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Casement Park standstill is an absolute disgrace, blasts Antrim manager

Lost patience: Lenny Harbinson is sick of Antrim not having a home ground
Lost patience: Lenny Harbinson is sick of Antrim not having a home ground
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Antrim senior football manager Lenny Harbinson has labelled the ongoing inertia around the crumbling Casement Park stadium an 'absolute disgrace' after his side's defeat to Tyrone in the Ulster Championship quarter-final on Saturday.

The game was played at Armagh's Athletic Grounds as the Saffrons have no home venue capable of hosting such a fixture, although the low attendance of 5,409 could actually have comfortably been housed at Ballycastle or Dunloy.

On the morning of the game, Harbinson's side assembled at Casement Park on the Andersonstown Road before continuing their journey.

Harbinson, who famously managed his own club St Gall's to an All-Ireland Club title in 2010, explained: "We met at Casement. We went in to see the Casement Social Club. Casement has been very good to Antrim down through the years, and continues to be very good and supportive of Bob Murray and the committee there. So we were delighted to get in there.

"But it's an absolute disgrace that since 2012 when Casement closed down, we haven't had a home pitch. Yes, it's been well documented, it's gone back and forth through the courts, but it's gone on for far too long."

It has emerged that a redeveloped Casement Park would be the only Northern Ireland venue included in the UK and Irish bid to host the Fifa soccer World Cup in 2030.

The Department for Communities (DfC) has indicated that it will form part of the planned bid for the tournament.

An essential criteria to host a World Cup game is a minimum seating capacity of 40,000 - the redeveloped Casement Park would be the only venue to meet this requirement as it stands.

It remains to be seen if such factors could push along the slow progress of the project.

"Decisions should have been made by the legislators from a point of view of planning and there is a political element to it," continued Harbinson.

"The second largest city in the island of Ireland and we don't have a proper stadium - that's wrong and it shouldn't have gone on for as long as it has. Casement should be built."

At present, Antrim GAA is benefiting from a tranche of funding for their 'Gaelfast' programme, which targets growing Gaelic games in the city.

In the meantime, however, the lack of a proper home - the Saffrons having signed over Casement Park to the Ulster Council in 2012 - has robbed a generation of players of their Antrim identity, says Harbinson.

"We are stood here in Armagh when we should have been standing in Casement," he pointed out. "That's wrong. Yes, thank you to the people of Armagh and the Ulster Council, it is a great facility, but it's our home match.

"The knock-on impact down the road is that youngsters, be they from south west Antrim, Belfast, who are driving past Casement every day, the iconic stadium… It should have been built. It needs to be built.

"The knock-on impact it has on youngsters, it could give them a home, give them a focal point, give them a desire to want to play Gaelic games in Belfast, in what should have been and needs to be a fantastic stadium.

"Antrim, like lots of counties, have their challenges; players have left plenty of counties. We can't afford to lose so many players - it's 16, 17 players gone from two years ago. Any county, even at the top level, wouldn't be able to compete if they'd lost that many. That's the challenge that we have.

"There are all sorts of reasons like work, exam commitments, so it's a big challenge, absolutely."

He also addressed the lack of players from St Gall's and county champions Erin's Own, Cargin.

"In relation to both those clubs, the likes of Michael McCann and Kevin Niblock have done it for Antrim for 10 years. They've committed and they're now in their early 30s, so they have commitments at home and work. They're still good footballers but those are just the cards that you are dealt," he said.

The idea of players 'serving their time' with Antrim is also a difficult one for many to come to terms with. Ten players left the county squad after their Division Four campaign, which makes continuity almost impossible.

Harbinson added: "There's an element to that of the strength and fitness of Tyrone. They're maybe six or seven years into a plan, whereas we only started last year with Fintan Devlin. We know there is a big task in front of us in that respect."

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