GAA Football

NFL FOCUS: Antrim pushing boundaries under Enda McGinley - says the evergreen Mick McCann

Mick McCann remains a vital cog in the Antrim wheel

Allianz Football League

IT was only when he was filling out a squad questionnaire Mick McCann noticed some of the date of births of his Antrim team-mates.

He needed a couple of double takes.

“I’m seeing boys who were born in 2002 and I’m 1985,” McCann laughs. “It just dawned on me: ‘Am I right in the head doing this?’

“In 2002, I was playing in the early rounds of the MacRory Cup with St Pat’s Maghera, doing my 'A' levels and getting ready to go to university.”

Over the close season, McCann was struggling to keep up with the stream of retirement statements popping up on Twitter from inter-county players around the country.

Members of the 30-club were dropping like flies.

“Such and such has retired from the Cork panel at 32-years-of-age… Somebody from the Kerry panel has retired at 31-years-of-age, or 33 and I’m sitting there thinking: ‘Am I wise here? Am I kidding myself?’”

But then the 36-year-old Cargin man rationalised everything and kept it simple.

“At the end of the day, you look at it and you say it’s a game of football, challenge yourself, and if you can’t do it you’ll know yourself anyway.

“You’re not playing Super Bowl here. If you’re shite this year, in 10 years’ time nobody will remember anyway.”

McCann is longevity itself. Give or take one or two short sabbaticals, the affable Cargin man has been representing Antrim since the mid-Noughties.

He was persuaded to re-join the Antrim panel by former boss Lenny Harbinson a couple of games into the 2020 season, a campaign that was badly fractured by the pandemic.

His decision to return to the fold at aged 34 was totally vindicated, as he provided much-needed composure to the spine of Harbinson’s team.

He decided to stick around in 2021 after the managerial appointment of Tyrone’s three-time All-Ireland winner and brother-in-law Enda McGinley - but McCann’s season was cruelly curtailed by a calf muscle injury.

So far this year, McCann’s hitting all the numbers and his midfield displays remain evergreen.

The 2022 squad also had to absorb the loss of experienced duo Paddy Cunningham and Mark Sweeney, both of whom retired; for McCann to go as well might have been too much experience to lose at the one time, especially as Antrim ponders life in Division Three.

“So far I’m hitting my numbers in training and in the gym,” McCann says.

“We’ve done our testing and in terms of speed I’m quicker than I was last year. I’m on the right path. Whether I maintain that I don’t know.

“I suppose all I wanted to do was give it a go and see if I could manage it…”

During his inter-county career, McCann has straddled and surfed many different styles of the game. Gaelic football was undoubtedly more enjoyable to play towards the late ‘Noughties’ than playing the percentages of the modern game, but McCann derives enjoyment from the challenge put in front of him.

“At the start of the season I was wondering, am I really enjoying this? But I wasn’t as fit as I needed to be. Playing inter-county football is just a different level.

“You’re trying to hit 20k-plus every week, doing your gym work, the nutrition, watching videos, it’s genuinely on your mind all the time, trying to get fit but perform as well.

“But the more you dig in and you get yourself up to a level of fitness – and I’ve still a long way to go – things are slowly starting to come. You’ve bad days too but the enjoyment comes from the challenge the management is offering everybody on the squad. That’s what I enjoy now. Can I get to the level I need to be at? I’m not there yet. For me, the challenge is the enjoyment.”

Alongside Cunningham and Sweeney, Niall McKeever, Adam Loughran and Niall Delargy stepped away from the Antrim set-up at the season’s end.

But McGinley has replenished his squad with a good blend of returnees and youth.

If they can replicate their club form, Kickham’s Creggan trio Kevin Small, Jamie McCann and Marty Johnston will add a significant amount to Antrim’s middle eight. Seamus McGarry, a precocious underage talent, is back for a second crack with the Antrim seniors.

Dominic McEnhill is a brainy footballer from the O’Donovan Rossa club and has put his hand up.

McCann’s club-mates Jamie Gribbin and Pat Shivers have the raw talent and unpredictability to add something different to the Antrim attack while McGinley hasn’t been afraid to delve into intermediate ranks to give Tir na nOg’s Barry and Darren McCormick a chance to see if they have what it takes to make the inter-county grade.

McCann admits they’ll miss the leadership and know-how of players like Sweeney, Cunningham and McKeever but is encouraged by the competitive edge the new players have brought to the squad.

“We have lost a few players that brought certain elements of what you’d want in a footballer and a team, but what they replaced that with was a lot of footballers who are keen to compete really, really hard, can play in three or four different positions and are listening and learning the way these lads want you to play the game.

“We also gained four or five footballers that are offering real competition for places in the team and are really buying into what the management want to do.

“The changing room is very, very good. Obviously Mark Sweeney and Paddy Cunningham have stepped away and were the closest men to me, but there is a really good group of lads there. It’s a bit like what the All Blacks say: ‘There are no d***heads’. And when there are no d***heads people can relax, nobody is stepping over the line and everyone is just working hard.”

On the field, the early signs are encouraging too. In their opening Dr McKenna Cup game, Antrim defeated Down in Newry and ran Donegal to within a couple of points in Portglenone.

But McGinley and his backroom team still weren’t happy with aspects of Antrim’s play. As the players gathered in the post-match huddle after narrowly losing to Donegal, assistant Stevie O’Neill could be heard telling them that there were still too many basic errors and that more improvements were needed.

“Those lads have no interest in anything but winning, regardless of who we’re playing.” McCann says of Antrim’s management team.

“Stevie and Enda are both cut from the same cloth in that sense…The problem we have is we don’t have the confidence in ourselves yet but it’s slowly coming that we can play at that level.

“The problem playing the bigger teams is you’re a bit more cautious because of the quality they have and you tend to sit back a wee bit more, you don’t want to be caught on the counter as opposed to thinking: ‘Right, f*** it, we’re going to go out and go for them.’

“Against Donegal, it was good to see us chipping over points – Kevin Small hitting over a left footed point and Dermot McAleese as well.

“We beat Down and Enda and the rest of the boys still weren’t happy in the sense we’ve so much to improve on. They were clearly not happy with the Donegal game because we were beaten, and yet Donegal put on a couple of points at the end.”

Ambition still rages in McGinley and O’Neill long after their playing days. Their approach to everything has also prompted Mick McCann to put retirement on the long finger.

Nothing will be easy in Division Three. Antrim know this. And that's half the battle.

VERDICT

WHEN managers say each game in their division will be desperately tight, they’re not kidding if they’re competing in Division Three this season.

You could throw a blanket over the entire eight teams in Division Three where we can expect quite a number of drawn games or one-point games.

The distance between a pat on the back and a kick up the backside – or in Division Three's case, promotion and relegation - has never been shorter.

A couple of observations about Antrim: Given the anticipated wafer-thin margins in Division Three, they will miss a player of Paddy Cunningham’s finishing quality in the dying embers of games, but given the lack of game-time in 2021 and creeping years it was no surprise the Lamh Dhearg man called time on his inter-county career.

Antrim could have done with Adam Loughran’s confidence and pace in their attack, but the Aghagallon man has stepped away from the panel.

And you can’t under-estimate the experience the likes of Mark Sweeney and Niall McKeever brought to the table as they too both signed off at the end of 2021.

The flip side is Antrim appear to be in a good head space if their McKenna Cup outings are anything to go by.

Crucially, they have good left and right free-takers – Ryan Murray and Patrick McBride.

There’s a battle-hardened feel to their defence too. Ricky Johnston, Peter Healy and Dermot McAleese are all trusted foot soldiers while Eoghan McCabe and James McAuley are assured front-footed defenders.

Kevin Small and Jamie McCann had awesome club championship campaigns and are scoring threats in the middle third.

Mick and Tomas McCann are fitter than they have been for a while, and on his day, there won’t be many better forwards in Division Three than Odhran Eastwood.

Ryan and Conor Murray can also be game-winners on any given day.

Antrim also have a few wild card entries in Jamie Gribbin and Pat Shivers.

The team has the confidence from last season of winning tight games. They have four home games and just three away.

And is it really a big jump in quality from Division Four to Division Three? It’ll be as dogged, for sure.

Antrim can give promotion a serious rattle as there is no team they should fear. Fermanagh (away), though, could well be their toughest fixture of the lot this weekend.

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