Harbinson, Lenny

04 June 1993
It would be foolish to write off Antrim with players like St. Galls’Man Lenny Harbinson around, Donegal could have a rough old battle at Ballybofey.

For over a decade now, Antrim ace Lenny Harbinson has put himself through the mill in the cause of the country’s least fashionable northern footballing outpost. Still and quite remarkably so, given the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that he has had to endure, the Saint Gall’s clubman remains as enthusiastic, bubbly and indeed pacey as he’s ever been. The strait-jacket of despair is not an item in the Harbinson wardrobe.

For even the most discerning, luke-warm observer of the nationwide G.A.A. scene, the name Harbinson is synonymous with Antrim football teams since at least the early eighties. Indeed, his Senior county experience stretches even further back. Fact is, Lenny, a Belfast boy, sports a not-too inconspicuous McKenna Cup medal from the very late seventies. With a persona that makes him a team manager’s man and a journalists piece of cake, he felt awkward and undeserving about receiving his provincial memento back then. Partly a case of him being in awe of the talents and credits as accommodated by men like Mickey Darragh, Kevin Goss and John McKiernan, but more a problem of coming to terms with his worth as a 17 year old, veteran observers and the man himself admits when pressed as to the nature of his reluctance to recognise the part played by him as a panel member of the McKenna Cup experience.

It’s easy to be unassuming in Antrim football circles. Likewise in Longford, Limerick and a dozen other counties but Lenny Harbinson is not inclined to tip the hat to any team on behalf of the saffron-clad county. Steadfastly believing that his own county house as good a selection of talent as anywhere else in the country, Harbinson nevertheless agrees with the view of most observers the Antrim’s premier football team have tended to shoot themselves in the foot when cocking the gun is the last thing that they require to aid their cause. “Granted, a lot of times we didn’t deserve to win because we just threw it away. On other occasions we deserved to win but didn’t translate our possession on the scoreboard where it counts. One case in point was our Championship game in 1987 against Tyrone when they came back to draw at Casement Park with the last kick of the ball”, the popular sales representative explained.

Flattering to deceive has sadly been the perception from outside of Antrim football for a long time now and to his eternal credit Harbinson doesn’t attempt to disguise the truth with any old rhetoric from the drawer of officialdom. Examples of Antrim’s penchant for pushing the self-destruct button come tripping off Harbinson’s tongue like a young fella listening off his misdemeaners in the confessional box. Not an ounce of mirth passes the lips of the otherwise humourous Antrim player as he faces up to his county’s long-time failing.

“We lost the All-Ireland B Championship final to Wicklow because of our long standing problems regarding our finishing or lack of it. We dominated certain spells of the match and overall had the best of the exchanges during match but at the end of the day, we didn’t make it pay on the scoreboard. It’s a fair comment to say that that game at Navan just about summed up our form over the years”.

Lenny Harbinson’s form over the years has been nothing less than consistent for club and county. From teenage starlet to ever reliable, mostly versatile Senior player, he has upheld the most resilient of traditions for which Saint Galls and Antrim are credited. Loyal to the last, a gaelic games stalwart to the backbone and a naturally athletic sportsman, a career at Senior county level which began under the auspices of a Brother Ennis led management team has had it’s fair share of ups and downs. But like the true amateur sportsman with the ultra professional approach to life in the in-between lane, Lenny takes it all on the chin and toes the line for the commencement of the next challenge with rock-solid determination and commitment. Such has been his style since first he answered the promptings of his Armagh-born father Paddy and Stranorlar, Donegal born mother Shiela, both gaelic football enthusiasts.

While Antrim fans will be pinning their hopes on the likes of Lenny to beat a path through the much vaunted Donegal half back line this Sunday, the flying winger ironically began his football days as an attacking schoolboy centre back. At De La Salle College in Andersonstown, West Belfast, he had the best of both worlds, academically and in the football and hurling sense. Under the guidance of De La Salle Corkonian Aidan Walsh, Harbinson the keen student of football and bright academic blossomed on the playing fields and with the hugely influential coaxing of Eddie McKeown at Saint Galls he quickly established himself as a real find for Antrim Minors, going on to play for three years with the county Under 18 team.

Such was the success enjoyed too by the Saint Galls club at Minor level that by 1979, Lenny Harbinson had six trophies in the bag (later to be handed over in appreciation to his influential da). Involved in a hectic merry go round of club, county and Vocational Schools hurling and football, Lenny Harbinson’s daily work outs in the rudiments of both codes would leave him in good stead for the demands of Senior fare.

For the young and aspiring footballer, the Galls club provided the perfect ambience. The aforementioned Walsh added a real touch of professionalism to the Belfast club’s training and preparation for matches and few players benefited more than the ambitious Harbinson. Senior club (current Antrim boss) and half forward Gerry Higgins (current Antrim trainer) likewise benefited in a side that ignored the title claims of teams like Saint John’s and Saint Teresas to go further than any other St. Galls side had gone before, Harbinson and company’s county Senior Championship win in 1982 was Saint Gall’s first such triumph in thirty years and prompted the side’s heroic march to the Ulster Club crown months later.

The 1982 success ironically spurned Lenny Harbinson’s brief departure from the county scene as A levels and later a stint working towards a Physical Education qualification at Saint Joseph’s Training College (now St. Marys) called the shots temporarily. Meeting and mixing it with the likes of Damien Barton and Eamon Burns of Derry and Armagh’s Neil Smyth at St. Mary’s kept the Harbinson engine ticking over nicely and it wasn’t long before the 5’9” and eleven and a half stone marksman teamed up with men like Kieran Goss, Mickey Darragh, Gerry McHugh and Pat Armstrong plus the aforementioned mentors elect O’Hare and Higgins once more. Mention of the sextet named above sparks off a train of thought with Lenny Harbinson that ends with a head on collision with potential unfulfilled reminisces.

“I’ve no doubt but that over a ten year period in the late seventies to mid eighties, the stuff was there for Antrim to have won an Ulster title. Remember St. John’s won the Ulster club title before us in 1978 and those six that I named were an example of the type of talent that was about in, say 1982”, suggested the 30 year old winger who has served under county bosses Eamon Greaves, Hugh Murphy and presently P.J. O’Hare in his time with Antrim.

And what of the way forward for the Saffrons now? Long serving Harbinson has some definite and thought-provoking ideas on such matters. “I think that our coaching is poor among most of the clubs in the county. We have to get a good coaching structure in place and on top of that we have to sort out our Leagues so that they are run on a consistent basis but that I believe requires a turnaround in goodwill from the clubs. The lack of tradition is also a drawback”

For the immediate term Lenny’s thoughts are concentrated on giving the entire county a morale boosting performance this Sunday against Donegal. Enthusiastically looking forward to playing “in front of twenty rather than four thousand people”, Lenny is dead sure about what is required of Antrim if a shock win is to be accomplished. “Every Antrim player will have to play one hundred per cent to their potential next Sunday if Donegal are to be beaten. We also need to put over every opportunity that we get from frees, a facet of our game that has let us down the years”.

Asked to place in front of him the proverbial crystal ball, Lenny acquiesces but doesn’t quite put his head on the block. “It’ll be very tight. We have a good deal of belief in ourselves and I reckon Donegal will have to cope with the added pressure of playing at home so I think we can take advantage of that”.

Written by Hogan Stand Magazine

04/06/93