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Football and rugby taking away Antrim GAA's young talent

BY John Campbell

The Antrim GAA team will lose a generation of talented young players to football and rugby unless they start becoming winners.

That’s the stark warning for the county ahead of Sunday’s Ulster Championship clash with Monaghan.

There is growing fear in GAA circles that Ulster’s success on the rugby pitch and the continued popularity of football is putting kids off gaelic games, especially in Belfast, which is obviously a large catchment area for Antrim.

The likes of Ravenhill giant Stephen Ferris and Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard are proving bigger heroes than Antrim players.

Antrim county board chairman Jim Murray said: “The threat from other sports is becoming greater not just in Antrim but throughout the county, particularly in urban areas.

“We must be prepared to meet this challenge head on.”

Long-standing Antrim player Paddy Cunningham added: “The Ulster Rugby team by their performances have won over a lot of people and this in turn encourages youngsters to play the game.

“The GAA is competing for these same youngsters and if we as a county team can show we are making headway then we have a chance of getting them on our side.”

Victory over Monaghan in the Ulster Senior Football Championship would be seen as a significant fillip in the ongoing efforts to combat the ever-increasing threat that the GAA currently faces from other sports within the county, particularly in Belfast.

Officials and players are united in their drive to bring about a win that would not only launch Antrim into a semi-final meeting with Fermanagh or Down but would provide them with the oxygen of publicity in their concerted bid to sustain the appeal of gaelic sports.

The growing interest in rugby and the ongoing popularity of soccer constitute a dual threat to the Association’s efforts to entice young people into participating in both football and hurling, especially in areas throughout Belfast.

The completion of the Centre of Excellence at Dunsilly, the four-year project which will see Casement Park re-built, the ambitious Belfast Pitches Development Plan and the launch of several ambitious coaching initiatives form part of an overall expansive blueprint to strengthen the GAA within the county.

Indeed, on Monday night next an important meeting will take place at the Dunsilly Hotel, Antrim at which stakeholders, club representatives and other interested parties will convene at the invitation of the county board to embark on strategic planning for the next five years.

But in the short term any success attained by the county football side will be seen as an important catalyst for nurturing fresh enthusiasm for gaelic games.

County board chairman Murray is urging Antrim fans to get behind the side in their bid to reach the Ulster semi-finals.

“We have to have a reasonable chance against Monaghan on Sunday even though the match is at Clones,” reasons Murray.

“We played there in the Ulster final three years ago and a number of players who were in action then are still in the side. With a good bit of vocal backing you never know what this Antrim side might accomplish.”

Murray is proving a driving force in taking the GAA forward within the county but accepts that the performances of the flagship football and hurling sides can have a big bearing on winning over a discerning public.

“There is no doubt that the county team is seen as the shop window of the GAA and if people like what they see, then they will buy into it,” observes Murray.

“The threat from other sports is becoming greater not just in Antrim but throughout the country, particularly in urban areas, and we as an Association must be prepared to meet this challenge head on.

“Our hurlers disappointed in losing to Westmeath in the Leinster Championship last weekend and now our hopes lie with our footballers in flying the flag for Antrim in style.”

Cunningham, who has been in the Antrim side for the past seven years and who will again have a key role in attack against Monaghan, points to Ulster’s progress in the Heineken Cup as a barometer of the mushrooming interest in rugby across the community as a whole.

And he is adamant that the GAA must continue to provide even better role models to compete against iconic players as Wayne Rooney, Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany, Rory Best, Stephen Ferris, Andrew Trimble and others from soccer and rugby who are so much in vogue just now.

“The Ulster team by their performances have won over a lot of people and this in turn maybe encourages youngsters to play the game. The GAA is competing for these same youngsters and if we as a county team can show we are making headway then we have a chance of getting them on our side,” maintains Cunningham, who was a prime mover in the launch of the All-Star School of GAA Coaching aimed at 14-16 year-olds earlier this week.

“We are going in against a Monaghan side that will be aiming to make a big point following their relegation but we have to concentrate on our own strengths.”

Antrim manager Liam Bradley makes the point that if fans get the opportunity to share in a championship win — better still wins — then they there is a better chance that they will encourage their children to take up the sport.

“If Antrim can get past Monaghan on Sunday, this would open the door to all sorts of possibilities. But the fact of the matter is that Monaghan will be a big test for us in their own back yard,” insists Bradley.

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