Scullion unfazed by final pressure

TONY SCULLION is one of those guys who would tell you that pressure is for tyres.

Like a lot of the Antrim footballers, he has given a fair few interviews lately. Most are conducted whilst leaning nonchalantly against some wall or door. Journalists are hailed like long lost friends and microphones prove to be no impediment to a lively and revealing chat.

In short, he is an interviewer’s dream, a man undaunted by the attention created by the county’s unlikely passage to tomorrow’s Ulster final. While many a team has frozen in the spotlight on similar occasions, Scullion is determined to let it all soak in.

“Gaelic football is built on enjoyment,” he explains. “There is no point in getting hung up on an Ulster final. I know it is a big day but it is a day out. There is no point in getting stressed and getting under pressure.

“I play my football to enjoy it. I try to work my own company and I have a young family so you have enough pressure on your life without adding to it with football. I play football to get away from pressure.”

It’s just as well he is so relaxed about the madness to come because it can’t have been easy to detach himself from his football lately with a wife who is a sister of his team-mates Tomas and Michael McCann and a sister-in-law betrothed to Tyrone’s Enda McGinley.

He is right to enjoy it. The wing-back has been a regular since his emergence onto the panel six years ago before making his championship debut 12 months later and it is only in very recent times that his diligence and enthusiasm has begun to see some sort of reward.

Under Liam Bradley this year they started in positive fashion by finally escaping the bottom rung of the League’s ladder with promotion to Division Three and his first championship win in an Antrim jersey arrived last month with the quarter-final defeat of Donegal in Ballybofey.

He admitted there were times when he wondered if it was all worthwhile.

“Every day you go out and you get bate. Any game you are bate, a carnival match or a championship match, you shake your head and think ‘why am I bothering to run my legs and wasting all my evenings out here?’

“But anyone who has ever been involved in football will say to you that you have to enjoy it while you can. It is a short part of your life. I have been playing five years already and it has been like a blink.”

The changes around the panel this year are like ‘night and day’. More than once in recent weeks he has stopped in his tracks and thought about how different it is to be still out training at 10 o’clock on a July evening and giving interviews to an eager press.

Bradley’s input since his arrival as manager has been crucial but he is no alchemist, according to Scullion, just a guy who insists on things being done correctly. Everyone has done their bit.

“The first time I saw that was the first night I came here to train in January. Everyone was well rested after a few months away and there was still lads going into the physio’s room.

“I distinctly remember Liam and Niall (Conway) coming to the physio’s door and he was using his French to get them back onto the field. When I saw that I said that’s the kind of guy we need around here. He set out a marker that this was the way his team was going to be and if you didn’t like it you got back in your car and went back down whatever road it was you came down in the first place.”

That much was proven back in March when key forward CJ McGourty was axed from the panel after one misdemeanour too many and three others were given a final warning. With Antrim on the cusp of promotion at the time, it was a gutsy move.

So far Bradley’s approach has paid off in spades but Scullion knows it could have been very different. Had Donegal kicked one-ninth of their 18 sides last month, nobody would be paying any attention this week to the Saffron cause.

Yet, win they did and Scullion will take the wave of emotion he felt that afternoon to his grave.

“At the final whistle in Ballybofey you were looking around and there was fellas jumping on your back and patting and cheering. Almost crying on your shoulder and you are sort of amazed and dazed at that.

“You’re not used to this carry on as an Antrim player. You are used to sitting on your hunkers at the final whistle with guys saying ‘hard luck, better luck next time’. You knew then that the last four or five years were worthwhile.”

Antrim’s arrival on such a luminous stage is well timed. It is only two months since GAA president Christy Cooney helped launch the new ‘Belfast Rising’ strategy aimed at maximising the potential of hurling and football in Belfast.

The Troubles hit the GAA community hard but the potential for growth is obvious in the island’s second city, one which boasts a population of over 275,000, almost 20% of whom are aged 16 or under.

Scullion takes the point but talk of strategies, participation modules and centres of excellence, while crucial, aren’t quite grabbing the lapels of a man who is facing the biggest day of his footballing life against the All-Ireland champions.

“It’s brilliant to be even in an Ulster final. If anybody had said to somebody at the start of the year that they would be going out to watch Antrim play the All-Ireland champions in an Ulster final on the 19th of July they would have laughed in your face. Even people around your own doorstep would have had the same attitude. The unity this bunch have shown means they deserve where they are. They are working as hard as Tyrone have been. On the day you never know what’s going to happen.”

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