By Niall Gartland
WHEN it comes to football management and sporting success, luck can often play a huge role. Lenny Harbinson’s time in charge of his home club St Gall’s certainly can’t be referred to as lucky, but it had its part to play.
“Like any sport, there’s always an element of luck,” said the former Antrim boss. “People say you have to make your own luck but at the same time, if you’re well organised and structured, then luck seems to come that wee bit easier.”
St Gall’s had been knocking on the door for a number of years. They were the dominant force in Antrim, but it was the next step that was causing the most difficulty. An Ulster title and All-Ireland final appearance would be enough to satisfy a lot of clubs, but St Gall’s had more in them. They could go further.
Out of pure frustration, Lenny Harbinson decided enough was enough. He was willing to take over the squad, change things up and create history with a talented bunch of players that were destined to reach the summit.
Following a few successful years with the club’s minor side, Harbinson landed the big job.
“I suppose I got involved with St Gall’s around 2009 out of frustration,” he said. “St Gall’s at that stage had won a number of Antrim Championships, had won the Ulster in 2005, got to an All-Ireland final in 2006 and lost to Salthill-Knocknacarra and a couple of years after that they’d won a couple of Antrim Championships but hadn’t kicked on.
“I always felt that the talent was there so after managing the minors, out of frustration more than anything, I put my hat in the ring to get involved with the senior team.
“I just tried to take a different approach to keep things fresh so we didn’t train the way they would have trained in the early days. We would have looked at the championship structures and delayed our collective training until closer to the championship to keep people fresh.
“We would have done a lot of hard, physical training as a foundation. Even watching Man United the other night (v Liverpool), talent will always be overcome by fitness and desire, so it was always important to make sure teams were fit first and foremost, structured and then try to embrace the talent.
“We won Antrim and then we had a very difficult task away to Cavan Gaels (in the first round of Ulster) and that ended up being a bit of a battle. They got four players sent off and they had a very talented team, they had Seanie Johnston and Michael Lyng.
“I remember coming out of Breffni Park thinking we have a great chance of winning Ulster because very few teams would have come out of that encounter with the win that day.”
Not only did they go on to capture the Seamus McFerran Cup, but they went all the way to the All-Ireland decider and climbed the famed Hogan Stand steps. As Harbinson explains, the build up to the game against Kilmurry-Ibrickane was surprisingly quite subdued.
“One of the disadvantages of a city team comared to a country team, and I’ve managed both in city and country, outside of St Gall’s, which is a small club on the Falls Road, is there was absolutely no talk of the All-Ireland.
“The lead up to the final and after the final was very low-key and very quiet. People find that hard to believe but you can go down the Falls Road and if you didn’t go down Milltown Row, which would have been decked with bunting leading down to the clubhouse, you wouldn’t have known there was All-Ireland contenders and eventual winners on that road.
“The year that St Gall’s lost the All-Ireland final in 2006, they’d gone down the night before and stayed in a hotel, but I’d taken a very different approach, I’d taken the low-key approach. We went to mass in Clonard Monastery that morning before we got on the bus and one of the reasons we did that was because it was very connected to St Gall’s history.
“Clonard was where St Gall’s was formed so I thought that was very important to touch base. I spoke to the priest beforehand and got permission to leave after communion so we would be on time in our schedule.
“We travelled that day; we took a back road into Dublin to keep it low-key and to keep them focused. There was always a talented team there, if you want to win anything you have to have a talented team, that’s a lesson I’ve learned down through the years.
“Yes, you can improve players with your coaching and with your structure, but you need talent if you want to win stuff and do it on a sustained basis. St Gall’s had talent and my management team and myself, we took different approaches to try and maximise that talent and the All-Ireland final typified that where we kept everything low-key.”
Like the build-up, the celebrations weren’t anything wild, from Harbinson’s perspective anyway, but there was a quiet sense of satisfaction and personal achievement.
“The last few minutes, there was always a threat they could score a goal and create a bit of momentum, so you’ve always got that in your mind and at the same time you’re thinking we’re a few minutes away from a historic win for St Gall’s and for a club in Antrim.
“The emotions afterwards were for myself quite muted; I was quietly satisfied. It’s the people in the club that have been there quite a long time, that have done all the underage coaching, there’s a lot of people that feed into an eventual win.
“It doesn’t happen by chance. I don’t want to undermine the work done by my management team and myself, but at the same time you’ve got to recognise that there was a lot of hard work done before that too.”
Harbinson was used to creating history with the club. He was part of the side that ended a 49-year famine for an Antrim title in 1982, when they also went on to win the club’s first Ulster Club Championship.
Just like the team that Harbinson inherited in 2009, a few talented minors making the breakthrough to the senior ranks helped drive the club on as did the coaching initiatives of player-manager PJ O’Hare.
“In 1979 St Gall’s won the minor championship, that was a big starting point for St Gall’s in many respects because there were about five or six that went into the senior team, and we won the Antrim Championship in 1982 for the first time in 49 years.
“PJ O’Hare was the player-manager which was probably unique in those days. PJ would have been a massive influence, not only did PJ play county football but he had also played basketball for St Gall’s and Ireland.
“There would have been a big basketball influence. We would have used basketball tactics away back then although everyone’s talking about it now in the modern game, PJ was always ahead of his time.
“In those days we would have defended in numbers and attacked in numbers and PJ also would have from time to time played Sean McGourty in goals as a fly goalkeeper and that was way back in 1982. I remember in league games the goalkeeper would have come out to midfield and created the extra man.
“We got to the All-Ireland semi-final and got beat by Clann na nGael (Roscommon). We’d gone down on the Saturday, a glorious sunny day and the following day, the Sunday, the place was covered in snow, so the game was called off and we had to do the long track the following week.
“We were winning by a couple of points with about five or six minutes to go and our full-back came out with the ball and tried to play the ball out and get the return but was taken out of the game and they got a hometown referee decision. It should have been a free out and it wasn’t, and it went to Eamon McManus, who put it in the back of the net.
“It was a combination of having a very good senior team that had won a couple of Antrim leagues but could never get over the line and then we had four or five of those minor players that had won the championship in ’79 coming though.
“Ulster was bonus territory, but we always found in the years following when we had won Antrim and got into Ulster, the Ulster style of football was a bit more open. Maybe playing in your own county is slightly claustrophobic where everybody knows your strengths and weaknesses.”
Harbinson’s exploits caught the eye and as a teenager the St Gall’s star earned his first piece inter-county silverware in the form of a McKenna Cup medal. There were more bad days than good unfortunately, but there was always a silver lining.
“Around ’82 or ’83, I was about 18 or 19 at that stage and I was in the Antrim team. Antrim won the McKenna Cup; I was in the panel that year and Brother Ennis would have been the manager and we beat Armagh down in Newry.
“There weren’t too many days in an Antrim jersey where we could celebrate big wins but at that time the McKenna Cup was quite a big win for Antrim. It was in the early ‘80s that I got involved and played for the best part of 12 years.
“I always loved to play for Antrim, I was always encouraged within the club because you’re playing with the elite players within your own county and you’re playing against elite players from other counties and testing yourself.
“It was a great learning curve and for me it improved you as a footballer so that’s why I would have always encouraged anybody from my own club if you had the opportunity to represent your county to go and do it.
“We had a lot of downs with a couple of ups. A couple of years we got promoted from Division 2B to 2A and the odd year we went into 1B which would have been Division Two. We played Kerry in an All-Ireland league final around 1987, we had a reasonably good team then but the Ulster Championship in those days was straight knockout.
“In ’87 we drew with Tyrone after they’d reached the All-Ireland final in ’86 and then lost by a point in the replay in Omagh. There were a few years where it was nip and tuck and heartbreak. We could never seem to get over that cycle of trying to get over the first round of the Ulster Championship, but I suppose I was a student in those days, it gave you a chance to go to America to go and play football out there.
“I would have gone out when Antrim were out of the championship and the Antrim Club Championship didn’t really start to the end of August so it helped facilitate when you could go out. I won championships in Chicago and Boston and would have played down in New York; it was a great experience for a young lad.”
Following his playing career, coaching initially wasn’t on Harbinson’s radar, until his children became old enough to crave football.
However, his years as PE teacher and then working in business and sales had subconsciously prepared him for a life in coaching.
“After I retired, I didn’t really get involved too much in football, it’s like a lot of people, once you have children and you have a bit of a break and family rightly takes over.
“But then your children reach an age that they want to play football and that gets you involved, you feel there’s an obligation to get involved in a bit of coaching. That would have been the early stages, I would have helped coach St Gall’s to a couple of minor championships, we had a very good team back in 2006 or 2007.
“Some of those players then went into the St Gall’s senior team which ended up winning Antrim, Ulster and the All-Ireland. I would have got involved in a bit of coaching and since then I’ve always been interested in coaching but at the same time, I was a PE teacher so there was an interest in coaching in my blood.
“When I left teaching, I got involved in business and sales and there’s a lot of principles in sales which we were doing 30 years ago, visualisation, mindfulness, organisation, statistical analysis of your sales, all that is now very prevalent in modern day football.”
Harbinson decided to step away from the St Gall’s job at the end of 2011, with frustration once again a main emotion. They failed to build on their All-Ireland success, losing their crown to Crossmaglen the following year when a host of injuries to star men hampered their chances.
“Like a lot of things in sport, you remember the good moments but there’s a lot of moments that you particularly remember when you lost. They’re more vivid, maybe it’s an Irish thing, maybe it’s a sporting thing where you always want to be competitive but the losses are more vivid than the actual wins.
“This is where the luck element comes into it. The year we won the All-Ireland we didn’t have any injury problems, then against Crossmaglen, Kevin McGourty had gone over on his ankle on the Friday night prior to the game on Sunday.
“Sean Burke would have been one of our key midfielders and he had hurt his back. The only way I could get some game time out of them, Kevin got an injection and played half a game, Sean played half a game.
“Sean Kelly and Terry O’Neill were sick on the bus on the way to Crossmaglen, but just small things like that, of course that was a very talented Crossmaglen team so you can’t take away from the talent they had.
“That’s more vivid for me because I felt if we had have won in Crossmaglen, we would have defended our title that year. The following year we played them again in Casement and we lost our midfielder Aodhan Gallagher who broke his jaw in training on the Friday night.
“Crossmaglen were accomplished footballers but there were a few things that didn’t go our way and didn’t give us the opportunity to really represent ourselves but that’s the breaks of football sometimes.
“You always want to progress, and St Gall’s would be a modest club in terms of budget and whatever else. I wanted to try and bring in different elements of professionalism in terms of strength and conditioning and athletic development, video analysis and things like that.
“The club’s expectations and views on that versus what I wanted to do to raise standards were slightly disconnected so I just thought it was time to step back then.”
Harbinson enjoyed spells with Dundalk Gaels and Ballymacnab before finally making the step up into inter-county management. Antrim needed a new leader and Harbinson answered the call.
“An ex-player said they were looking for a new manager and asked would I be interested in putting my hat in the ring, so I did. Antrim had just been relegated from Division Three having been there for a year.
“I always felt there was good footballers in Antrim, I always felt we were at least a top of Division Three, maybe mid-Division Two team if we got ourselves organised and structured properly.
“Whenever I took over in Antrim, I remember looking at the panel from the year before that played Donegal in the championship and the panel of players who were interested in committing to Antrim again and we’d lost 21 players. Immediately you’re starting behind the curve to get a new panel of players together.
“I made sure that I had a professional structure and I introduced good strength and conditioning and athletic development which I thought had been lacking and even to this day, four or five years later, there still needs to be a lot of work done.”
For three seasons in a row, the Saffrons finished third in Division Four and as hard as Harbinson tried, he couldn’t get his beloved county over the line in terms of promotion.
“In the first year, basically Laois were winning Division Four and it was between Carlow and us (for promotion). We played Carlow in a top of the table clash because whoever won that game was going to get promoted.
“We were down our two midfielders; Sean Burke had got injured and Niall McKeever was injured. Ryan Murray had gone over on his ankle and Paddy McBride was sick, so basically, they were our top two scoring forwards and our two midfielders.
“We conceded a goal late on to lose by three points and Carlow got promoted. That was a game we could have won, we did really well with our limited resources that day. You’ve got to be organised and you’ve got to be structured and yes you make your own luck, but you need a wee bit of luck too particularly when you’re dealing with limited resources.”
2020 looked to be their best chance to climb out of the basement division when a blistering win over fellow promotion-pushers Limerick set them up for a tilt at the title. Then everything stopped. Covid came on the scene and the world was brought to an abrupt halt.
“We had started the league campaign off really well, we got a great home win against Wexford, lost by a point to Sligo, drew with Carlow when we should have probably won and top of the table was Limerick and we put in a fantastic performance and beat Limerick well that day.
“In that year we got ourselves into a promotion place and we were up against Wicklow the following week down in Wicklow and everybody was flying fit and the next thing all games were cancelled because of Covid.
“We adhered to the Covid rules, and we didn’t train collectively….you’re stood on the sideline, it’s quitet embarrassing, it was the worst performance in my tenure because we always prided ourselves on being a hard team to beat.
“That day we conceded seven goals, and it was totally unrepresentative of all the work that we’d done and where we were, it was not reflected. As what’s transpired now, other county teams, rightly or wrongly, trained over Covid.
“We took a decision with the county board we wouldn’t. We strictly adhered to the regulations which was the proper thing to do because you’d players going home to elderly parents or maybe grandparents, so I think we took the right decision.
“But at the end of the day when you’re stood on the sideline down in Wicklow and you’re getting hammered you’re thinking, morally it was the right decision but from a sporting point of view you were made to look very stupid that day.”
Following defeat to Cavan in the championship, Harbinson hung up the bainisteoir bib and the coaching whistle and is still enjoying a well-deserved break.
But a return to coaching will soon be back on the horizon and he could never rule out another go at the Antrim job.
“It’s hard to know. You’d have to think that boat has sailed but then when you look at other managers, the likes of James Horan who came back to Mayo for a second stint, there’s still a burning desire from a coaching point of view within me. Antrim like St Gall’s will always be in my heart. I would never say never but who knows.”