By Niall Gartland
THERE’S a more professional tint to Antrim GAA these days behind the scenes, and their established senior footballer Ryan Murray would love to carry that through to where it matters most – the field of play.
Following the recruitment of Fibrus as their main sponsor, Murray sported their newly branded jersey at last Tuesday’s official launch of the McKenna Cup.
At the event he mingled with number of players who know the feeling of holding aloft the Anglo Celt in front of the adoring masses at Clones – Derry’s Brendan Rogers, Cavan’s Oisin Kiernan, Monaghan’s Conor McManus and Tyrone’s Niall Morgan (whose own career pinnacle was the 2021 All-Ireland triumph).
Not only have Antrim failed to reach the Ulster final since 2009, in truth they haven’t really come close. Murray is entering his eleventh year on the senior panel and he’s the first to accept that he hasn’t much to show for it, but he firmly believes that the talent is there to make it to the top of the tree in Ulster at some stage in the near future.
“Everyone still talks about 2009 in Antrim. My brother Conor was playing that day and he still chats a bit about it.
“If you look around Ulster, Fermanagh got to an Ulster final not that long ago, Cavan went on and won it and Derry ended their long wait this year. Antrim are probably the only team in Ulster who haven’t really had their day in the sun.
“A part of me is a bit jealous because I’d have played alongside and against a lot of those lads at university, so it’s hard not to be envious. We definitely have the basis of a panel that can get to that level and I just hope it happens before my time’s up.”
Just recently, Broadband provider Fibrus announced a new five-year sponsorship deal with Antrim GAA. The right shapes are being made behind the scenes but time will tell whether the county’s flagship football team can give the fans something to cheer about.
Murray said: “People only really look at the county team and how they’re getting on at senior level, but not only has there been a rejuvenation in the footballing set up for a few years now, but across Antrim there’s been a lot more emphasis on attracting funding, through the Saffron Business Forum and so on. There’s also been a push towards Casement Park, there’s definitely a sense of momentum building in the county and hopefully we can play our part in ensuring Antrim GAA is in a good place for years to come.”
When Enda McGinley stepped down as manager during the summer after two years at the helm, it seemed as if there was no natural successor in place.
Antrim’s County Board threw something of a curveball with another high-profile appointment, that of former Meath manager Andy McEntee. It’s early days but the initial signs are promising.
“Andy’s in the getting to know us stage and we’re getting to know him as well. We’re carrying a bigger panel than in previous years as he wants to see what’s on offer across the county, and the Cargin boys are returning after being put out of Ulster. We’re getting the bulk of the squad together and training hard, but it won’t be until the McKenna Cup and league that we start to see how it’s all taking shape.”
On the quality of the younger players coming up the ranks, Murray continued: “There’s a lot of young lads coming through. The talent has always been there but the strength and conditioning wasn’t. In recent years all that behind the scenes stuff has been sorted out, and if you look through the club scene it’s obvious there’s a lot of talented footballers in Antrim.”
This will be Antrim’s second season back in Division Three, and while the competition is tough – Westmeath, Cavan and Fermanagh are just some of the teams who will be pushing for promotion – Murray is broadly optimistic and feels they should be aiming for big things.
“Looking at last season, we were right in the mix for promotion but just didn’t get over the line against Louth and Limerick and those were the two teams who ended up getting promoted.
“There was just a kick of the ball in it really, so this year we’re looking to go one step further. On paper it seems like it’ll be more difficult as there’s more Ulster teams, but maybe that’s my familiarity with those teams talking.”
Further down the line, Antrim have been pitted against Armagh in the preliminary round of the Ulster Championship. They faded in the second half of their championship encounter last year, so it’ll be a good barometer for their progress against a team currently playing Division One football.
“We played them last year and things were fairly even until they hit us with a few goals in the second half. They were probably further down the pathway than us, we’re really just getting started. We’ll worry about the league first, getting promoted is a big goal of ours as it would take us out of the Tailteann Cup and into the Sam Maguire.”