Joe Kernan: Saffrons united in Bradley’s final goal
Unity is strength. And nowhere is this more applicable than within the GAA, particularly at the height of the Championship season.
Petty differences, squabbles, even full-blown controversy can often blight a county’s progress at certain periods of the year in either football or hurling.
But when the Championship heat is turned up, it is absolutely essential that everyone is on the one wavelength.
Antrim have already epitomised the team bond that can bring success — and they will need to underline it even further when they meet Cavan on Saturday in the Ulster football semi-final.
Yet that bond is not quite prevalent within every Ulster county and this can retard progress. We have seen examples of this in the recent past and that’s why I’m in no doubt that, when he initially took over as Antrim boss, Liam Bradley declared that he only wanted players on board who were prepared to commit themselves to the saffron jersey.
Evidence has already been supplied that this is very much the case — but even more compelling evidence will be offered should Antrim make it into the Ulster final against All Ireland champions Tyrone.
In the past, Antrim have had their internal problems but under Bradley, parochial differences have been put on the back burner — if not erased altogether — and the common good is now very much the prime target.
It is no coincidence, too, that a lot of the young players under the manager’s command — Justin Crozier, Kevin O’Boyle, James Loughrey, Paddy Cunningham, Tomas McCann and Niall McKeever — have prospered in the under-age and third level spheres in the past and are now bringing their even more rounded skills to the Ulster Championship table.
Not since 1970 have Antrim been in an Ulster final — and Bradley rightly believes that it’s high time this lengthy famine was ended.
Mind you, a Cavan side that will have even greater belief after that win over Fermanagh and which possesses two lethal free-takers in Seanie Johnston and former Burnley player Mark O’Reilly, will be difficult to overcome, particularly as manager Tommy Carr reckons he is now getting his strategy right.
A communal sense of purpose, firm leadership and selfless commitment underpin the Antrim ethos, of course. Less than a year ago they won the Tommy Murphy Cup, then they achieved promotion to Division Three of the National League and here they are on the cusp of a clash with the holders of the Sam Maguire Cup in the Ulster final. Headway or what!
The county team in each of the 32 counties – and London and New York of course – is the flagship side. During the National League and Championship, team managers need the utmost help and co-operation from the clubs. This is not always forthcoming to the extent that it should be.
We all recognise that the clubs are the heart and soul of the Association but we know too that a county’s overall welfare is gauged on how their county teams perform in the most important championships. Attracting players, gaining sponsorship deals and promoting the gospel of the GAA, particularly among schoolchildren and young adults, can all depend on the success ratio of the team that wears the county jersey — that’s the bottom line.
And while Cavan and Antrim will vie for the right to meet Tyrone, another team that could yet make a strong bid for the Sam Maguire Cup hope to take a further step along the hazardous Championship route this week-end.
Dublin will meet Westmeath in the Leinster semi-final and I fancy that Pat Gilroy’s side will have too many tricks up their sleeves for the midlanders.
The Dubs will, I believe, show more conviction on this occasion and while they are certainly not generally rated among the warm favourites to go all the way this year for the first time since 1995, I would not be inclined to rule them out of an All Ireland final appearance. That’s not to say they will win it, of course!