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Comment: Why Davitts offer Antrim GAA real hope

New beginnings: Belfast Lord Mayor, Councillor Deirdre Hargey, officially opens a new community sports and recreation facility at Davitt Park, built with £1.15million from the council’s Belfast Investment Fund and Schools Enhancement Fund. The facilities also received a further £345,000 from The Space and Place programme, through the National Lottery Community Fund, thanks to National Lottery players. Pictured with the Lord Mayor are (l-r) Andrew McCracken, Chief Executive of Community Fund for Northern Ireland, Davitts’ Chairman Tommy Shaw and club supporters Naoibh Heaney and Sophie Skelly
New beginnings: Belfast Lord Mayor, Councillor Deirdre Hargey, officially opens a new community sports and recreation facility at Davitt Park, built with £1.15million from the council’s Belfast Investment Fund and Schools Enhancement Fund. The facilities also received a further £345,000 from The Space and Place programme, through the National Lottery Community Fund, thanks to National Lottery players. Pictured with the Lord Mayor are (l-r) Andrew McCracken, Chief Executive of Community Fund for Northern Ireland, Davitts’ Chairman Tommy Shaw and club supporters Naoibh Heaney and Sophie Skelly

By Declan Bogue

It has been 10 years since Liam Bradley pulled off one of the most underrated coaching jobs in Gaelic football by getting Antrim to an Ulster final, where they were beaten by Tyrone.

A week later in sunny Tullamore, they had Kerry in such a panic that manager Jack O'Connor had to relent on his punishment for Colm Cooper and Tomas Ó Sé for breaking a drinking ban by sending them on to pull the Kingdom out of a hole and win by five points. Kerry crushed Dublin by 17 points the following week.

It should have been a platform to really build on. But it never happened.

Some 30 years ago, the Saffrons made it to an All-Ireland hurling final after beating Offaly in the semi-final by three goals. In 1991, they lost a semi-final to Kilkenny by two points.

Again, they should have been platforms, but were squandered.

A decade and three decades on respectively from those momentous occasions and time has not been kind. In the middle of February, you can reasonably say that Antrim's season in both codes is over for 2019.

In football, they lie at the foot of Division Four along with Waterford with no points from their opening three matches. Prospects of promotion are shot at this stage.

After defeat to Westmeath, their hurling promotion hopes back to 1B are scuppered. They had a glorious chance this year with games against Kerry and Westmeath both in Belfast, but they could not capitalise.

At least the hurlers have something in the distance to aim for, with two more games against Mayo and London to target before their Joe McDonagh Cup competition in the summer.

But with the footballers meeting the winners of the Tyrone v Derry Ulster preliminary round, the usual round of player defections to their own clubs or America seem inevitable.

With the tradition in the county, and the ability of clubs such as St Gall's and Loughgiel Shamrocks to compete at club level, this is a depressing failure, yet meekly accepted.

The on-pitch difficulties say nothing about what has gone on behind them. In 2015, a group known as 'Saffron Vision' took five of the seven top seats on the county board. They had huge ambition, led by St John's clubman Collie Donnelly.

During his time he has presided over a significant improvement on Antrim finances, cleared a great deal of historic debt and was a crucial component of the establishment of the Saffron Business Forum and other fundraising initiatives.

After two years of his term, his work was acknowledged by one of their most high-profile hurlers, Neil McManus, who said: "The new county board has been in place for two years now and they're remarkably easy to work with. I would even go as far as to say I'm proud of them.

"The people in the positions at the minute are successful people in their own field, and the amount of work that's going on behind the scenes means that it's going to be an absolute joy for the next generation.

"I can honestly say Antrim hurlers want for nothing."

What Donnelly and his colleagues soon recognised was that the problems in Antrim ran deep. As much as they would have liked to improve things with their flagship teams, their time was mainly eaten up with the minutiae of the work and inboxes that never seem to empty for GAA administrators.

Getting a sound financial footing had to become a priority. During the time, they oversaw the opening of the Dunsilly training complex which had stalled for some years.

They also laid the foundations for the establishment of the 'Gaelfast' programme, with coaches now working in harmony with schools in Belfast to develop young hurlers and footballers from the ground up.

While this has all been going on, the clubs themselves have experienced deep-rooted difficulties - such as dwindling attendances at club matches, volunteer fatigue and a culture where some of the more illustrious clubs have found it increasingly difficult to get trainers and club officers.

On a bricks and mortar level, things are not good. For example, prior to last weekend there wasn't a club in Antrim that had a covered stand for spectators. Only a few grounds actually have floodlights that are capable of staging a game and when Antrim have to play their midweek games in pre-season competitions, it is the Dub Playing Fields owned by Queen's and Belfast City Council's Woodlands facilities that are used.

That's why the opening of the new facility for the Davitts club in Belfast over the weekend was such an important and symbolic act. Like many other clubs in cities where real estate is practically impossible to acquire, they had to beg and borrow to train and coach their youngsters and senior sides for the last century.

With the help of Belfast City Council's generous funding, they have opened a state-of-the-art facility that will be used by the club, local schools and the community at large. And they have a covered stand.

A strong Belfast will make a strong Antrim. The pity is it will take a lot of time and patience.

Belfast Telegraph

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