Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Championship: Antrim must face up to age-old problems

The optimism and sounds approving of a new voice as Frank Dawson gripped the reigns as the manager, dwindled away as Antrim's form took a dramatic dive half-way through their league campaign.

At one stage under the Saturday night lights in Casement Park, Antrim and Fermanagh were going at it when Sean McVeigh plundered a brilliant solo goal cutting in off the endline and holding off no less than Marty McGrath in the process.

Had Antrim have held on for the win instead of a share of the points, Fermanagh's season would not appear as rosy. But from that battling and tenacious display, Antrim inexplicably collapsed.

Shortly after that game, Michael McCann left the panel, citing the time involvement in establishing a new business. While McVeigh had returned to become a welcome addition to the Saffrons engine room, manpower around the middle suddenly became light on the ground, especially with Aodhan Gallagher remaining in self-imposed exile.

It's easy to be glib and resort to cliche, but in the case of Antrim a split in the camp is never far away. Even Liam Bradley — their most successful and progressive manager of the past 30 years — had massive problems in getting the best talent available to play for their county and this remains the perennial problem.

The paradox in all of this is that Dawson (right) has a brilliant reputation for rejuvenating tired and perhaps jaded players. From the outside, this looked like an ideal candidate, especially as the schoolteachers' St Gall's connections might have been enough to lure some stay-aways back into the fold.

It hasn't quite worked out like that, and Dawson has been hit with the withdrawal of Tomás McCann and Tony Scullion after it emerged there was a difference of opinion on travelling arrangements to the make-or-break last league game against Monaghan.

As it transpired, Antrim finished the season on a real downer, beaten easily by the team they are due to play in the first round of the Ulster Championship, dropping down into division four into the bargain.

Is it all doom and gloom? Hard to say. It was from division four that Antrim reached the 2009 Ulster final, but so much has changed from then. For one thing, they had Donegal in the first round and caught them on a day that they were at their most bi-polar.

From that, they toppled an over-confident Cavan in the semi-final but when they ran up against genuine quality in Tyrone they were unable to cope with them.

Niall McKeever is in Australia, James Loughrey is in Cork colours. Antrim were always operating off a small pool and while the return of Sean Kelly and Mark Sweeney is welcome, they are merely filling in gaps.

On Sunday, June 9, they face a team that won the league that Antrim couldn't survive in. Butter it up any way you want, but that is the scale of the task. ahead of them in Casement Park.divisions and absentees may derail campaign

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