In the aftermath of Antrim’s loss to Tyrone, the Saffron manager Lenny Harbinson found himself facing a series of journalists who wanted to talk about Casement, its absence and how that affected his team.
The question seemed pertinent, as the Ulster Championship clash was supposed to be a home game for Antrim, but as Casement is closed, and there’s no other stadium in the county that could host such a high-profile match, they had to forfeit home advantage and play Tyrone in Armagh.
Harbinson accepts that this was a legitimate line of questioning, however he felt that the story of the match was lost amid the eagerness to get his opinion on the absence of the west Belfast venue.
“Some people on social media made a thing about Casement Park, and that was why we didn’t perform but I refute that.
“Casement is not the excuse. Some asked me the question about Casement and I answered it. Somehow it came out that it was Casement and Gaelfast that were the reason. But that is totally inaccurate. So I want to set the record straight.
“When Antrim beat Down in 2000 they hadn’t won in 19 years and Casement was open. We want Casement open, but it is not the cause of our defeat.
“It has been well documented that players have come and gone and Antrim has suffered more than others. We have lost over 18-24 men who for one reason or another were not able to make the commitment, that is a big turn over of players.”
Tyrone ended up winning very comfortably indeed, 2-21 to 2-9. Even when Antrim hit the net in the second half, Red Hands responded by piling on the points.
The result was disappointing for Harbinson, but he made it clear that the result happened because of preparations, and not because of an empty stadium.
“We trained hard. We prepared hard. We just don’t think that we did ourselves justice. We played reasonably well in the second half but we left a lot on the pitch. Everyone knew that it was a massive ask for us to beat Tyrone, who were last year’s All-Ireland finalists. But we were still confident that we would give a good account of ourselves. But we were disappointed with the first half.”
During that period, Tyrone were clinical while Antrim were wasteful. And as the points flew over Antrim’s bar, at the other end of the field Harbinson’s team struggled to compete.
“It was a combination of things. We had four or five players who were making their debuts against an experienced Tyrone team.
“This was a divisione one team playing a division four team. When you are playing a team from a higher division, particularly with the calibre that Tyrone have, then there is a great difference in terms of pace and speed of thought. You can make mistakes in the lower divisions and not get punished, but at the higher level mistakes are magnified. All of our players may not be at the same level as Tyrone. We are at a certain level. Tyrone are at another level. They are playing at a higher calibre every week and that helps them to think faster. Plus they were able to replace players with the same calibre of footballer.”
In saying that, the experience of playing at that level was good for his younger players.
Harbinson defended his decision to play so many debutants on the team.
“They are a hard working group. The players who got their chance were the players who put the hard work in from the start of the year. They bought into what we are doing. They have the right age profile and the right attitude.”
Their next test is against Louth, who beat Wexford before losing to Dublin in Leinster.
“It will be 50/50 game. It is up to us to try to perform to the best of our ability. They are a big mobile team. They work hard and tackle hard. They have a couple of good inside men who can score.
“Antrim is in a good place at the moment, with the u20s doing well, and the hurlers beating Offaly. We would like to get a win to add to that.”