In the build up to Sunday’s Division 4 Football League semi-final in Dungarven the Saffron Gaels Paddy McIlwaine speaks to Sean Kelly, a member of the Antrim management team. Sean is a former Antrim player and represented the Saffrons for 10 years, experiencing the highs and lows with his beloved county and had a very successful career with his club St. Gall’s with whom he won an All Ireland club title in 2010 as well as 2 Ulster club titles.
Widely respected throughout the county, the St. Gall’s man followed a successful playing career with a spell as St. Gall’s manager and when Enda McGinley was appointed as Antrim manager at the start of this season one of his first appointments was Sean Kelly. Sean brings a wealth of knowledge of the football scene in Antrim and it was this knowledge that McGinley was keen to tap into.
Today I took the opportunity to speak to the man who still turns out for St. Gall’s when needed and I asked him about how preparations are going for Sunday’s semi-final.
Paddy Mac: Sean it was no surprise to most Antrim Gaels that Enda McGinley appointed you as part of his backroom team when he took up the role of Antrim manager. Your knowledge of the football scene in the county is unsurpassed. How did the appointment come about?
Sean Kelly: To be honest, it wasn’t something I expected at all. Enda rang me one evening explaining that he was putting a team together to go forward for the job and was looking to see if I had any interest in coming on board with himself, Stevie O’Neill and Stevie Quinn. After a few further conversations it was an easy decision in all fairness. The team he was putting together, the plans, ideas on football, squad etc. were all first class and I felt it was an opportunity that doesn’t come around very often and I would regret it if I had turned it down!
Paddy Mac: Tell us about the preparation of the Antrim team from day one. Like most other counties it can’t have been easy under the Covid restrictions but it seems to have gone well. What were some of the hurdles you had to overcome?
Sean Kelly: It was a fairly intense period of preparation within the management team first and foremost as it was important we were able to get up and running as soon as possible. Obviously when lockdown kicked in there were quite a few hurdles, the main one being the lack of face to face time we had with the players. To be fair to the players all the things that were put in place for them during lockdown like their individual fitness work, multiple Zoom meetings, video analysis were all carried out to the tee with the result that when they did return they were in great shape with a fair idea of the general concepts of the play and the expectations we had of them. It made life much easier for us then as a management team and also was a great reflection of the buy in and the commitment that the players had to be part of the squad and to help the county progress.
Paddy Mac: As a lifelong Antrim fan I was delighted to see that the Antrim management retained quite a number of the panel who were part of Lenny Harbison’s team. I’ve always been of the opinion that there has been too great a turnover of players every time a new manager is appointed and continuity is important for the team’s development and progression. What’s your thoughts on that?
Sean Kelly: I experienced that at times during my own playing career with the county and it was always frustrating as you struggle to get a sense of consistency which is essential if you are going to build anything. I know Lenny was watching games from all levels within the county and therefore it was highly unlikely we were going to find a raft of new players that he hadn’t seen and again from a consistency point of view it was important to have a steady start point as we hadn’t time to evaluate all the players so it wouldn’t make sense or be fair to start to form judgements based on little evidence.
It was also great to be able to retain a lot of the backroom team who had been in place with Lenny and they have been fantastic since the beginning. The level of preparation/ time etc that they have given will go unnoticed by anyone on the outside but without them the whole thing would struggle to function so we are delighted to have them
Paddy Mac: Tell me about the new faces in the Antrim panel and the boys who have made the step up from last year’s successful U20 team and what they have brought to the team?
Sean Kelly: It has been great to see a number of young lads in the set up like Pat Shivers, Conor Stewart, Ciaran Bradley, Eoghan McCabe, Luke Mulholland. They all have great futures with the county and also like in the case of Conor Stewart they are more than ready to step up. The good thing about them is they aren’t overawed by the challenge of getting into the team and have shown a great attitude throughout. I think it helps that they know Enda has no problem throwing anyone in no matter what the age so while yes, they are still in a development phase of their county careers they are more than capable of pushing within the squad. There are more players that we are keeping a close eye on that are with the clubs this year but things look very positive in terms of quality players coming though.
Paddy Mac: The National League campaign has been quite a roller coaster for Antrim this year but a very enjoyable, if at times nerve wracking experience for Antrim supports and undoubtedly for the management team. Give us your thoughts on the three games Antrim have played to date and the lessons learned from those games?
Sean Kelly: Firstly 3 wins from 3 games is excellent from our point of view obviously, a few more grey hairs from the manner in which they occurred though! They were 3 massive challenges for the boys, away to a top team in Louth with their experienced management was always going to be a tough challenge to start off with, Then Sligo and Leitrim are both quality teams and if you looked at it before a game was played you would have struggled to see any team winning all games such is the competitive nature of the division and the closeness of the teams.
What we have learned is that we have a group of players who won’t give in and have shown they are capable so far of overcoming any challenges that have been put in front of them. We have a competitive panel that has players that have made great contributions from the start and from the bench as our ‘finishers’. Obviously, there are elements of our game that we need to improve and be more consistent with but with the efforts the players are putting in I am sure we will continue to improve.
Paddy Mac: The change of rule regarding penalty awards for fouls inside the 20 meter area that are perceived to have prevented a goal scoring opportunity have come in for a lot of criticism and have certainly exasperated this reporter. Antrim have probably suffered more than most from the rule, particularly in the Sligo game. What are your feelings on the rule and what steps have the management taken to minimise the damage that we have suffered from this rule?
Sean Kelly: I think the first thing is that it has been very difficult for referees to have these additional rules to deal with. It is a tough enough job as it is! And while we have had instances where we have maybe struggled to understand it, it is something that at this stage we just need to deal with by being as disciplined as possible in what we do.
Paddy Mac: Our late collapse against Leitrim will have been of concern but I thought that the amount of substitutions we made disrupted the momentum we had for most of the game and it looked at one stage as if we might run up a massive score. Momentum is everything and when you lose it, it is difficult to regain it. Paddy Cunningham and Tomas McCann, as they have done so often came to Antrim’s rescue. What lessons have been learned from the Leitrim game?
Sean Kelly: The lads and management were disappointed after the performance which is a good trait to have even though we won. It is a collective thing and we had to be critical of ourselves firstly. Yes, we had changes but the quality of player was still there. Our game management just wasn’t what it needed to be and probably the most important thing we learned was that if we start to drop our standards by even a small amount then you will be punished.
Paddy Mac: Waterford came in for quite a bit of criticism when they refused to travel North for the last game in the 2020 National League. Antrim called their bluff and the game was rescheduled for Haggardstown where as we know, Antrim won convincingly. Will that game have any bearing on Sunday’s semi-final and how important is it that Antrim players forget about how comfortable that win was?
Sean Kelly: I think it has been important this year for us to look at each game as it comes and from the videos we have watched of Waterford they are a team that deserves our utmost respect. Both the players and management are fully aware of the challenge in front of us and we have been pushing the players all year to raise their standards and we know come Sunday that is exactly what we will have to do. So I think last year is of little relevance and I expect a different Waterford this time around with their new manager who has had great success in his career to date.
Paddy Mac: Sean, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I was speaking to a few spectators making their way out of Corrigan last day and one of them asked me, when was the last time Antrim footballers won three games on the trot. I wasn’t able to answer him but wouldn’t it be great if the same punter was posing the question after Sunday’s game in Dungarven, when was the last time Antrim footballers won four games in a row?