Declan Lynch opens up on retirement dilemma as Antrim bid to secure Tailteann Cup final berth

Antrim lost out to Meath in last year's Tailteann Cup semi-final and return to Croke Park on Sunday to face Laois
-Credit: (Image: ©INPHO/Evan Treacy)

Declan Lynch feared he’d donned the Antrim jersey for the final time when his number was held up by the fourth official in Brewster Park last Saturday evening.

With the Saffrons seven points in arrears at the time, their season looked to be coming to an end with Fermanagh seemingly destined for the Tailteann Cup semi-finals.

For a moment, Lynch pondered if this was it. He made his Championship debut against the Ernemen in 2014. After a decade of service for his county, would his Championship journey start and end in Brewster Park?

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Alas, his colleagues hadn’t read the script and produced a rousing comeback to floor Fermanagh and snatch a Tailteann Cup semi-final berth for themselves thanks to a late goal from Cathal Hynes.

Should Lynch pull the pin at the end of this season, he would bow out at Croke Park, but he insists he is hoping to kick the can on that particular decision down the road.

“Coming off last week, I thought that was me. I don’t like saying it too much publicly, but it is more than likely that this year will be my last,” said Lynch.

“We were six or seven points down when I came off, but the lads turned it around.

“Now, I’m getting to play in Croke Park and firmly believe we can get back there again three weeks later, so I’m not even thinking about this as the last time. If I am going to bow out, win or lose, at least it will be in Croke Park.

“Everything is on the table. Every player over 30 has those thoughts and it is getting harder to stay at that level. It is great for Antrim as you’ve players pushing things to a new level.

“I’m not thinking about retirement at the moment. My focus is on Laois and getting over the line and playing in an All-Ireland final in Croke Park.

“You can’t get too carried away. Laois beat, in my eyes, the favourites for the competition. Kildare had played at a higher level for longer than any other team in the competition.”

Lynch works as a policy advisor for Sinn Féin and, by chance, bumped into Justin McNulty, who remains suspended from the SDLP after agreeing to a second stint as Laois boss.

Pleasantries were exchanged, but both men were keeping their cards close to their chest.

“I walked past him (McNulty) in the corridor at Stormont on Monday. I just said “good result yesterday” and he replied “yeah, you too” and that was that.”

Lynch has been around the block long enough to have seen a host of different faces patrol the sideline as Antrim manager.

Andy McEntee might have been a leftfield appointment ahead of the 2023 season, but it has proven to be a shrewd choice by the Antrim executive.

The Meath native rolled the dice last Saturday evening and made a hat-trick of subs against Fermanagh in the early stages of the second half.

Lynch was one of those called ashore. While he wasn’t enamoured with the decision, he respects that it was for the greater good and the Antrim bench hit 0-6 when introduced.

“In the first half, Fermanagh set up as we expected, but we just kept giving the ball away,” reflected Lynch.

“They grew from that and hit us on the counter. We went in thinking it was going to be a real 50/50 game.

Antrim's Declan Lynch tackles Odhran Murdock of Down during the Ulster SFC quarter-final in April
Antrim's Declan Lynch tackles Odhran Murdock of Down during the Ulster SFC quarter-final in April -Credit: ©INPHO/Leah Scholes

“In the second half, Andy rolled the dice and I was one of the players that got taken off. I wasn’t happy, but the four subs he made contributed six points. They got us over the line.

“We pushed up more on their kickouts and we brought more energy and aggression to it. It was the last-chance saloon at that stage.

“Over the years Antrim have had some superstars - Paddy Cunningham, CJ McGourty, Mick and Tomás McCann. We have some really good players, but our strength lies within the squad.

“You can’t question the character of this panel - it feels like a club team. It is the best panel of people I’ve been involved with.”

Should Antrim go one better than last year’s semi-final loss to eventual champions Meath, they’d face the winners of Sunday’s second semi-final clash between Down and Sligo.

If all goes well for Antrim, Lynch might be able to defer his retirement decision for another few weeks.

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