A week’s a long time in politics and in sport

Saffron Gael speaks to Antrim’s Odhran Eastwood

There’s an old saying ‘a week’s a long time in politics’ and in the present climate it’s a long time in sport. It seems much longer than a week ago that I was planning a lift to Wicklow for Antrim’s NFL Division 4 game against the Garden County having previewed the game on this site a few days earlier.

Antrim had just turned in their best performance of the season to beat previously unbeaten Limerick in Portglenone, a week earlier and put themselves right back into the promotion race. In the previous round the Saffrons looked to have missed their promotion opportunity when they trailed Carlow by three points in Glenavy at half time having been 1-3 to 0-0 down at the end of the opening quarter.

Lenny Harbison sprung Odhran Eastwood from the bench at half time and the St. Enda’s man played his part in turning matters around, scoring three points in the process.

It was no surprise then that Eastwood was included in the starting line-up against unbeaten leaders Limerick in Portglenone, a game where anything less than a win would put paid to Antrim’s promotion chances for another year but few of the big crowd who turned out at O’Cahain Park could have envisaged the impact that the St. Enda’s man would make.

Small in stature but big at heart, the ‘Pocket Rocket’ grabbed his chance with both hands, or to be more precise both feet scoring 2-3 in the process as Antrim produced their best performance since their win over Louth in last year’s qualifiers.

I shared the disappointment of most Antrim Gaels when the news came through that all National League fixtures had been postponed while in agreement that it was fully the right thing to do and events over the past week have reinforced that decision.

For some reason it seems like much more than a week ago now and I found myself wondering how players like Odhran Eastwood felt. Momentum is everything in sport and the momentum was very much with Antrim as they prepared to travel to Aughrim last Saturday.

The St. Enda’s man was only too delighted to speak to the Saffron Gael when I contacted him and he gave an interesting insight into how he felt about the postponement and how he and the other Antrim players are dealing with matters at present.

Saffron Gael: Antrim were heading to Wicklow on the back of their best performance for some time and knowing that a win would have put them in a strong promotion position going into their last game against Waterford. How did you feel when you heard that the game was off?

Odhran Eastwood: We were all really looking forward to the game obviously, especially since we had hit a bit of form and felt we could make a big step towards promotion by beating Wicklow. But a few days before the game was cancelled, I think other sporting events had been cancelled and the whole coronavirus issue was growing so it didn’t come as a big surprise that the GAA stopped the games even though we wanted to play.

S.G.: you had just turned in your best performance in an Antrim shirt against previously unbeaten leaders Limerick and scored 2-3 in the process, you must have been delighted by your own display?

O.E.: Getting on the score-sheet was great and I think that’s why I was looking forward to the Wicklow game so much because I just wanted to get out and play another game and keep playing football especially now with the weather  and the conditions improving. I wanted to keep my place in the team after Limerick.

S.G.: I’ve always been of the opinion that any player coming into a county panel, regardless of his form with his club can take a couple of years to adjust to the pace of county football, do you think that is true?

O.E.:  I don’t know, to be honest there’s a whole range of things that can come into it and it probably just depends on the player as well. The training load and commitment is a step up of course and then there’s just that split second  of time on the ball you don’t usually get at County level but some players can adapt  quickly to that and really thrive  in a  strict training regime. When young players make the step up, its maybe just the belief they don’t have and that might take time but they are always more than capable of contributing.

S.G.: I first saw you playing in a minor championship final against Creggan. I think you were playing centre-half-forward and possibly captained that St. Enda’s side. Tell me if my recollections are right and what you remember about that game?

O.E.: Yeah that was actually a replay, we’d two great games against Creggan and we went back and forth during the league as well. I think by that stage, both teams were familiar with each other and we both had players on the county minor team so we knew a lot about each other. It was the first minor title in a long time for the club I think and we had won a few of the other underage titles with that team so it was great to win that one as well. I think Conor (Small) was the Creggan captain so I’ve to keep my mouth shut around him! A load of the players from that team are regulars in the senior team now and played in the All-Ireland run.

S.G.: You went on to win an Antrim and Ulster Intermediate Championship with a St. Enda’s side who went all the way to an All Ireland final in Croke Park before losing to a strong Kerry side, Kilcummin. Tell me about that campaign and the difference Frank Fitzsimmons and Pat Hughes has made to the team?

O.E.: Kilcummin from Kerry beat us in the final. It was a great year for everyone involved in the club, not just our team. It was Frank and Pat’s first season with us and then Thomas McNulty who was involved with a lot of us at underage  was there as well and I don’t think it could have went much better! Frank came in and probably just gave us that belief that we could win an intermediate championship. He’s been around Lamh Dhearg taking teams and then the county scene for a while so the lads were delighted to have him on the sideline. We would have set out at the start of the year to be there or there about for the Antrim championship and once we won that we just got on a roll. Playing in the Ulster championship seemed like a bonus at the time and then to win it was brilliant and for our hurlers to do the same this year made it a great few seasons for the club.

S.G.: You had a good Sigerson campaign with Queens. Do you think playing Sigerson has helped you to make the step up to playing county football and contributed to your performances since coming into the team?

O.E.:  Yes I would definitely say that playing with Queens helped me mostly because it just gave me more competitive football and there’s a difference when you’re playing with new players you aren’t used to. Once the club season ended, I was training nearly straight away with Queens and then you have the league with Queens and the build up to Sigerson with different challenge games so I was always getting a lot of football when you combine that with the Antrim stuff. And especially that time of year, there usually isn’t too many games so I’d take that over training any day. I was lucky as well this year that there wasn’t too much crossover between Queens and Antrim and both managers were understanding of the situation. I would encourage anyone to play university football.

S.G.: Like the rest of us, what the future holds for this season owing to the Coronavirus outbreak is very much up in the air but the steps that have been taken are very necessary. Collective training has been cancelled as well as games. Tell us about the individual training regime you have been handed and what the Antrim management have said?

O.E.: Once the GAA shut down all games and trainings, Fiontan, our S&C coach said he was planning on getting some stuff together for us to work on and he sent us programmes for both running and gym work for the few weeks the GAA had decided to shut down. The way things are at the minute, it looks like that training and games ban will be in place for a while so I would say the individual training regimes will be updated and we’ll just have to stick at it. We get together locally in small groups of three or four so I would get together with the St Enda’s players which is good as well because you need people to push you on if you’re going to maintain the fitness levels we’ve built up. We need to be ready for whatever plan the GAA has going forward so hopefully we’ll all be raring to go once this all clears up.

S.G.: Tell us anything else you would like to add about this season with Antrim and how you think the team has performed and how you would feel if the league campaign cannot be completed owing to Covid19?

O.E.: I would say we have had a decent league campaign so far since our fate was in our hands before the leagues stopped. We put ourselves in a good position to get promoted but we know we have more to offer so from that point of view, it’s annoying the leagues stopped. But at the same time, the GAA leagues are a very minor issue in all of this. It’s hard to know what the solution is for the GAA because no matter what they do, someone won’t be happy. Hopefully they can continue the league but I’m glad I’m not the one making those decisions!

As I said everything in sport as in life is very much up in the air for now. Covid19 has left us all very much in a time of uncertainty and fear. Hopefully we will get through it in time but it certainly won’t be without pain and sacrifice.

As in all aspects of Irish life the GAA has been quick to respond with clubs organising help for the most-needy in their community and all those involved deserve the highest of praise. In such a time of uncertainty the ethos of community spirit is very much to the fore and will provide a vital link to those isolated and vulnerable.

With the help of God and such community spirit this awful pandemic will pass in time and we will be able to return to what we regarded as normal not so long ago.

What will happen to the National Leagues and championships is a matter for discussion for another day and on the scale of things is of little importance but when Antrim finally get back to playing football again I’m sure Odhran Eastwood will be very much to the fore.

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