Enda McGinley speaks to the Saffron Gael

This week the Saffron Gael speaks to Antrim’s recently appointed Football manager, Enda McGinley.

The former Errigal Ciaran player and three time All Ireland winner with Tyrone took up the position vacated by Lenny Harbison back in late November and has wasted no time in calling a panel together for trials.

His backroom team includes former Red Hand teammate Stephen O’Neill, Stephen Quinn and former Antrim and St Gall’s star Sean Kelly.

McGinley held off the competition of a Tony McEntee-Kevin Madden management ticket.

McGinley – a brother-in-law of Antrim duo Tomas and Michael McCann – was in charge of Derry club Swatragh last season.

Today Enda gives his first interview to the Saffron Gael where he speaks about his management panel, his ambitions for Antrim football for the coming year and the pit falls that could stand in the way of a successful season for the Saffrons.

Saffron Gael: What attracted you to apply for the Antrim manager’s job?

Answer:  It was really a two-fold thing primarily.  One was the sense of connection to it through the family side of things and the other was that sense of untapped potential.  Now the pragmatic in me quickly acknowledges that every other new manager of this past several years will have referred to the same ‘potential’.  So one reality might be that its simply not there.  However, having seen plenty of senior club football over the past several years and having noted the results and competitive level reached by the last few U21/20 sides I remain convinced that there is something there talent wise.

From there it is the chance to work at county level.  County level allows you to push the boundaries in terms of player engagement and coaching.  You are working with high level of players and setups where all the excuses that can sometimes be used by lads for not reaching their potential are removed or should be removed.  When you remove excuses, you are left in an exposed position where you stand up and find out are you good enough or not.  That’s a hell of a challenge but for any sports person, and I suppose now as a manager, that’s the one you want to take on.

Saffron Gael: What do you know about Antrim football other than your obvious connection with Michael and Tomas McCann?

Answer:  Well from that family connection I was well aware of the top end clubs that have been pushing hard for the club senior title while the likes of St. Endas exploits at intermediate level a few years ago deservedly grabbed huge attention and showed there is plenty beneath the perceived top level.  Those U20 results that I mentioned earlier against the likes of Derry and their performance against Tyrone grabbed my attention as I would have been working with various players in both those Tyrone and Derry teams at the time.  On top of that I’d be friendly with Mickey Donnelly who obviously has done great work with St. Ronans in Lurgan who obviously have their Antrim contingent.

Even from my own playing career I crossed swords with Antrim in a number of Ulster finals.  The famous Tyrone minor team that went on to backbone the All-Irelands came across Antrim in an Ulster final or two while at senior level we of course had another Ulster final against Antrim in ’09.

And that’s before I even get onto the ladies team and their exploits.  I’d be hung if I don’t mention that but its fair to say that the exploits of the various Antrim teams are never far from headlines in my house at home.

Saffron Gael: Antrim have been the nearly men in division 4 for the last three years under Lenny Harbison, missing out by a single point over those three years. It looks like this year’s National League is going to be split into two regional sections. How do you see that affecting Antrim’s chances?

Answer:  I don’t think it makes a huge difference really.  The same teams that you would have to get results against are still there.  It does maybe remove any slightly easier fixtures if there is such a thing.  The northern half of the division is very strong – Leitrim, ended up relegated only because they were missing half of their team for their final few games and were still unlucky to lose to Tipperary in their last game by a goal.  There is much positivity around Terry Hylands work so they’ll be very confident of returning straight back to division three.  The other newly relegated team Louth have obviously made their intentions abundantly clear with the appointment of Mickey Harte while Sligo, with Tony McEntee now in charge will also be very hopeful of a return to the third division.

So, absolutely no easy games but I have to say its brilliant heading into that sort of campaign.  Again, like I said previously, when only the best will do it removes all other alternatives.  That’s no bad thing.

Saffron Gael: As someone who attends and reports on all of Antrim’s games I was convinced on the final day before the lockdown when Antrim had a convincing win over Limerick in Portglenone that this was going to be our year. Momentum is everything in football and I feel we lost that momentum when we finally got back to playing Wicklow. Do you agree?

Answer:  Look, last season, a bit like 2020 in general, was a bit of a mess.  I think momentum and form lines which are so critical for teams and individual players were completely wrecked by last year.  Most significantly I don’t think all county boards and teams applied the same rigour when it came to applying the rules leaving some teams off the pace simply for doing the right thing from a Covid point of view.

Saffron Gael: I hear that the Antrim panel have been together for a few weeks now and with the National Leagues possibly starting early in the new-year (Possibly end of February I heard) how have those sessions been going?

Answer:  Yeah we are essentially running trials now at the minute.  Gives us a great opportunity to see the type of squad that is there and from that the type of game plans that might best suit us.  Even in these sessions little team traits or individual strengths and weaknesses can begin to be identified leading hopefully to much more focused work come the formal commencement of things in January.  With such a condensed season ahead those wee head starts are vital.

Saffron Gael: I appreciate you will be reluctant to speak about individual players but has there been anyone taking part in these recent training sessions-trials that has impressed you and just what qualities are you looking for from Antrim players?

Answer:  I’ve thought both Sean Kelly and Stevie O’Neill have been looking very sharp.  Both have seemed very keen to take a playing part in sessions to date.  They haven’t looked too shabby either but unfortunately I’ll have to be giving them a call soon to let them know that they are not part of my playing plans!  Before I do that I’m going to try to arrange that they end up marking each other some session.  Role back the clock a bit and see who has aged the best!

Joking aside the qualities I am looking for in individual players are first and foremost a real desire to develop and get better.  The list of things needed from a top level player at present is almost endless, fitness, strength, speed, composure, game intelligence, skills, leadership, communication, personal responsibility, lifestyle around football it goes on and on.  Yet that yearning and enthusiasm about coming to football and trying to get better is for me is the most vital along with a high basic skill level which should be a prerequisite for this level of football.

As the panel is narrowed down though it becomes less about personal qualities and more about team balance.  No one person can cover all bases but all must be covered by the panel as a whole.  That and trying to get the right age profile and pick boys with future potential and not just on current standing.  It’s a huge undertaken but one I have to say I’m enjoying.  The toughest bit is of course telling good lads and footballers that they are not in our plans.  The hope is that such hard calls increases the appreciation for those that end up on the final panel and their pride at being part of the setup.

Saffron Gael: Michael and Tomas McCann have been great servants to Antrim over the years and Michael showed when he returned to the Antrim panel this year that he still has much to offer while Tomas was limited to little game time because of recurring injuries. Will one or both of them figure in your plans?

Answer:  Hard to say at this stage.  I was well warned by people that having brother-in-laws in the setup could be tough.  Not to divulge personal conversations but Tomas has said he wants penalties already while Mick is looking a personal hair stylist.  Those demands will have to be managed.  To be honest I did try to talk their brother Peadar out of early retirement as he is probably the most naturally talented of the clan but unfortunately, he was too busy as a secret cross-fitter.

They along with several other seasoned players will obviously have a very important role but it’s very clear that if Antrim are to turn the corner and more importantly sustain it, the most important players in the set-up are the younger lads.  To that end, I have to say, we have been delighted with what we have seen to date.  Proper talent and a keenness to be there.  There is an opportunity to get that elusive mixture of youth and experience.

Saffron Gael: You had a long and distinguished playing career with Tyrone under Micky Harte and you will now be facing him when Antrim take on Louth this year. What are your thoughts on facing the master?

Answer: Ha, something I could’ve done without is my first thought to be honest.  Plenty of people had been rolling out the cliché about if we managed to get the boys all out playing and get them organised then Antrim would get out of division four no problem.  That was way too simplistic even before Mickeys appointment but is obviously rubbish now especially when you factor in Tony McEntee’s appointment in Sligo.  All these teams, including Leitrim with Terry Hyland and Carlow under new boss Niall Carew, will be highly organised and expecting promotion to division 3. 

I suppose the thing is, and this goes back to a firm personal belief, the only thing that really matters is the boys on the pitch.  That’s who wins the games, not the boys in the big coats on the side lines.  Its not about Myself and Stevie facing Mickey and Gavin on the side line, it’s about the Antrim and Louth players on the pitch and again, that’s a match I’m really looking forward to.

Saffron Gael: What have been you early impressions of the Antrim players since you have got together and where do you see Antrim football going forward this year?

Answer:  They appear keen which is great and skill levels are good but to be honest, physically, they appear off from what I would expect of a county senior side.  The great thing is, with the right engagement that can be improved.  Even looking at what the hurlers achieved in this area sets a very close to home example.  Now they laid the foundations with huge work over October to January last year which obviously is a luxury of a pre-Covid time.  I’m hoping Brendan Murphy, who I’ve been very impressed with and was a great appointment by the county board, can work his magic but we have to be realistic about the gains that can be made in a two-month preparation time.

In terms of this year, the basic requirement is to be competitive and put yourself in a position to win every game, from there it’s about closing games out and getting results whether on that particular day you deserve them or not.  This division is going to be coming down to things like score difference and single point wins or draws.  Our job as a management is to give them every chance of being in strong positions in those tight games.  From there it again comes back to the players on the pitch in those critical moments to make it count.  Winners get it done and get over the line whatever else has went on.  Losers are left with their hard luck stories and what ifs.  As a team, the players are the ones who can decide the path but the ‘as a team’ bit is critical.  Either all buy in and make it their core mission to end up on the right side of things or it’s the collective’s fate to be forever in the latter category.

Saffron Gael: Enda you have brought an impressive backroom staff with you to the Antrim post. Tell us about them and what you feel they will bring to the Antrim team and what your ambitions for the team are in the coming season?

Answer:  I knew as a ‘young’ and relatively inexperienced manager the people I brought with me were absolutely critical.  Even the most experienced managers in business and sport would tell you that.  Myself and Stevie O’Neill have essentially grew up together from we were 16 or 17 through our time on the football pitch.  We’d be very close on and off the pitch.  He was a genius of a player but his forward coaching has already marked him out as being just as effective off it.  He’ll really challenge the players to think at a different level in terms of the attacking side of a game.  The one thing is he is from north west Tyrone so there are some language barriers to be overcome but hopefully with an interpreter and a bit of time we’ll make it work!

Sean Kelly, is probably one of the most respcted Antrim footballers, to the extent I’d heard a rumour his name was ‘Golden balls’ or at least that’s what he told me!  Joking aside even going back to when Tyrone played them, he was a noted leader, organiser and played the game with real intelligence.  All attributes that made me realise he’d be a huge addition to the setup.  I was absolutely delighted when he agreed to come on board.  His tactical acumen is already there to see in our discussions and even his knowledge of Antrim football is a huge addition as well.

Stevie Quinn is probably the least known of our set-up.  Me and Stevie grew up together at home and played all our underage football with the club together.  He was part of the Errigal team that won an Ulster club title in 2002 before injuries cut him down in his prime, but again, that’s according to himself of course.   He has managed senior teams in Tyrone himself but it is his coaching and training that really marks him out.  Put it like this, if I was a player I’d love to be doing his sessions: it’s pure football and forcing you to think all the time.

Its interesting all three of those guys are teachers.  Now, while I joke about the added time it gives them, the skills they have professionally in terms of teaching ideas to a group and using different methods to facilitate learning is a huge addition when working with a group of lads that will all learn in different ways and at different speeds.  In the modern game that ability to teach concepts and ideas is probably more important than ever before as the game has moved well beyond just drills and drills.

On top of these lads, it’s fair to say that one of the early things that has become clear is the fact we have landed on our feet in terms of the back-room team the county board have put round us.  They are a brilliant group led by Oliver Lennon and Roy McLarnon which do seriously time consuming and unseen work.  I’ve already fallen foul of Oliver by failing to pass on a time change, and it’s fair to say it won’t happen again.  The presence of high demanded standards in the backroom has been brilliant to see and augurs very well for things.

In terms of ambitions then for the team, its pretty simple, we want to play at the very highest level we can.  That covers our work rate, our playing quality, our game intelligence and our composure and competitiveness come the critical moments.  Does that guarantee promotion, no it doesn’t, but it will put us in with a huge chance and removes our own excuses.  That’s all you can do.  To get there we want to create a setup which the players love to be a part of and take huge pride in.  If you get that, the hard work, which is a necessity, is much more doable and the actual enjoyment in playing great football and buzz from being part of a unified team with real ambition becomes the over riding sense rather than the ‘chore’ it is increasingly presented as.

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