Ulster SFC: Antrim have ‘picked up the pieces’ from Wicklow walloping for Cavan game says Harbinson

The crushing 7-11 to 0-7 annihilation by Wicklow last month proved terminal to Antrim’s promotion hopes
Venue: Kingspan Breffni Date: Saturday 7 November Throw-in: 13:15 GMT
Coverage: Live on BBC Two Northern Ireland and BBC Radio Ulster MW; live text and match report on BBC Sport website

Antrim football boss Lenny Harbinson believes his side have “picked up the pieces” from last month’s walloping by Wicklow as they approach Saturday’s Ulster Football clash with Cavan.

It rendered the win over Waterford too late for promotion but Harbinson says the Dundalk game was important.

“We needed the game particularly in advance of the championship,” he says.

The Waterford game became a saga itself pre-match as the Deise County initially gave Antrim a walkover after saying that they were reluctant to travel to Portglenone because of the deterioration in the Covid-19 situation.

However, Antrim then offered to play match in Dundalk which was agreeable to the opposition.

“If we had just taken the two points, sat at home and the results had panned out the way they did, it would have been a lot harder to lift people up at training,” continues Harbinson.

“The fact that we conceded home advantage and got a game under our belt, won on the field, left us in a better position.”

Saffrons undercooked for Wicklow game

As for what went wrong against Wicklow, Harbinson believes his team were simply undercooked after a couple of scheduled challenge games – including one against a then Covid-afflicted Fermanagh – were called off at the 11th hour.

“No disrespect to the performance by Wicklow against ourselves which was very good, we were very flat footed and it was not representative of what Antrim and the senior football panel are about.

“Those lack of a couple of friendly games. Wicklow the week before had had a game with Carlow.”

The final league standings saw Antrim finish third in Division Four for a third straight year – once again missing out on promotion by one place.

Harbinson, who is the most charming of interviewees, ruefully reels off the bad luck which has befallen his side in missing out on promotion during his three years in charge.

Antrim manager Lenny Harbinson
Lenny Harbinson’s side seemed to have momentum when they beat Limerick side that went on to achieve promotion but lockdown then came a week later

“The ifs and the buts…..if I got through the ifs and the buts over the last three years….we played Carlow in Corrigan. We lost our two midfielders Sean Burke and Niall McKeever before the game. Paddy McBride was sick that day. Ryan Murray had injured his ankle the Friday night before training. We ended up losing by two. Winning that game would have got us promotion.

“Last year we lost to Derry and Leitrim by a point.”

This year, in the week before lockdown they beat a Limerick side who eventually went on to clinch promotion before all that momentum was halted by the onset of the global pandemic.

“The ultimate bottom line is that you have to win your matches. You have to get promoted. If Antrim want to progress, they have to play at a higher level. That hasn’t been achieved so I have got to take responsibility for that.”

Harbinson approach coaxes back veterans

Like many managers in the lower reaches of the National Football League, Harbinson has faced the task of coaxing the best players in the county to commit to the cause.

In order to achieve this, at the start of this year took the decision that the squad would train ‘only’ three nights a week.

“A lot of counties train four or five times a week. Some counties even six times a week.

“It wasn’t that we 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.”

Harbinson’s decision helped to encourage veterans Paddy Cunningham, Kevin O’Boyle and Michael McCann to get involved again.

“Part of that lent itself towards the experienced guys. This is something akin to how clubs train so we tried to mix it up a wee bit right or wrong.

“We got some of our experienced players back. Again we’re into crystal ball territory with the what ifs, if we had had a bit more experience on the pitch last year….but lots of counties have their challenges particularly in the lower divisions of trying to get out on a consistent basis all their good players.”