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.

Ulster Minor Championship back on track

On the 21st October we carried a preview in the Saffron Gael on Antrim’s Ulster Minor Football Championship opening game against holders Monaghan. On the previous Saturday we attended an Antrim training session at Dunsilly and took the above photograph of the Antrim panel who were going through their paces and in good form.

In what has been a difficult year for all, manager Paddy Kelly and his backroom staff of Sean McKenna, Donal Laverty and Andrew Hasson had put in a lot of work to get their side ready for a tilt at the Ulster champions only for their game and all games in the competition being called off due to Covid19.

Bitter disappointment for Antrim and I’m sure all the teams who were preparing to take part but today we received a bit of better news with the announcement that the Ulster Minor championship has been re-fixed for Sunday the 20th December with Antrim’s game against Monaghan now scheduled for Corrigan Park.

We will of course be taking a closer look at Antrim and their chances against the Farney County in the week leading up to the game but tonight we publish the fixtures of a competition which will have given a huge shot in the arm to all young Gaels in the province.

Ulster Minor Football Championship

Sunday 20th December

Antrim v Monaghan (Corrigan Park) 1.00pm

Derry v Armagh (Owen Beg)

Donegal v Tyrone (Ballybofey)

Fermanagh v Down (Eniskillen)

If both teams are in agreement to play their games earlier that weekend, this will be facilitated by Ulster CCC.

Saturday 2nd/Sunday 3d January

Semi-Finals

Donegal/Tyrone v Derry/Armagh

Fermanagh/Down v Antrim/Monaghan

History repeats itself on Bloody Sunday anniversary

There was a sense of inevitability about it as Cavan took the field against Donegal at the Athletic Grounds today in the Ulster football final. Despite the Tir Connell men starting as 10/1 on favourites it was Micky Graham’s Breffni Blues who emerged as winners after a dogged performance to complete a quartet of semi-finalists, the same four as qualified for the All Ireland semis 100 years ago.

Earlier in the day Tipperary turned in a fine performance to overcome the challenge of Cork in a good Munster final while Dublin’s facile victory over Meath last night in the Leinster decider and Mayo’s emergence from Connaught completed the set.

As tens of thousands of candles burned in windows all over Ireland and indeed anywhere in the world where there are Irish communities Jane Boyle, James Burke, Daniel Carroll, Michael Feery, Tom Hogan, Michael Hogan, James Matthews, Patrick O’Dowd, Jerome O’Leary, William (Perry) Robinson, Thomas Ryan, John William (Billy) Scott, James Teehan and Joe Traynor, the 14 victims of that slaughter by the British forces on the 21st November 1920, surely smiled down on Croke Park as the GAA commemorated the Anniversary of their passing.

Cavan manager Micky Graham, captain Raymond Galligan and man of the match Thomas Galligan fought back tears as they told just what this victory meant to them in interviews after the final whistle and I couldn’t help think that we were witnessing something special in a year that certainly has been different.

Cavan’s win over Donegal sets them up with an unenviable pairing with Dublin while Tipperary’s victory over Cork sees them face Mayo in the other semi-final and both Cavan and Tipperary will start as underdogs but in a year when the Breffni men have displayed remarkable resilience and a bag-full of ability, write them off at your own peril!

Wasted chances deprive Antrim of an upset in Breffni

Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final  

Cavan 0-13

Antrim 0-9

At half time in this Ulster SFC quarter-final at Breffni Park Antrim looked in with a serious chance of causing an upset having out played and out fought Cavan as they produced their best 35 minutes of football for quite a time.

Superbly marshalled in defence, where they denied their more illustrious opponents time and space and sharp on the break, they led the home side by 0-6 to 0-5 at half time and might have been further ahead.

Michael McCann marshalled those around him to great effect and was at the heart of nearly everything they did while Paddy Cunningham rolled back the years with a couple of scores that would have graced any game.

During the second half Cavan, as expected came back strongly but when the Antrim management sit down to analyse where it went wrong in the second half they will surely point to the number of scoring chances their side wasted.

In the end, four points separated the sides, but the Saffrons will look back on this game as one that was there for the taking.

Cavan had three players Black carded over the hour but Antrim failed to take advantage of their numerical advantage during that period with a number of scoring efforts dropping short and at least four good scoring opportunities wide of the target.

They produced the best chance of the game with Paddy Gallagher involved in the move deep in his own defence before getting on the end of it at the other end but the Glenavy man was unable to supply the finishing touch when a goal looked eminent.

Michael McCann, who had orchestrated many of the Antrim attacks from deep in the opening half and was always there to tidy up when Cavan threatened, was forced to push forward more and more in the second as his side fell behind and the Breffni Blues took advantage, catching their opponents time and again on the break.

A couple of classy points from Gearóid McKiernan, who was well-marked by Declan Lynch for the majority of the contest, gave Cavan a bit of breathing space and some wasteful shooting from the Saffrons hindered their chances of causing an upset.

Further black cards issued to Gerard Smith and Oisin Kiernan failed to derail the Breffni men, who play the winners of Sunday’s quarter-final clash between Fermanagh and Down in Brewster Park.

Speaking after the game Antrim manager Lenny Harbinson felt his side let Cavan off the hook in the crucial third quarter.

“We put ourselves into a winning position at half-time. We knew it was going to be a massive task down here,” said Harbinson.

“Cavan have played in Division One and Division Two and they have that bit more quality.

“We had a spell just after half-time and we missed a goal opportunity. Paddy (Gallagher) looked to have been fouled just as he was kicking.

“In that period, we probably missed 1-4 and they went up on the counter-attack and got a couple of points. That’s their quality and their experience.

When asked if he would like to remain on in the role, the St Gall’s clubman replied: “Right here and now, in this moment I don’t know. That’s the honest answer.

Management in football, there’s a bit of madness associated with it at county level. Do I want to get in on that carousel again? I’m not sure.”

Cunningham was one of Antrim’s best players in the first half while McCann was a contender for Man-of-the-Match and Antrim’s other survivor from that famous semi-final win over the same opponents, back in 2009, Kevin O’Boyle was excellent throughout.

Oisin Pierson and Oisin Kiernan gave Cavan an early two-point lead before Antrim opened their account with an excellent point from Dermot McAleese.

Paddy Cunningham levelled the game from a well-executed free while a stunning point from McCann moved the Saffrons into the lead for the first time.

Cavan centre-back Ciaran Brady replied in kind with a fine score at the other end but Conor Murray restored Antrim’s lead after making an excellent mark.

His Lámh Dhearg colleagues Cunningham and Kevin Quinn pointed either side of a score from Cormac Timoney as Antrim lead 0-6 to 0-4 at the half-hour mark.

Brady knocked over his second point just before the break before Killian Brady picked up his black card on the cusp of half-time for hauling down Paddy McBride.

Antrim couldn’t make the extra man count after the break though as Killian Clarke levelled matters on the resumption of play before Michael McCann combined with Paddy Gallagher to create the game’s only goaling opportunity but Galligan in the Cavan goal dealt with the Glenavy man’s effort.

The big Antrim number 2 appeared to be pushed as he pulled the trigger but referee Paul Faloon waved play on despite Antrim appeals for a penalty.

Cunningham, Colum Duffin, Mark Sweeney and Paddy McCormick all missed chances to add to Antrim’s tally while Cavan were beginning to find their range and midfielder Thomas Galligan, who was introduced at half-time, was having another big game for Mickey Graham’s men.

With 55 minutes gone, the home side had moved three clear with points from McKiernan (free), Thomas Donohoe (mark) and Oisin Kiernan.

Gerard Smith’s black card for dragging down Conor Murray reduced Cavan to 14 men once again and Tomás McCann converted the free to leave two between the sides.

McCann, who had only been on the field for a short period, was then forced out of the game with a hamstring pull and Cavan responded with the influential McKiernan winning the resulting kick-out before firing over a brilliant point with 12 minutes remaining.

Antrim continued to battle on in the closing stages but the fluency they had produced in the opening half was gone with the Cavan defence turning them over time and again or the last pass going astray.

Cavan picked up their third black card of the game when Oisin Kiernan clattered into Kevin O’Boyle off-the-ball as Conor Murray briefly cut the gap back to two but the Saffrons failed to take advantage of the extra men and late points from Donohoe and McKiernan sealed a hard-earned four-point win for Cavan.

CAVAN: R Galligan; J McLoughlin, K Clarke (0-1), K Brady; G Smith, C Brady (0-2), L Fortune; C Timoney (0-1), P Faulkner; M Reilly, G McKiernan (0-3, 0-1f), O Kiernan (0-2; O Pierson (0-1), S Smith, C O’Reilly.  

Subs: T Galligan for S Smith (HT), T Donohoe (0-3, 0-1m, 0-1f) for Pierson (41mins), C Conroy for K Brady 46mins), N Murray for O’Reilly (48mins).

ANTRIM: O Kerr; P Gallagher, D Lynch, K O’Boyle; P Healy, J McAuley, N Delargy; C Duffin, M McCann (0-1); K Quinn (0-1), M Sweeney, D McAleese (0-1); P Cunningham (0-2, 0-1f), C Murray (0-2, 0-1m), P McBride (0-1, 0-1f).  

Subs: P McCormick for Quinn (HT), O Eastwood for Duffin (50mins), T McCann (0-1, 0-1f) for Cunningham (50mins), M Jordan for McAleese (56mins), R McCann for T McCann (61mins).

REFEREE: P Faloon (Down).  

McCann positive about Antrim’s chances

Saffron Gael speaks to Mick McCann

In the build up to Saturday’s Ulster Championship meeting between Cavan and Antrim the Saffron Gael speaks to Antrim’s Mick McCann. Michael has given long distinguished service to the Saffron cause, making his debut against Cavan away back in 2005 and has been one of Antrim’s outstanding performers for more than a decade.

His club manager, Damian Cassidy has described him as a Rolls Royce of Gaelic football and he has been instrumental in Erin’s Own collecting their first 3-in-a-row with a win over Creggan in this year’s championship final.

Michael stepped away from the county scene a couple of years ago but was persuaded to return by Antrim manager, Lenny Harbison and while his game time has been limited his contribution has been immense.

He came on for his first game in this year’s league campaign against Carlow in Glenavy and helped to steady the ship with Antrim coming from behind to gain a draw and again against Limerick in Portglenone where he brought a bit of composure to proceedings as Antrim recorded their best win of the season against the league leaders.

Mick McCann was missing from the Antrim side who suffered their worst result for quite a number of years against Wicklow in Aughrim, the Cargin man suffering from a hand injury but returned last day out as Antrim defeated Waterford in Haggardstown to restore a bit of confidence to the side.

Today he gives his thoughts on the present Antrim team and their prospects against Cavan at Kingspan Breffni Park on Saturday.

Saffron Gael: Michael, how have the preparation been going in the build up to Saturday’s game against Cavan?

Michael McCann: Following the Wicklow defeat we got the squad back together and luckily we had a game against Waterford to try and get it out of the system. We seem to have a full squad back training but understand the immense challenge ahead and everyone is well focused on Saturday, 

Saffron Gael: Your contributions this year have come off the bench. Do you expect to start against Cavan this weekend?

Michael McCann: Truthfully, I’m not sure, as you have said, I have contributed more from the bench so I’m sure I’ll be in contention like everyone else.

Saffron Gael: How do you rate Antrim’s chances against Cavan on Saturday?

Michael McCann: Well the Ulster Championship is always tricky for every team. Cavan have an incredible victory over Monaghan behind them so confidence will be high. As a group we believe we can put a performance together and that’s the main thing. 

Saffron Gael: You were one of four players from the present panel who played against Cavan in that famous semi-final victory in Clones back in 2009. If any or all of you start do you think that experience will help Antrim’s chances on Saturday?

Michael McCann: Well I think experience of specific situations helps every team, so, as I said before, if we can make a contribution to a solid performance that’s really all that matters.

Saffron Gael: You were impressive when you came on against Waterford last day out. Has your injury cleared up and what was the injury that kept you out of the Wicklow game?

Michael McCann: Yeah, after the County Final I injured my hand in training. Had to get an MRI scan to see the extent of the damage. This held me back from training for 4 weeks so that’s what ruled me out of the Wicklow game. I have just to manage the hand, plenty of physio and precautions and plough on, as they say.

Saffron Gael: Give us your thoughts on the present Antrim panel and add anything else you would like to say about Saturday’s game and Antrim’s prospects?

Michael McCann: The current panel have plenty of pace and fitness, it’s whether they can manage the game throughout the 70 minutes. Working hard comes easy to them which is a great attribute, balancing that with game management is where we have fallen short. Hopefully the two come together on Saturday.