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Antrim’s footballers had waited 18 years for an Ulster SFC victory, but a new millennium would herald a new dawn...

The Perfect Storm

Joe Quinn and Tony Convery celebrate Joe Quinn and Tony Convery celebrate
Sean McGreevy saves from Gregory McCartan Sean McGreevy saves from Gregory McCartan
Anto Finnegan in action against Mickey Linden Anto Finnegan in action against Mickey Linden
Brian White Brian White
By David Mohan

“It’s all over and Antrim have done it. For the first time in 18 years, they are victorious in the Ulster Championship.”

 

SUNDAY, May 28, 2000 was the day all involved with Antrim football had been longing for.

It had been 18 long years since they tasted victory in the Ulster Senior Football Championship with the intervening years throwing up a mix of hard-luck stories and disappointing defeats.

The wait simply couldn’t last indefinitely and so it was to prove on that first Championship outing of a new millennium when the perfect storm saw Brian White’s Saffrons to score a seminal victory that would awake a sleeping giant.

The win over Down was to instil new confidence throughout the county, but the fuse had been lit at the end of the previous year.

White hadn’t intended to step into the hot seat, but circumstances were to tear up that particular script and before he knew it, the Rossa clubman found himself answering the call.

“I was looking after Rossa’s seniors and we were down playing St Gall’s late in 1999,” he recalls.

“After the game John Gough came over and said that we (Antrim) had an All-Ireland B Championship game down in Leitrim that weekend and there was nobody to take them as Aidan Thornbury had resigned.

“I’d been looking after the minors the year before and the U21s and John said that a lot of those players were now coming into the seniors. I had a think about it but got Hugh McGettigan involved and said we’d do that one match, but we ended up going down to Carrick-on-Shannon and beating them.”

Having presided over that victory, there was no sense in halting winning momentum and with JC Devlin added to the backroom team, White went about trying to plot the course for his native county over the remaining months of the year and into 2000: “We didn’t have bad players, but just a lack of belief.

“JC had come in with a good crowd from Cargin and we were starting to get a number of good players coming in who hadn’t been available over the years for a variety of reasons along with an influx of young lads I’d taken as minors like Kevin Madden, Kevin Brady, Tony Convery, Enda McLarnon and a few others.

“You had stalwarts there too like Anto Finnegan, Gearoid Adams, John Kelly, Martin Mulholland, Ronan Hamill and all those servants who’d been there.”

Like White, Finnegan hadn’t planned on being involved with the county for that campaign.

The St Paul’s man had returned to study and felt the time was right to bow out and make way for the new breed, but not only was the new manager’s powers of persuasion to see Finnegan return, but also in the role as team captain.

“Whitey came in at a time when we were facing the embarrassment of not being able to field,” he said.

“I’d decided around that time I was probably going to take a step back because I had a lot going on, but Whitey being Whitey, he convinced me to come back in and once I was in, I was never going to get out.”

 

Brian White

The new regime and early winning momentum was to prove invaluable as Antrim reached the B final and on a December day at Casement Park, they scored a 2-10 to 1-10 win over a Fermanagh side that included many who came within a whisker of reaching the 2004 All-Ireland final.

Silverware and Antrim football hadn’t exactly gone hand-in-hand so that success was to provide the self-belief that would see Antrim turn the corner the following summer.

“We played Fermanagh in that All-Ireland B final and that was the foundation for what we wanted to do,” said White.

“We’d been on a good run since October and lads who were there hadn’t done that before.

“Fermanagh were there or thereabouts in Ulster at the time and Pat King was taking them. I’ve met him since and he said they were not ready for the defeat as it knocked them back a bit.”

His team captain is in agreement as to how big that victory over the Ernesiders was to be.

“I think it was all about momentum at that stage,” added Finnegan.

“Whitey and Hugh McGettigan drilled it into us that we could use the B Championship to establish ourselves, get a formation going and gear it towards the McKenna Cup and League for the following year. We probably didn’t realise the importance of building that mentality at the time.”

 

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Antrim teams had consistent issues with putting the county’s best players on the pitch, but with the management creating a winning culture, some players were to pull on the Saffron jersey who previously hadn’t.

Cargin’s Shenny McQuillan was regarded as one of the best midfielders in the county but hadn’t made himself available although his clubmate, Devlin, was to help convince him to give it a go.

City versus county rivalries were also shoved to the side as White looked to build a cohesive unit and wasn’t afraid to welcome some new Antrim residents into the folds such as Con Coleman (Galway), Aidan Morris (Tyrone) and Anthony McGrath (Donegal).

“Most of the lads weren’t reluctant to come in,” White reported.

“Actually, most were keen to pull on the county jersey and test themselves at that level so I was glad to see a lot bought into it and came in.

“When you look at Shenny McQuillan: he had all the talent but for some reason only played one year in an Antrim jersey, which is incredulous – why was that allowed to happen?

“Those lads came in when we were winning games and obviously that made things more attractive. We left it that if you were good enough and wanted to be there, we’d absolutely want you to be there.”

Their inclusion was certainly to boost the team, but Antrim would face setbacks that campaign too with one, in particular, putting football into perspective.

Dermott Niblock looked set to be a huge asset to the team given his performances in the run to the B title.

However, having gone out to celebrate that win two weeks later, he was to be hit by a car that left him fighting for his life, but thankfully has since recovered.

“That was a tragedy on its own,” said White.

“I remember getting a phonecall and being told he was in hospital. I went down and the big lad was lying there which was heartbreaking as a few hours earlier, there he was with a big smile on his face.”

In the final League game away to Westmeath, they were to receive another blow as Kevin Madden, their talisman in attack, received a blow to the jaw that would leave it broken and out of the upcoming Championship game against Down.

However, despite this setback, White was to look at the positives as his side stood their ground that day and scored a win that offered hope his team was on the right heading into the summer: “That day I remember we unleashed Kevin Doyle who was one of the new talents coming through and Kevin almost punished Westmeath on his own, but the whole team stood up to them that day and that added another aspect for us.

“That was a massive win for us because a few years later they really sprang into life.

“Madden was one of our most consistent forwards, averaging scores in every game and a fantastic free-taker.

“Joe Dougan was our doctor and he just said the jaw was broke and we had to get him out of there right away. But then at the tail end of the year, it’s discovered he had a heart problem.”

 

Anto Finnegan in action against Mickey Linden

While receiving treatment later in the year, Madden was diagnosed with a leaking heart valve that required surgery and put his playing career at huge risk, but the Portglenone man was not quite done for the year after the broken jaw although he was most certainly out of Antrim’s Championship opener against Down.

Still, there was a sense that something major was on the horizon.

In the 1999 Ulster Championship, Antrim had travelled to Newry to face Down and it was to prove another hard-luck story as an early Mickey Linden goal gave the Mournemen a bit of daylight to keep the visitors at arm’s-length to run out four point winners.

Antrim now had momentum and despite the defeat the previous summer, there was a belief they could get over the line this time. But things still needed to change to find that extra edge.

White and his management team had done their homework on Down, acquiring information from challenge games their upcoming rivals had played, while they also looked to a new direction in terms of their physical preparation.

“During the League, we sought out a fella called Harry Brennan who was the head of Queen’s PE and the Strength & Conditioning Coach for Ulster Rugby,” said White.

“He said he knew nothing about Gaelic football, but I just said: ‘Harry, I’ll give you the biggest challenge of your life and I’ll put you in front of 30,000 people to do it – a team that hasn’t won a match in Ulster in 18 years but they can win. We just need to take training to a new level, hear a different voice and do things differently, because we have to be different this time’. He bought into it and came in with us, and the lads really took to him.

“Hugh McGettigan was phenomenal and the work he did behind the scenes to find out things about the opposition was huge.

“JC’s reading of the game was exceptional so it was the perfect mix and the training from Harry Brennan to introduce tackle bags and stuff we’d never seen before helped them all buy into this without hesitation.”

There was still the mental hurdle to overcome with their losing streak in Ulster hanging over them as they got set to face a Down team that had reached the previous year’s Ulster final and still contained members of the teams who had won All-Irelands in 1991 and 1994, while a fresh crop of the All-Ireland minor winning team from 1999 were breaking through.

“As a player, it’s not something I’d have dwelled on,” Finnegan replied.

“It was probably more the press would ask those things, but on the day Whitey had it drilled into that we were going to win that game.

“There was just this quiet confidence we could get over Down, especially how close the game had been in The Marshes the year before.”

 

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Casement Park to Hannahstown is a short drive, but the Antrim players boarded a team bus to Lámh Dhearg’s pitch for their warm-up as the clock struck midday on their day of reckoning – a deliberate effort to forge a united front.

As the players went through their paces on a blistering hot day, suncream and water bottles were passed around before the team returned back to the Andersonstown Road to march through Owenvarragh and in through the gates.

“You could feel the atmosphere and could feel that something was going to happen that day,” said White.

As the players made their final preparations before taking to the field, there was a knock on the door. Dessie Reynolds, who had served with White during their tenure with the Antrim minors in the mid-90s, had requested to say a few words to the players.

“By this stage, Dessie had almost gone blind from a terminal illness and didn’t have long left to live, so I said to the lads if it would be ok for him to come in and they all agreed.

“After a few minutes I had to leave the room…,” he said as his voice cracked with emotion… “Ah, it just shows you that even 20 years later it still gets you.

“He spoke well and said that it might be his last Antrim game – all the stuff that tugs at the heartstrings. The lads were glued to what he was saying – sometimes it’s about more than football.”

 

Sean McGreevy saves from Gregory McCartan

The sun continued to shine as Antrim took to the field and the hosts made a good start, leading by two when Down were awarded a penalty at the Andersonstown Road end. Up-stepped Gregory McCartan and while his effort was poorly struck, it still found the net past Sean McGreevy.

However, instead of accepting this to be the same old story, Antrim rose to the task and dug in against their opponents as the conditions were about to take a huge turn for the worse with sunshine replaced by pouring rain, hailstones, thunder and lightning just before the break, turning Casement’s pristine sod into a slippery dancefloor.

“I remember standing along the line when the hailstones like golf balls were coming down and over my shoulder I could hear this ‘bang bang bang’. My first thought was that there was gunfire out on the road, but when I turned around, there was some fella with a cardboard box on his head and the hailstones were bouncing off it.”

While the elements were not conducive to silky football, they did suit and Antrim team that had shown it could thrive in such conditions in the B title success according to the captain: “The weather was a great help as the sun would have suited them the way they played a really expansive game.

“Once the rain came and the pitch got slippery and slick, we’d been used to playing games in those conditions in the B Championship so it turned out to be a help to us.

“That combination and with Sean saving the penalty in the second half gave us a big lift.”

That second period began with the sides level as points from Peter McCann and Kevin Doyle as the heavens opened just before the break showed the defiance in that Antrim team.

As the second period progressed, Antrim took a firm grip and led by four when Linden was taken down for a second penalty. This time, an inspired Sean McGreevy – who would earn an Allstar nomination that year – was equal to McCartan’s effort with 15 minutes remaining and while Down drove forward looking for the goal that would revive their challenge, McGreevy and Antrim stood firm to run out 0-13 to 1-7 winners and spark manic scenes of celebration as tears were shed and fists pumped.

“Down were renowned for turning up at Championship and with Pete McGrath as manager, they had someone there tried and tested,” said White.

“Gregory McCartan, James McCartan, Mickey Linden are just a few of the players you were going up against.

“Then Benny Coulter who played the minors that day came on for them too so they had massive firepower and All-Ireland winners in their team.”

 

Joe Quinn and Tony Convery celebrate

Antrim had finally done it; the 18 years of hurt washed away in the eye of that summer storm as they got over their Championship hoodoo. However, while the players took the adulation as their standing in the eyes of their followers skyrocketed, for the players it was simply a case of ‘job done’.

“I think it was just a monkey off our back and the supporters was an outpouring of emotion because some of them would have been at every Antrim game from ‘81 and ‘82,” noted Finnegan.

“It was more an outpouring from the supporters rather than the players as there was just the relief of winning. We celebrated that night and enjoyed ourselves, but that was it.”

The players were back on the training field two nights later as while their seminal win could be savoured by the Antrim public, they had to turn their attention to an even bigger challenge…

In part two next week, Antrim get set to face Derry as their summer adventure continued…

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