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Saffrons stand united ahead of clash with Fermanagh

By John Campbell

A deep sense of frustration could yet prove a key weapon in Antrim's bid to clamber out of what one official described as "a morass of negativity" when they confront Fermanagh in the second round of the All-Ireland football qualifiers on Sunday. The Saffrons will travel to Brewster Park, Enniskillen fuelled by a burning desire to underline that positivity is the name of the game.

Manager Frank Fitzsimons is today joined by county board officials and players in thundering out a defiant message just as the All-Ireland championship season begins to move into overdrive.

Fitzsimons, clearly annoyed at what he feels as a lack of balance in terms of media reporting, claims that if, for example, a player or players leave his squad then "this is amplified 10 times more than if it happened in another county."

And he adds: "I don't know why this should be. These kind of things go on in every county but there seems to be more made of it when it happens in Antrim."

And county board spokesman Sean Fleming, while admitting that the Casement Park refurbishment saga, the decline in the county hurling team's fortunes and the failure of the football team to extricate themselves from Division Four have not helped ,nonetheless believes that Fitzsimons's side can make "a big statement" on Sunday.

"Look at it this way," says schoolteacher Fleming, "There are a number of counties no longer involved in the All-Ireland Championship but we are still in there battling away.

"Maybe it's not every year that Antrim are still playing championship football in July but we are happy to take what is in front of us."

Fleming, knowledgeable and articulate, perhaps personifies the dignified, pragmatic approach that is helping to bolster Antrim's image after a six-month period that has brought more than its share of disappointment.

"Sure, we are frustrated that we did not get out of Division Four and we are all disappointed that our county hurlers did not make the impact that we thought they might, but we have to look at the glass being half-full and it is certainly that," stresses Fleming.

"People tend to knock Antrim football at club level but they seem to forget that St Gall's were crowned All-Ireland club champions in 2010 and have represented Antrim with distinction in the Ulster Club championship on numerous occasions in recent years."

Indeed, St Gall's will have several representatives in the Antrim squad for tomorrow's game against a Fermanagh side that will start as favourites because of their recent victory over the Saffrons in the Ulster Championship.

But far from being prepared to settle for just another outing in the qualifiers, Fleming makes it clear that the flame of ambition is still burning brightly.

"People can say what they like about us but the fact of the matter is that we are totally focussed on making progress in the qualifiers.

"To be quite blunt, we would like to think that with a bit of luck we could make it into the last twelve of the All-Ireland series," insists Fleming.

"Some might think this is fanciful thinking but then would it not have been fanciful to think that Westmeath would have come back in the manner they did last Sunday, or that Sligo would beat Roscommon, or that we would have beaten Laois or that Down would have fallen to Wexford?"

Manager Fitzsimons said: "We'll take whatever comes our way. I know my lads are capable of rising to the occasion. A point in off the upright in the 73rd minute would suit us well!"

Veteran defender Toy Scullion concurs robustly with this sentiment.

"The boys want to play for the jersey, we're not going to Enniskillen for the craic, you know. Maybe things have not have been going the best for Antrim since the start this year but we have no intention of rolling over for anyone".

All-Ireland Qualifiers:  Brewster Park, Sun, 3.00pm, Fermanagh v Antrim.

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