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Declan Bogue: Why blaming Casement Park is not the answer to Antrim GAA's problems

Sorry sight: Casement Park left to crumble after redevelopment plans hit snag
Sorry sight: Casement Park left to crumble after redevelopment plans hit snag
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

In the wrong hands, some counties' social media accounts can be instruments of torture.

Most counties use their feeds as a means to promote results and achievements, or plug corporate-type events. Generally, humdrum stuff. Not worth the follow.

Not Sean Kelly of Antrim. One of the most upbeat people you can meet, Sean has taken the social media game of the Saffrons to new heights. We get an insight into Antrim like few other counties.

Occasionally, it can become art. The picture of their half-time dressing room huddle, when they had the then All-Ireland champions Galway on the rack at the interval of their opening hurling league game of 2018, is worthy of framing.

At the weekend, we got to see the county footballers in the lead-up and the aftermath of their defeat to Tyrone, when they returned to Casement Park.

Where it began to grate was in just how much prominence the ongoing limbo of Casement commanded. It felt almost like a tool of deflection after their footballers were crushed by the Red Hands, who ran their bench soon after the break with a 14-point margin already opened up.

How could it be anything else? After the league campaign, 10 of their players walked away for various reasons. Some of them, for sure, would be absolutely genuine but there could be a couple of lads that simply didn't want to wait about for a hockeying against one of the best teams in the land.

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From a purely football perspective, Antrim's approach was way off. They couldn't win any of their own kickouts. They tried the long ball into Matthew Fitzpatrick too many times. Tyrone matched them up man for man and their superior conditioning and fitness counted in practically every 50-50 challenge.

In the press box, Radio Ulster commentators and pundits tried to dress it up and talked about a game Antrim challenge, their bravery in keeping forwards up the field. Keeping listeners just about tuned in really.

None of that is anything to do with the current state of Casement Park.

But there was an air of inevitability to this game which began weeks ago. In pre-match interviews, Casement Park was referenced by players as a major cause of frustration within the county.

That's fair enough. When you think of Antrim GAA right now, you think of that source of embarrassment for so many, the ineptitude from so many quarters over the last six or seven years.

Certain things, though, stood out. The players themselves were mainly wide-eyed innocents, new to this sort of thing. Nine Championship debutants in all.

One observer remarked afterwards that when they went to do their customary cool-down on the pitch, there were fewer than a dozen Antrim footballers there. The rest were scattered around the pitch, some getting selfies taken with family or with opposition players, swapping jerseys.

That might sound churlish and straight from the Roy Keane 'Bumper Book of Grievances', but compare that to the reaction of the Derry players after the final whistle of their own defeat to Tyrone a fortnight earlier. Some were absolutely distraught having gone a point up with eight minutes of normal time remaining.

We take you back to January 27 of this year and Corrigan Park. A much more motivated Antrim side, with something to play for, lost by a single point to Derry in the opening round of the National League.

Ten players leaving a panel destroys it. It also wipes out the effect of the strength and conditioning programme that Fionntan Devlin was undergoing with the panel, and the tactical work that manager Lenny Harbinson and coach Brendan Trainor were working on.

In that situation, no manager can turn things around. They start to manage a situation, rather than a team.

There is tremendous goodwill towards Antrim from the wider GAA family. A few years ago, a new county board arrived almost en masse under the 'Saffron Vision' banner. They inherited a financial and structural mess but under chairman Collie Donnelly and Terry Reilly, two experienced men in the corporate world, they turned it around.

Could they do all they wanted? Of course not. The minutiae and politicking of these roles can deter ambitious administrators. But they also pushed the 'Gaelfast' programme through the various levels of bureaucracy which was no mean feat.

You cannot but be inspired by the work of figures such as Tony Shivers, who has been a driver of the Saffron Business Forum, an effective fundraiser for the county.

The die-hards within the county panels are awesome. Paddy McBride and Lenny Harbinson, Neal Peden, Karl McKeegan and Neil McManus are all inspiring individuals.

But blaming Casement Park is not the answer.

Second-tier Championship would rob us of so much

Some Twitter-related nonsense now for everyone.

Last week I had reflected on the entertaining skirmish between Tyrone and Derry, before a brilliant couple of days of Ulster Championship derbies with Cavan finally getting one over on Monaghan and Armagh rescuing themselves deep into the second period of extra-time to finally overcome Down.

Buoyed by the afterglow, I posted a poll on Twitter posing the question: 'How has the Ulster Championship been so far? Just wondering what the wider perception is out there'.

A total of 332 votes were cast, highlighting my incredible reach and the potential to move into an 'influencer' role in the future. The options were: Puke (4% of the vote), Mediocre (10%), Fairly good (52%) and Genuinely good (34%).

Of the sample, just 14% of people were not satisfied with the Ulster Championship. We dare say after Tyrone's hammering of Antrim and the spectacle that was Fermanagh-Donegal, that figure might have crept up if the poll was conducted after the weekend, but still.

Until GAA President John Horan had his hand in the canister and the balls were being whirled around, all described in lurid detail by RTÉ's Morning Ireland host Darren Frehill, it didn't truly feel like the Championship.

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Big plans: GAA chief John Horan wants second-tier Championship

Once the qualifiers arrive, it all gets a little helter-skelter. Teams that have been beaten on a Sunday get to shake off a hangover on Monday morning, knowing the focus for training will already have been set.

In the qualifiers, mad things happen. Pairings that we have never seen before in the Championship pop up all the time and that one side from down the country that you can never get the better of in a dirty league game now look extremely vulnerable.

We are on the edge of great reform. It seems a certainty, given President Horan's determination to leave a legacy, that a second-tier Championship will be brought in.

When that happens, the notion of giant-killings leaves the Gaelic Football Championship. Everyone will be at their own level, as decreed by the all-knowing ones, and half the craic will disappear.

And we will be all the poorer for it.

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