Antrim hoping for brighter future but Casement Park saga lingers

‘In the North the soccer stadium’s been built, the rugby stadium’s been built, but the GAA hasn’t’

Tyrone’s Stephen O’Neill and Antrim’s Tony Scullion during the Ulster  Championship final in 2009. Photograph: Presseye/Russell Pritchard

Tyrone’s Stephen O’Neill and Antrim’s Tony Scullion during the Ulster Championship final in 2009. Photograph: Presseye/Russell Pritchard

 

Ten years after Tyrone faced Antrim in the 2009 Ulster final, the counties meet again in Armagh. Antrim’s inability to follow through on that achievement, under the management of Derry’s Liam Bradley, has been only one of the frustrations encountered in the past decade.

According to Antrim county chair Ciarán McCavana, elected at the end of last year, the saga of Casement Park’s redevelopment has played a role in hampering the county’s football and hurling teams since the project initially received planning permission. It has since been held up by legal challenges and complications caused by the Northern Ireland executive being in abeyance.

“It’s 2013 since we played in Casement Park, which has a big effect,” he says. “We’re going down to Armagh to play our games when we have a home draw. I’m not saying that a venue is going to make the difference, but I tell you where it would have: we lost three matches by a point in the national league, including one at home. We would have won it by a point at least if we had proper home advantage.

“We went down to play Laois in the Joe McDonagh Cup on Saturday, and Laois knew every blade of grass on that pitch; you just knew, the way they turned and hit the sliotar. Our boys don’t have a home pitch. Those small margins could have taken us into Division Three. I know both teams have to put the ball over the bar, but it all has an effect.

“We played our football matches in Corrigan Park, but if we had Casement, our established home, we’d have been like Laois and known every blade of grass, and been aware of where you could kick a ball from to take your points.”

McCavana hopes that the end is in sight for the delays holding up the redevelopment, but he remains unhappy at the manner in which the GAA’s flagship project is being treated compared to those of other sports.

Very frustrating

“I joined the board when I became cathaoirleach, and it’s September when we hope to get planning but it’s very slow and very frustrating. In the North the soccer stadium’s been built and the rugby stadium’s been built, but the GAA stadium hasn’t been, and there’s a feeling – whether there’s substance or not – that we’re getting killed by stealth.

“Hopefully this September we get the planning. If we don’t we’re in trouble and that’s the truth. Since 2013 we’ve had no proper county ground. They say they can’t make big planning decisions but they’ve made them with other projects – and said yes to them all except GAA ones.

“I’d be cynical but hopefully by September we’ll be up and running. Belfast is the second city in Ireland, and it needs a fit-for-purpose stadium.”

There has been better news for Antrim in the past year with the GAA’s decision to roll out a games development project along the lines of the one introduced to Dublin in the middle of the last decade.

The five-year plan, Gaelfast, was originally intended to promote Gaelic games in schools across Belfast, but has since been expanded to cover the whole county.

“It’s been going great,” says McCavana. “Six months in and we’ve got all our coaches in place. We’re in the schools and working with both teacher training colleges Stranmillis and St Mary’s, and we have five hubs up and running where kids can come along and play ball whether they’re in a club or not.

“The hope is that if they play and enjoy themselves – without obligation – some might consider joining their local clubs in the future. Paul Donnelly is the director and he’s based in St Mary’s, and the whole thing is beginning to take root.”

The idea has been to raise participation rates in the city from a paltry 6 per cent, and the bulk of the investment is directed at areas of “serious deprivation” in Belfast to try and offer sport as a positive option in those areas.

Playing games

“Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that, but the main thing is get the kids out and playing games, and hopefully getting a love for Gaelic games. The reason we’re going into the teacher training colleges is that teachers will have an influence on children and sports in schools.”

Originally the £1,000,000 scheme was targeted at Belfast and provided five games development officers but by raising additional funds the county board has recruited a further three in order to take in the rest of Antrim.

Saturday’s senior football clash with last year’s All-Ireland finalists might not offer immediate prospects but the hope is that there can be a better future.

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