Saffron star Declan Lynch signs off

Antrim stalwart Decan Lynch explains why he’s content with his decision to retire after more than a decade on the intercounty scene

By Niall Gartland

WE can’t all go out like Peter Canavan. The Tyrone icon announced his retirement live on The Sunday Game a matter of hours after they conquered the Kingdom in the 2005 All-Ireland final, but that’s very much the exception to the rule.

More commonly, players sign off in the wake of a defeat – there are only so many trophies to go around – and Antrim stalwart Declan Lynch was open about the fact that this was always likely to be his last season on the county scene.

Had they won the Tailteann Cup, he would’ve considered hanging around for a crack at the All-Ireland series, but he was mindful of prolonging his welcome and wanted to slip off while he was still playing a prominent role for the Saffrons. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go.

Now 32, the Lámh Dhearg man has plenty to keep himself occupied. He’s a policy advisor for Sinn Féin by profession, he has a young son, Catháir, and he’ll continue to line out with his club, Lámh Dhearg.

Lynch said: “The only thing that might have brought me back was a chance to play in the All-Ireland, and even then it was the only thing that could have made me second guess myself.

“This was in the pipeline since the Meath game last year, I had a good idea this was going to be my last year so I’m totally content with the decision.

“Am I going to miss it? Of course, but I’m glad I went out playing the best football that I have in quite a while for Antrim. I don’t know if I could carry that on for another season and I didn’t want people saying that it’s time to pack it in.”

Lynch is married to Antrim ladies footballer Áine Tubridy and they were able to get a few nice photos for the scrapbook following his final ever game for the Saffrons, their Tailteann Cup semi-final defeat to Laois at Croke Park a fortnight ago.

“Catháir was born on the 21st of March this year, and I’d be lying if I said Áine hasn’t done most of the work.

“She wanted me to concentrate on the football as best I can. He was born on the Thursday before our final league game against Wicklow, we had to win that to stay up and then we were right into the championship.

“He came down to Croke Park and we were able to get him out on the pitch. We got a couple of photos under the steps of the Hogan. It was great – it mightn’t have been the perfect way to end things but we wanted to win, but you don’t get too many days out in Croke Park as an Antrim footballer so I’m happy and content with it all.”

A stalwart for the Antrim footballers, Lynch actually began his intercounty career with the county hurlers back in 2012. It wasn’t really a preference for football that sent him in a different direction, or an expectation of success either. Instead, he’d a more prosaic reason for throwing in his lot with the footballers.

“I started my senior intercounty career with the hurlers. I remember we got beat in our final league game at home to Limerick, we lost that game but we finished mid-table in Division 1B, that was a strong Antrim team.

“Then I went over to the footballers. I love hurling, if you ask people they’d probably say I’m a better hurler than footballer. I’m not entirely sure why things worked out the way they did, I think I’d just more mates on the football panel to be honest.”

It hasn’t all been plain-sailing during his time with the Antrim footballers. He’s had no fewer than five hip operations and he’s never enjoyed much in the way of tangible success across seven different managerial regimes. But it’s all relative and there were plenty of good days out as well.

Asked which manager left the deepest mark, Lynch responded: “I’ve loved every one of them, they all brought something different.

“Lenny Harbison made me captain for a few years which is something I’ll always remember. I suppose if I had a favourite, it would probably be Frank Fitzsimons who took us alongside Gearoid Adams and Pat Hughes, good local people. Frank managed me right through with my club, we won an Ulster Minor title with him. Gearoid’s a close family friend as well, and it was special as we all had the same drive and love for our county.”

Lynch also won a long-awaited Senior Championship medal with his club Lámh Dhearg in 2019, under the watchful eye of his father Marty. When he started out, he thought they had the raw ingredients to dominate the club scene in Antrim, but it hasn’t panned out that way so he’s grateful that their hard-luck stories didn’t last forever.

“I’d tried so long to win a county championship. After winning an Ulster Minor with our club, I thought this is going to be handy enough, we’re going to win a couple of them, but it hasn’t worked out like that.

“Sometimes we were unlucky and sometimes we just weren’t good enough, so thank God we’ve won one. My dad was the manager, my uncle Stephen was selector, and I played alongside my brother-in-law so 2019 was really special and it’s definitely a big highlight of my career.”

His Antrim career was characterised by first round Qualifier exits, so the arrival of the Tailteann Cup in 2022 was gratefully received. They had six outings in this year’s competition, and Lynch was relieved when the recent proposal to flip the All-Ireland senior hurling quarter-finals from Saturday to Sunday at the expense of the Tailteann Cup semi-finals narrowly failed at a special convening of Central Council.

He said: “It’s a really good competition and there was a big test the other weekend when Wexford put in a motion to move their games from Saturday to Sunday. If Croke Park had agreed and rescheduled the Tailteann Cup games, it would’ve left a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths as it would have looked like they were favouring the top-level competitions over the smaller ones.

“It’s great that the games went ahead as scheduled, and I think it’s a class competition. It’s given us the chance to play in Croke Park in All-Ireland semi-finals, it’s extended our summer and helped us produce new players.

“We’ve had lads who haven’t really played in the league but have then come in and made a big impact in the Tailteann Cup, so it’s been great for the development of our team.”

Lynch also has a lot of time for their present manager Andy McEntee, who’s expected to return for a third season in charge of the team when 2025 comes into view. A training camp in Portugal earlier in the year was indicative of McEntee’s professional approach and the backing of the county board.

“It was just class, any time we need something to help make us a top-level team, he’s gone out and delivered it. In previous years we could have said ‘we’re not getting this, we’re not getting that’ and there’s none of that now.

“The experience of preparing like a professional athlete for a week was just unreal and we got a lot out of it. I’m jealous of the lads as they’re probably going to get experiences like that every year going forward.”

On a less positive note, the impasse over the redevelopment of Casement Park is a considerable source of frustration for Lynch. He’s optimistic the planned 34,000 capacity ground will be built and will serve as the home of Antrim GAA for generations to come, but when that exactly happens is another matter.

“I’ve been on the record as saying it will be delivered, but I think we’ve missed a massive opportunity in not getting it redeveloped in time for the Euros in 2028. I could speak all day on it, but it’s just important now that we get it built.

“Without getting too political, it was meant to be a flagship project for the Executive. The Irish and British Governments have both promised money, there’s money sitting aside for it but for whatever reason (it hasn’t been signed off on) and that’s just how it goes.”

Another source of concern is Antrim’s poor performances at underage level. They’re generally competitive on the senior front, but their u-17 and u-20 footballers have shipped a lot of heavy beatings in recent seasons, on a few occasions managing no more than a few points against the Tyrones of this world.

“There needs to be a full root and branch review. There’s good people there and you have to respect that but this year in particular, Antrim have taken too many big big beatings.

“I think we have to sit down and look at it as a collective and see is there a model out there that we can copy, is there a pathway we can put in place. There are solutions but putting it in practice is the difficult thing.”

So what’s next? Lynch doesn’t rule out moving into coaching or management in the long-term, but in the near future he’ll focus on his club commitments and having a bit of a social life, something that’s fallen by the wayside due to the increasingly onerous demands of intercounty football.

“I’ve a young family, I got married this time last year, and even though I’ll still be playing with my club, it’ll be great to have a social life with friends and family. It’ll be nice to sit back a bit. Áine had to step away from the county this year and I’d really like her to go back to Antrim next year, so that’s where my priorities are right now.”

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