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In focus – Antrim’s Tony Scullion – Hard man to manage

IN FOCUS… TONY SCULLION

TWO years ago, Tony Scullion thought his club career was over.

It was not age or injury that he feared, it was a new manager. Damian Cassidy had taken on the job of Cargin boss, and Scullion felt a row was brewing.

“When I heard that he was taking over the job after John Brennan I said to myself that this could be logger heads. I thought I could be sent down to reserve football and this could be my senior career over. I didn’t know much about him, but I knew that he had managed county teams, and I thought that he wasn’t going to listen to the like of me who doesn’t do the strength and conditioning that other players are doing.”

You see, Scullion admits that he can be a difficult man to manage.

He’s vocal in the changing rooms, and prefers manager to take an open, no nonsense approach.

Scullion had enjoyed three years of John Brennan, a players manager who had won titles in 2015 and 2016.

Change brings uncertainty though, and Scullion felt that his traditional ways may rub Cassidy up the wrong way.

During his playing career he liked men like Brennan, Mickey Culbert and Liam Bradley.

He’d had difficult times with Frank Dawson, and he thought that Cassidy would be a similar situation.

“He came in, I had a conversation with him, and from that day me and him just took off. There has been no problem. I have to say he’s a first class manager. He’s one of those managers who if you do something right he’ll tell you, and if you do something wrong he’ll nip it in the bud.

“He treats me the same as he would a minor.

“The like of Damian Cassidy is the most enthusiastic and tactical manager that I have ever played under at any level.

“The dedication that he puts in is unbelievable.”

Scullion’s approach to Cassidy tells us a lot about the former county footballer, who played in the Saffron’s defence during the county’s most successful period of the modern era.

He’s a traditional style footballer, a hard man who loves the training and the work that is needed to win, but who will only play for a manager who treats him a certain way.

It is perhaps fitting that his county career was bookmarked with controversy.

It began in 2005, in a period when Cargin were in a stand off with the county board.

A fight during the 2000 county final between Cargin and St Paul’s saw Cargin stripped of their title.

Scullion explained “We lost our title and there was a pact made that we wouldn’t go back until they reinstated the achievements that they got in 2000.

“There was an unwritten rule in Cargin at that time that no one would go and play for Antrim. If you had have went then you would be ousted.”

Yet Antrim were in the doldroms. It had been five years since the great win against Down, their first in 18 years.

St Gall’s man Mickey Culbert had a plan to build the team back up.

“Mickey Culbert rang me. It was odd for a Belfast man to ring me.

“We had the agreement that five or six of us would go back that particular year.

“He said that if we came back, they would put the name back on the trophy. That’s what he said, more or less.

“That was how he got boys from Cargin back playing for Antrim.

“The agreement was that the name would be put back on the trophy.”

Scullion and the rest of the Cargin players agreed to do join Culbert’s squad.

In Scullion’s case, it was the actions of Culbert that impressed him.

“I am sure it wasn’t easy for him to ring up a crowd of Cargin fellas and ask them to come and play for Antrim. He dug the spade into the ground and got the thing moving.

“On a personal note, Mickey Culbert is a gentleman. He couldn’t have done enough for you, he made you feel welcome.”

Yet it wasn’t entirely straightforward for the Cargin players. They went to the first training session with certain amount of trepidation.

“It was awkward for us going up there after turning our backs on them for four or five years.

“It was uneven ground to be walking over.

“You had four or five years of Cargin mentality that the Antrim county board was rotten to the core for what they did. It was awkward. We were the guinea pigs for going back. You didn’t know how people in the club would react. It was an awkward enough situation to be in.”

Was there a kick back from people in the Cargin club? “There wasn’t a person who said anything about it. I think they were glad. They knew that the dust had settled. The people who were involved in giving Cargin heavy suspensions had tiptoed out of the county.

There was fresh blood in there. They are not going to hold grudges against people who did nothing wrong. The likes of John McSparran went in there and did a fantastic job.”

And it wasn’t as if the Cargin boys were walking into an entirely new set up. They were familiar with the St Gall’s players who they’d been going toe to toe with for a long time.

“Mickey Culbert knew what he was doing. He had the whole thing set up that we weren’t to feel awkward.

“After the first session you felt like you’d been there for ten years. He made things level pegging for us.

“Mickey Culbert is a shrewd operator. He’d been around a lot of corners at that time. That’s his job. He works with people from difficult backgrounds.

“If there was any man who was going to bring a divide together he was the man to do it.”

Scullion, who was 24 at the time relished the experience of playing with the best players in the county, and also against some of the stars of Ulster.

But he soon realised that Antrim were not treated the same as other teams.

“I remember playing against Fermanagh as it set out where Antrim was really at. It was a really wet day, and I don’t think we even had a full set of jerseys.

“I also remember that one official went into the changing room and borrowed John Finucane’s shoes, as his shoes were so wet. John Finucane went to get changed and his shoes were gone.

“The likes of the Tyrone players were getting holidays while we had players who didn’t have shoes.

“We went for a weekend one time down the Glens of Antrim. But you had to bring your own tent and your own sausages. That might sound like me exaggerating. But that’s how it was. I was talking to Tyrone players at the time and they were coming back from Florida. That showed where Antrim was at.”

The landscape of the GAA was changing, and things were changing in the Saffron county too.

And the changes were made by the managers.

Jody Gormley, a former Tyrone player came in and improved the Antrim players’ lot, leading them to a Tommy Murphy Cup in 2008.

His successor Liam Bradley was the manager that really clicked with Scullion.

“The Baker was a big players man. He was down to earth and a straight talker, that’s not to say that the others weren’t. He was a real players man. Maybe that was coming from knowing what Paddy and Eoin (his sons) were getting with Derry. He felt that Antrim should be getting those things too. That’s not to say that the players needed these things. It was more about gratitude and showing that
they players were wanted.

“The Baker went in there and got the results. There was no hidden agendas with him.”

The relationship that Bradley had with Scullion was an interesting one.

“He was good at working with different people.

“From my point of view, as someone who is hard to talk to or hard to steer, he always had a way of getting the message to without annoying you or offending you. If you done anything right he told you, if you done anything wrong he told you.

“I was hard to steer, headstrong. But Liam did it. He had me eating out of his hand.”

The Baker recognised that Scullion was the sort of lieutenant that would carry out his demands to the  letter, even when they seemed outlandish.

Scullion said: “I mind playing in a challenge game against Derry, and Liam Bradley obviously had relations playing for (Bradley’s sons Paddy and Eoin played for Derry at the time).

“One of his relations was playing well. He came over to me and said: “That boy is playing brave and well, is there anything that you can do about that?”

“So I done it. When he asked you to go and do a job, you did it.”

In 2009, Antrim topped the table in Division four, and were promoted to Division three.

Then in the Ulster Championship they enjoyed an incredible run beating Donegal and Cavan to reach the provincial final.

It was the Donegal game that was the high point though.

“The Donegal game in 2009 was when Antrim made their mark. That was a stand out moment. We went into Ballybofey as underdogs, but we were used to that.

“In those games, in the back of your head we probably didn’t believe that we could do anything. A manager might say that you have the beating of the team, but anybody who has played football knows if you can beat a team or not.

“The Baker instilled more belief in us than any manager at that time. The players went onto the field feeling that they had a chance.”

He wasn’t there on his own though. Scullion pointed out that Bradley’s assistant Niall Conway, from Ballinderry, had a big role to play on that team.

“Niall did a lot of prep work. I’d say Antrim were at their fittest back then. Niall brought in a new generation of training. It was the first time I had seen it. It was hard to watch and hard to do. There were game situation drills. We were in a situation where the thing was changing.

“When I started out there were men smoking in the changing rooms. When I finished the men had moisturiser and hair dryers. There was an evolution there.”

Antrim won that game by 1-10 to 0- 12, the narrowest of margins but a fantastic result for a county who had been struggling.

“We stayed with them in the first half. Baker chastised us at half time.

He never said ‘we’re in with a good chance’, he was bouncing water bottles off the floor to keep you pushing on. But it wasn’t till Tomas scored that goal till we thought things were going our way.

“Antrim fought hard that day and went on ahead and got over the line.”

It was Tomas McCann’s 57th minute goal that helped deliver the victory, and Scullion had a part to play in that score.

“I put a boy out over the line with a heavy shoulder, Tomas got the ball and he took off like a hare.

“The next thing you know the ball was in the back of the net. That put the hairs up on the back of your neck.

“We knew we were in with a great chance of taking Donegal out. They probably felt that they were playing the beaten docket of Ulster.

“I would say that they were stunned.” The reaction was there to be savoured. And Scullion experienced something new as an Antrim player.

“The big change for me that day was that there were spectators who came out of the crowd and onto the field. That was a new thing for Antrim.

“The crowd never had anything to cheer about. Even having Antrim supporters staying after the match was new to me.”

Antrim went on to beat Cavan in the semi-final and that set up a final against Tyrone. Bradley’s approach to the decider was interesting.

“The one thing I found strange about the lead up to the Ulster final was that they took us to Portglenone monastery. The Baker thought that we needed a bit of prayer. He was trying different things.”

And there was to be a reprisal of Scullion’s role as the enforcer in the Ulster final.

Bradley had identified a Tyrone strength and he looked to Scullion to nullify it.

“In 2009, I was put on to mark Brian Dooher. On three or four occasions before the game Liam Bradley said to me ‘look boy, this boy is a big player for them, he is a big runner. He is ageing, but you are in your prime. No matter what you do, in the first few minutes put him over’. And I did. I got a yellow card in the first few minutes because of that.

“You had to respect these players, but you couldn’t over respect them, You couldn’t give them the lie of the land.”

Unfortunately Antrim lost to Tyrone 1-18 to 0-15. They had to gather themselves up and turn their attention to the qualifiers and a game against Kerry. They would give the Kingdom their fill of it.

“Antrim were fit for Kerry that day.

“Liam Bradley treated Kerry like you were going down to play Waterford.

“Liam felt that we just had to worry about our own style of play.

“At that time there was me, Justin Crozier and James Loughrey in the half back line. Justin and James would have got on to any team in Ireland. As James did when he went to Cork. And that team also had All-Ireland winning St Gall’s players. Antrim had a lot of good individual players. Michael McCann, and Tomas as well.

“Kerry had to bring on their top players half way through the first half.

“I thought I held my own. We were marking boys who went on to win the AllIreland.”

Bradley carried the success on into 2010 when they were promoted out of division three and up into division two.

They were drawn against Tyrone in Ulster and lost, and then took Kildare to a replay in the qualifiers and lost the replay. In 2011, they were relegated out of division two, and lost to Donegal in the Ulster
Championship.

A big game for Antrim came in 2012, in Antrim’s final year. After getting knocked out of Ulster by Monaghan, they beat London before getting a home draw against Galway.

“Galway came to Casement and  they did not know what to expect going into the middle of west Belfast.
Antrim were moving well. They had their own game plan and had been winning matches.

“He was working with a crop of players and he worked to their strengths. He knew who the good forwards were and he knew where to put them. It wasn’t ultra defensive, but he had a boundary set up.

“The standout moment in the Galway game was Declan O’Hagan scoring a point to win it. I don’t think he scored a point since. I think he retired on that score.

“Everyone saw Declan got the ball they s*** themselves and prayed that he didn’t shoot. It’s kind of like how they feel when I get the ball. That was a shock too because Galway were a stand out team at that time.”

There was also a masterstroke by Bradley which illustrates how the Derry man tactically prepares for teams, but also how he utilised Scullion’s strengths.

“They brought on Padraig Joyce in that game, but Liam Bradley had set it up a situation tailor made for me. It was agreed before hand that if they pulled him from the bench then he had to be emptied. That was whispered in my ear two nights before it.

Liam had done his home work and realised that Padraig Joyce wasn’t starting. So they were going to bring him on to use him to give them a lift. That was methodical. He said to me, ‘first chance you get, take him out by the roots’.

“As soon as I saw him come on I tiptoed closer to him so that I knew he wasn’t going to go any further.

That’s the job I was told to do.

“That got the Antrim crowd up. That overtook the big cheer that he got when he came on. And it lifted the players as well.”

2012 was Bradley’s last year with Antrim. He departed at the end of the season.

Scullion explained what he thought of the departure.

“Liam was doing well, and was winning matches. He brought football back into Antrim. Antrim had a support.

It was brilliant. It was nice to be walking about and people would recognise you.

“Liam left because of the hierarchy in Antrim. His face didn’t fit and he had to leave. He was more than willing to come back but he wanted more for the players. The executive committee changed and his face didn’t fit and he was put up the road.

“It was frustrating to me because it was deemed to be unfair. He was doing well and winning matches.”

From the highs of winning with Bradley, times were about to get tough for Scullion. Frank Dawson had managed Burren to the Down championship title.

He was a Belfast native and had won an Ulster club title with St Gall’s in the 80s.

He came on board in 2013, Yet he and Scullion did not click.

“Me and Frank Dawson were at logger heads.

“When Liam Bradley was there I was never expected to do the gym work. Liam Bradley told me that I was travelling all day so I didn’t need to be travelling back up the road for the gym. That was great for me. He announced it in front of the players, that I was doing manual work, and there were other players, not just me.

“Frank Dawson tried to rule me with an iron fist which I wasn’t used to. So me and him were at logger heads from the very start.

“I was a recognised Antrim player at that stage. I am not blaming him entirely. I was hard to manage as well but there was no compromise with him.

“He came out with the chat that it was to do with an anniversary mass. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. You can’t tell someone what they can and can’t do about an anniversary mass. There was a compromise there to be made but he didn’t make it.”

The issue saw Scullion and a few other Cargin men depart the squad.

That signalled the beginning of the end for Dawson at Antrim according to Scullion.

“That festered through the team. Now I’m not saying it was anything to do with me. But Frank Dawson left at the end of that year. He was his own worst enemy.”

Scullion returned when Liam Bradley came back as manager in 2014, however he retired from county football in 2015 after Antrim lost to Fermanagh in the qualifiers.

“There are Antrim players who will cling on and cling on, and who are happy to just stay on the panel. I wouldn’t be bothered with any of that nonsense. You know when your time is up, it’s up.

“I kind of left on a high. I went out on my own terms, with my head held high and no regrets.

“Anything I had left I wanted to give it to the club. #“I was there for 12 years (with Antrim) and did what I could. But you can’t stay there forever. I have no regrets.

I could have stayed on a couple of years. At the end of you day you have to give back to your club. You can’t live your career for county football.”

Getting back to his club was a big reason for Scullion to stop when he did. He had always given a lot of his time to Cargin while he played county football.

“There was an unwritten rule that when you were training with the county you didn’t train with your club. But I trained away anyway. At the end of the day your club is your club.”

In 2015 he won his third county championship with John Brennan as manager, and added to it in 2016 and 2018, under Damian Cassidy.

“I am sitting with five club championships now which ten years ago you would have felt was virtually impossible. John Brennan, you could fall in and out with him in the space of two minutes of a
conversation. But he won me three championships. You can’t knock that.”

He says that the strength of Cargin should not be forgotten.

“Cargin had a lot to do with St Gall’s success though they would never admit that. Cargin kept them on their toes in Antrim and gave them a base to work off. They were a bit shrewder.

“St Paul’s were one of the strong teams in the 90s and early 2000s but they have faded away.

“But Cargin have still stayed up. I am in my 20 year of playing senior championship and Cargin are still up there. That’s an achievement in itself.”

He’s looking forward to the new championship in Antrim.

He’s one of the elder statesmen now and admitted that he still has the hunger, he just needs to put in a bit more work than he used to.

“You don’t think of all the hard work that you have to put in that people see. You just look forward to a big day out, getting another trophy.”

r.scott@gaeliclife.com

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