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Antrim must show a united front and stick together

By Declan Bogue

Published 18/05/2016

Bitter blow: Antrim’s Niall McKeever and boss Frankie Fitzsimmons after defeat in last year’s qualifiers
Bitter blow: Antrim’s Niall McKeever and boss Frankie Fitzsimmons after defeat in last year’s qualifiers

Let me paint you a picture. It's mid-May. You are a young county footballer in the prime of your life. You might be a student, thinking of the four long months stretching out ahead before you have to report back for another semester.

Nowadays, part-time work is not what it used to be. The solid chugging of cement mixers no longer fill the air around Ulster the way they did 'when the thing was going well'.

Working in pubs is a no-no if you are serious about your sport for two reasons - 1. The random nature of shift work and 2. Pubs, like cement mixers, aren't what they used to be.

One publican of this columnist's acquaintance has a bar in rural south Derry. He no longer opens for the Monday club. Another acquaintance has a pub on the Fermanagh/Cavan border, and these days it only opens on weekends. That is the trend right across the province.

Without a family business or large employer nearby, you have few options for paid work. You might pick up a few weeks helping out with Cúl camps and summer camps, but it's nothing more than pin money, really.

Even before your team play, and are beaten in your provincial Championship, you are receiving calls from a trans-Atlantic number, asking if you fancy playing football in Boston, New York or San Francisco for the summer.

Your flight will be paid. You will be placed in a decent pad. You might have to report for a bit of building site work, but your superiors will have you on light duties and be extremely sympathetic.

Your wages will be plentiful and the expectations of turning in on a Monday morning will be minimal.

There are considerations to make here. The county team will miss you. Your departure will be recorded in newspapers and radio bulletins hungry for an exclusive.

As for the club, the savage loves his native shore, but if the county team go on a run in your absence, you could end up not missing any games of great importance.

But should an amateur sport, supposedly a pastime, hold young men to ransom in this way? There are plenty in clubs and counties who would see a summer spent in America as a rite of passage, a chance for them to spread their wings and see a bit of the world.

These 'Go West Young Man' are well-adjusted types - don't expect too many of them in the GAA fold.

That scenario is probably playing on the minds of some of the Antrim players since their Ulster preliminary defeat against Fermanagh on Sunday. One or two calls may already have come and choices have to be made. Joint-manager Frankie Fitzsimmons took advantage of many a short Antrim summer and became a well-known figure in American GAA, so he knows deep down what it means.

Last year after they beat Laois in the qualifiers, Paddy McBride, Paddy McAleer and Conor Burke all travelled to Boston.

Fitzsimmons' response was: "What are you supposed to do? It's very hard to turn down. They were keen to go and they went with everyone's blessing. There was no fall-out or anything like that."

That is quite a different tone than that of his predecessor, Liam Bradley, who said in 2012: "This thing of fellas heading off to play for dollars once their teams have been knocked out of the provincial Championship - it's become a cancer in the game."

What might convince players to stick around is the lure of a run in the qualifiers. Antrim have been slowest of all to recognise this.

In the first eight seasons, even allowing for the two years in which they were forced to play in the Tommy Murphy Cup, the Saffrons had only one single qualifiers win, coming in 2001 against Leitrim.

In recent times they have defeated Westmeath, London, Carlow and most famously, Galway. That shows they have the ability.

But for true progress, they need to copy the example of Sunday's victors, Fermanagh.

When they lost to Monaghan in last year's Ulster semi-final, Pete McGrath promised them if they stuck together, they would play football in August.

How Antrim would love that.

Belfast Telegraph

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