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Fitzsimons tells young Saffrons... our season starts now

Sligo v Antrim, All-Ireland Qualifiers Round 1a: Markievicz Park, Today, 5.00pm

By Declan Bogue

Antrim footballers make another trip to the Wild Atlantic Way after being ejected from the Ulster Championship a few shorts weeks back by Donegal in Ballybofey, when they head for Sligo today.

Under the silent gaze of Ben Bulben in Markievicz Park, Saffrons co-manager Frankie Fitzsimons has issued the stark reminder to his players that, "Realistically, our Championship starts now."

Relegated to Division Four on scoring difference after a campaign that produced many positives, Antrim were outclassed by a Donegal team that granted Championship debuts to six new players.

In the past, that sort of setback might have triggered a mass walkout from the panel and a team hastily patched back up for the road. But that hasn't happened, much to the delight of Lamh Dhearg clubman Fitzsimons.

"I think we need to be realistic. We are a very young team. We have a young panel and it takes a whole to build a team to compete against the likes of a Donegal.

"Donegal have been like a conveyor belt over the last five or six years. You need to be on the road for a few years, building at your team, your panel, in order to get up to the point where you can be competitive with them over the course of a full game," he stated.

"I don't think there is any shame in saying that," he added. "Don't get me wrong, talent is all the same. But there is a lot of work that goes in with other counties and they have a lot of finances and stuff. Not that I am saying that finance is everything, but it does help along the way.

"You just need to build towards that sort of standard."

In starting from a low base, progress is all about inching towards the end goal. Off the pitch, the Dunsilly project is up and running with Antrim county teams currently preparing there while works continue. At board level, the final touches are being put to a document to present to Croke Park for judgment and hopefully a major investment in coaching in the coming years.

What justifies the hope is the presence of the Antrim minors in the Ulster semi-final this weekend against Derry, something Fitzsimons is quick to acknowledge.

"In Antrim at the moment, there's a lot of work goes on with under-age and Development Squads. Our problem seems to be at 17, 18 and 19. What happens to the players at that age," he said.

"It's the mindset of the players. You get yourself into the mindset that you want to be a county senior footballer. You are called up to the senior panel and the manager is telling you, 'this is what you have to do to compete with the big teams.'

"And if you get 30 to 35 guys who will do that, all of a sudden you can go places. But that's the big step up, and it's not for everyone."

The contrast in Ballybofey last month between the minor and senior games was stark. One thing that cannot be disputed is that Antrim's young talent is the equal of any in the province. The next step is to change the culture. It wasn't so long ago that Donegal were in a similar position.

"Now they have young lads who are busting a gut to get playing for their county, with the structures they have put in place," explained Fitzsimons.

"We have that too, and it's been very positive for us over the last year with a young squad. I don't know what is going to happen over the next few years but if they all stick together, and I am sure we will get two or three minors out of the last few years' teams, you don't know what can happen."

In the meantime, Antrim have been happy with how they re-focussed themselves. The players had the week off after the Donegal defeat and met up the following Friday night before resuming training on the Tuesday.

They are also travelling with a clean bill of health within their panel, apart from long-time absentee James Laverty.

Another factor that will please them is their build-up hasn't been hampered as it was in the lead-in to that Ulster game. On the week of the game, for example, Fitzsimons himself accompanied Matthew Fitzpatrick to his Central Hearings Committee meeting in an effort to overturn his 48-week ban awarded in retrospect for the Armagh league game.

They met Sligo in the National League in Corrigan Park and on a day they really needed a win, they pulled one off with a late CJ McGourty free swerving over the sticks.

Despite that win, Fitzsimons is cautious.

"I was talking about this the other day. I would just make Sligo slight favourites because they are at home. To be honest, I could be wrong but I wouldn't imagine there is much between the two teams. A lot of it is down to who turns up on the day.

"Both teams will want to win it, but it comes down to who wants it most."

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