look at the stats shows that Antrim failed to clinch promotion from Division Four and played just one game in the Ulster Championship. But dig a little deeper and it’s clear that Harbinson’s side came close to enjoying a successful 2020.

Antrim missed out on promotion by a single point and that they had Cavan – the eventual champions – under serious pressure before the Breffnimen pulled away to win their Ulster Championship quarter-final meeting.

Three more points across the League would have turned the draw against Carlow and the one-point loss to Sligo into wins and that would have made a huge difference to Antrim’s season. A couple of pairs of fresh legs might have made an impact but Harbinson says he decided to go with an experienced line-up because he felt promising young players in the county were not equipped for the inter-county scene.

“We took a decision for NFL to go with more established proven players along with adding experience such as Paddy Cunningham and Mick McCann,” Harbinson explained.

“This served us well to a degree because the issue with younger players in the U20 panel is that many of them had little or no proper strength development work done for senior county.

“When we came back after the first Covid lockdown, the view was that with the condensed season we had no time integrate younger players into our established systems of play and although a number showed well in Antrim club championship, there is a big step up from this level to county especially when many county teams today have three-four years of strength and conditioning work done both at youth development stage and definitely at senior level.”

Veteran forward Cunningham was outstanding throughout the League, amassing a total of 31 points over the seven games and vastly-experienced Cargin midfielder Mick McCann – a regular substitute in the League – had a terrific game in the Championship clash against Cavan.

Antrim led that game by a point at half-time and were still in with a shout until Mickey Graham’s side pulled away with two points in injury-time.

The Saffron U20 side’s victory over Derry in the Ulster Championship indicates that there is genuine talent in the county and Harbinson says the challenge for Antrim going forward is to nurture it and produce young players with a thorough grounding in what is required for success at senior level.

“In the very near future the challenge for Antrim is: Have we got the young talent who have already done the hard work from a strength and conditioning perspective along with the competitive stick-ability to keep at things even when maybe they are not getting game-time?” he said.

“That is the challenge going forward. Young talent at club level does not naturally translate into senior level - only with time effort application and right mindset will these questions be answered for us Antrim fans.”