Shortly after he was appointed as Antrim’s new strength and conditioning coach last October, Brian Magee implored the players to aim high.
“If Everest is in your way,” he told them, “then you get over it.”
Coming from someone with no background in Gaelic football, that might have sounded a little glib and contrived but Magee was speaking from experience.
A former world super-middleweight boxing champion who went toe to toe with Mikel Kessler, Carl Froch and Lucian Bute, he walked the walk for long enough and the players appear to have taken his words to heart.
Just months later they’ve already achieved their first ambition of 2016, promotion to Division 3 of the Allianz football league.
This evening’s Division 4 final against Louth (4pm) could be seen as something of an irrelevance with promotion already secured but Magee baulked at that notion.
In fact, he has shown his own commitment to the cause by choosing to stay with the team for the tie instead of travelling to Paris where Tommy McCarthy, the unbeaten and highly regarded Belfast cruiserweight that he trains, is currently in camp.
“There’s absolutely no way I’m missing Croke Park,” said Magee. “Tommy went over to Paris during the week and I was supposed to be with him but I couldn’t miss this final at Croke Park. That’s how important I feel about it. I won’t be going over until after the match. This Antrim team takes priority for me now.”
Coaxing Magee on board to replace Mike McGurn as trainer was a considerable coup for Antrim. They train at Magee’s state of the art gym and, a little like the Dublin players who work alongside Bernard Dunne, have also been able to tap into the spirit of a former world champion.
Magee had 42 professional fights after a stellar amateur career that took him to the Olympics in 1996 though he says he has gotten plenty back from working with the unpaid amateur Antrim players.
“There’s no doubt about it, boxing is the hardest sport in the world, training twice a day, making weight, there’s just so many aspects of it to be in control of,” said Magee. “But I look at these Antrim lads and they’re holding down jobs or going to college and sacrificing an awful lot to play football.
“There’s no financial reward. The top amateur boxers get a grant but there’s nothing like that for Gaelic footballers but it doesn’t bother them.
“They see Croke Park as their Olympics and there’s a lot of parallels there in that regard. I take my hat off to these guys.”
Distilled right down, Magee said a primary task of his is to ‘install that champion attitude’ in the Antrim players. Picking up a piece of silverware at Croke Park would be an endorsement of his and the players’ work.
“In everyone’s mind there’s a long way to go and the Championship is just around the corner but it’s great that within a few months we’ve gotten to Croke Park,” said Magee.
“I actually feel very honoured personally to go there in a sporting capacity and be involved with the first Gaelic football team I’ve worked with.”
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