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Antrim's focus is facing a real test on and off pitch

By John Campbell

The GAA in Antrim is at a crossroads both on and off the playing field.

While it is understood that the Ulster Council are to re-submit ambitious plans for a redeveloped Casement Park by the end of the summer, the county's hurling and football teams are gearing up for crucial matches spanning the next 10 days that could potentially define their respective seasons.

On Sunday, Kevin Ryan's hurling side will take on Carlow in a must-win Leinster Championship round robin tie while one week later, Antrim will face Fermanagh in the Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final in what will be a repeat of last year's confrontation.

And while uncertainty surrounds the Casement project and the county's Centre of Excellence at Dunsilly remains unfinished, Saffrons officials are now hoping that their teams in both codes can show the county in a much more positive light.

The furore over the future of Casement Park has been labelled as "a distraction" by one official in the build-up to the county's participation in both the hurling and football championships.

"While most other counties are totally focused on their preparations for the championship, here in Antrim there has been more talk about Casement Park," noted the official. "It's time to concentrate more on getting results out on the field.

"Anything that amounts to a distraction can be an impediment to progress and Antrim simply cannot afford to slip up."

Ryan and his football counterpart Frank Fitzsimmons are keen to pick up the gauntlet but the former has been dealt a double blow in advance of Sunday's trip to Carlow now that skipper Neil McManus and long-serving defender Aaron Graffin are unavailable because of injury.

Indeed, it is possible that both players could be out for the season and on top of this Ryan must strive to restore morale following a 17-point hammering (1-21 to 0-7) by Westmeath in his team's last outing.

The Saffrons have won only one game since the start of the year - against Laois in the Leinster series - and although Ryan has given several new players their chance, the team have been unable to attain the level of fluency and cohesion that he had hoped for.

Fitzsimmons, meanwhile, will bring his football side back to Brewster Park, Enniskillen where they recorded a championship victory over Fermanagh last year.

The Antrim side has undergone a makeover since then and Lamh Dhearg clubman Fitzsimmons will be making his touchline debut in the championship.

"While there has been a lot going on off the field in Antrim, the important thing is that we go to Enniskillen in the right frame of mind. If we do that, anything can happen," maintains Fitzsimmons.

"A win for us in this game would turn our season around."

Having digested last Sunday's high-intensity Donegal v Tyrone tie, Fitzsimmons has been left in no doubt as to just what Antrim need to do if they are to have any chance of making an impact in the Ulster series.

"I still think we have a good level of experience in our side. We have boys who can prove a massive help to us back in the panel," points out Fitzsimmons.

An Antrim win over Fermanagh would certainly do much to re-ignite enthusiasm and ensure that attention would be transferred firmly to on-field matters.

"Whatever is happening elsewhere, it's very important that we keep our focus," asserts Fitzsimmons.

Belfast Telegraph


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