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Antrim are starting to use their heads

Mental toughness is vital for Fitzsimons

By Declan Bogue

Antrim may have a Fermanagh man in their management set-up, but boss Frankie Fitzsimons insists that strength and conditioning expert Mick McGurn has been doing all he can to toughen the Saffrons players mentally as well as physically before they meet in the Ulster championship quarter-final this weekend.

"Mick has worked with a lot of Gaelic footballers and a lot of teams and he has been putting it into their heads that they are as talented a bunch of players as there is," insists the Lamh Dhearg clubman, in his first year as an inter-county manager having served as selector under Liam 'Baker' Bradley last year.

"Most of this game is in the head. Obviously Mick has the physical end ready, but if your head is right and you prepare well mentally then there is no reason why you should not be able to go out and give it your best."

In Gaelic football, league results are often mistaken for form guides, but the fact remains that they are different competitions played months apart.

Fitzsimons was in Breffni Park on Sunday to see a Cavan side tear into Monaghan, a team two divisions above them, only to be pipped at the post.

He sees broad similarities as Antrim - who finished third in Division Four - prepare to meet Fermanagh, who got promoted to Division Two.

"I think at this time of the year, the league goes out the window. You do draw a bit of inspiration from Cavan," he commented.

"Probably on another day, Cavan might have won the game.

"A lot of people were saying that the experience of Monaghan pulled them through in the end, especially the experience of some players coming off the bench."

Last year, Antrim raced into a 1-10 to 0-1 lead after 30 minutes which was enough for them to eventually fall over the line, with the help of a goal-line clearance by Kevin O'Boyle from Ryan McCluskey's last-gasp shot.

Given how Pete McGrath has changed the Fermanagh style of play to safeguard the defence, Fitzsimons realises Sunday's game will bear little comparison, adding that the Saffrons will be battening down the hatches themselves.

"It was a very open game last year, gung-ho football and one of those games that could have gone either way," he recalls.

"Now, you have to come up with a defensive set-up and a plan. We have been working on that.

"The three goals scored against us would have been a worry and the three that Donegal got after that, and Limerick in the qualifiers.

"So we are trying to work on stopping goal opportunities.

"If it happens, it happens. You saw Tyrone setting up defensively against Donegal and then there were times that Donegal were free inside. It takes a lot of work and patience."

However, such work can be tedious and Fitzsimons admits that that level of theory might not come natural to Antrim footballers.

"I think it's very hard to coach. A lot of teams in Antrim wouldn't play like that and you are taking boys out of their comfort zones.

"If you were asking players to stand in certain positions for a while, to wait and wait until somebody comes onto you, well then it's all about getting used to it and then going out and playing on the day."

This season, he travelled to the Athletic Grounds to see Fermanagh snatch a draw against Armagh in the league, and also caught their league final defeat to the same opposition.

He can appreciate the alterations.

He said: "Their system has changed a lot, from what I have seen between this year and last year.

"You can see they have a defensive system. It's something we have to do as well.

"Obviously Fermanagh are feeling they are going to beat us, they are going in against the big guns, so they need some sort of a defensive plan."

The return of a number of players to the Antrim fold in the last two months has emboldened Fitzsimons, and he outlined the influence they have had.

He explained: "Over the last six or seven weeks, Kieran (McGourty) has added an experience and a calming influence around some of the younger lads.

"Mark Sweeney is a class act, and then you have the three lads who weren't there last year; Chris Kerr, CJ McGourty and Michael Pollock. The three of them are exceptional, very talented footballers."

And he discounts the theory that playing away in Brewster Park will have a bearing on the result, adding: "Sometimes you would be under a lot of pressure playing at home.

"But we have travelled away a lot throughout year and a lot last year as well, so it is really all about how you approach the challenge."

Belfast Telegraph


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