Silent stands make little change for Antrim footballers

The lack of atmosphere at games in this winter championship might be a challenge for top tier teams, but playing in empty stadia is not a problem for Antrim.

As the county’s football manager remarked with more than a touch of good humour, they are used to a tough crowd.

“We played in Waterford last year and I think there was 74 people and two sheep,” said Lenny Harbinson.

“Playing in front of small crowds or no crowds will not be a problem for Antrim in recent years playing in Division Four.”

Antrim travel to Cavan tomorrow for an Ulster SFC first round clash in Kingspan Breffni Park against Cavan, buoyed by shocking Monaghan in last week’s preliminary round.

That was the perfect way to bounce back from their relegation to Division 3, while Antrim are still hurting after a shock 25-point defeat at Wicklow which cost them promotion and left them finishing third in Division Four for the third year running.

While the lack of supporters isn’t worrying Harbinson, he definitely doesn’t find one aspect of life in Division Four amusing.

The constant turnover of players makes it almost impossible to develop and build a settled squad. Harbinson reckons he has lost 12 of last year’s panel but the good news is they have Ryan Murray, who top-scored for them in last year’s league before travelling to Dubai, back in the squad and one of the newer faces James McAuley is in superb form at centre-back.

Central to it all though is the presence a few old hands. Paddy Cunningham, Kevin O’Boyle and Michael McCann have all returned – in Cunningham’s case after six years out of inter-county football after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. McCann, an All-Star nominee in 2009, was also tempted out of retirement prior to lockdown and remains a hub of creativity.

Harbinson admitted: “Their experience is probably something we have missed over the last couple of years”.

“At the beginning of the year before Covid kicked in, we probably went against the grain.

“We decided we were only going to train three times a week instead of what a lot of counties do in training four or five times a week.

“It wasn’t that don’t have committed players – it was a case of how do we get the best players and resources that we have and at the same time get the balance between sport, life, work?

“Part of that lent itself towards the experienced guys. Lots of counties have their challenges particularly in the lower divisions of trying to get all their players out on a consistent basis. The top counties in Division One and to a lesser degree in Division Two don’t have that issue but hopefully the solid nucleus of what we have in this panel continues to be there next year.”