Brady hoping upward curve can help Saffrons topple Sligo
ANTRIM footballers can no longer be dismissed as also-rans or worse, treated with benign condescension as plucky but inadequate competitors in Ulster and national competitions.
Anyone who saw them take on mighty Kerry in Tullamore last year in the All-Ireland qualifiers could see how big a fright they gave the men who ultimately won the 2009 All-Ireland title.
The most interesting aspect, in the midst of that defeat, was the players' sense of frustration and annoyance with the result. They knew they had given themselves a great chance of bringing off a massive championship shock, only to let it slip away.
This was not the reaction of a side which was happy just to make up the numbers on the same pitch as Kerry. It spoke volumes for the level of self-belief that has been instilled into Antrim, and they certainly fulfilled manager Liam Bradley's first requirement for last season, which was to gain respect for the Saffron county.
First they gained promotion from Division 4, then carved out a championship victory over Donegal in Ballybofey. That was followed by a win over Cavan, and Antrim's first Ulster final for 31 years.
A hardened Tyrone side dashed Saffron dreams in the provincial decider but Antrim rallied to give a good account of themselves against Kerry in the qualifiers.
That process of improvement has continued through their league performances and the victory of St Gall's in the All-Ireland club final on St Patrick's Day.
Colin Brady, Antrim defender and captain of St Gall's, acknowledges that it's a good time to play for the county and he's relishing the chance of winning a second trophy at Croke Park in just over a month.
A league campaign, which ends with a Division 3 final against Sligo this evening (5.0), is just the tonic ahead of a mouth-watering rerun of last year's Ulster final against Tyrone in the Ulster championship quarter-final on May 23.
Brady (27), who has been playing with Antrim for just over seven years, admits this is the best period of his career, but doesn't want it to stop here.
"Winning with the club was fantastic. There are fellas I'm still playing with now that were playing at under-age from U-10 and we played right through to win the club final. That was so special.
"With the county, in the league we've done exceptionally well, with just the two slip-ups this year to Offaly and Wexford.
"We've got the right sort of management team now where it's a good blend. There's discipline and there's fitness and there's ball work and tactics that, with no disrespect to anyone, maybe we didn't have before," he says.
The challenge posed by Sligo is formidable and there is very little to choose between the counties, as Brady is fully aware. "Sligo came up with us from Division 4 last year and they gave us a good beating in the league final," reflects the Antrim captain.
"Hopefully we can have the right mentality and go into this game with the belief we can win it, and get that bit of senior silverware that can help us push on for Tyrone."
As a player, Brady has gained huge experience in the last 12 months, particularly when facing Kerry in that qualifier.
First he had to cope with Declan O'Sullivan and after 31 minutes on came Colm 'Gooch' Cooper when Antrim led 1-3 to 1-2. Nothing like an easy day out in the sun!
Antrim led 1-4 to 1-3 at half-time but had chances to be further ahead. O'Sullivan scored one point, and the Gooch got four, all from frees as Kerry eventually won 2-12 to 1-10. "I just think maybe that wee bit of experience was lacking. Again, it sort of showed against Tyrone," recalls Brady.
"Tyrone got the good start and we couldn't get back to them and Kerry did the same thing, although we got the better start against Kerry.
"Declan O'Sullivan is a fantastic player and as for Cooper, there's no doubt he's one of the best if not the best forward in Ireland.
"But it doesn't matter who you're marking. You can't be overawed and think 'oh, I'm marking him' or you'd be in trouble.
"That was a big learning experience but one with more positives than negatives."