View from the Line: Lower-tier sides deserve day out at Croke Park

“Lesser” counties cannot be competitive because they simply don’t have enough hurlers to choose from

Carlow hurling manager Pat English has to be realistic in his expectations of players’ dedication. Photograph: Inpho.

Carlow hurling manager Pat English has to be realistic in his expectations of players’ dedication. Photograph: Inpho.

 

On Saturday some of the less well recognised hurling counties are allowed to grace the hallowed turf that is Croke Park. I use the word allowed slightly pejoratively. Why shouldn’t they be afforded the honour to play at the headquarters of the sport that they dedicate so much time to?

Any player who plays with his county senior team has dedicated a vast amount of time to get to that level. I gave a hand to Pat English and the Carlow senior hurlers this year. It was an eye opener in many respects.

When I first spoke to them in the middle of November I asked them to consider very carefully over the next number of weeks whether they felt it was worth being part of a set up which would demand so much from them. This wasn’t a “if you don’t want to be part of this team leave now” rant. It was a measured talk in which the demands were laid out, demands which would require them to dedicate much of their free time to play for Carlow.

There was a small drop off over the course of the season but most players opted in. Most of them were very dedicated, some not as much and others did just enough. Over the course of the few months I often wondered why so many stayed. The attendances at most of the games were sparse (understatement). There was very little media interest and almost no chance of playing in Croke Park or before a big crowd.

All the negatives

The senior teams in all the “lesser” hurling counties cannot be competitive enough to play at the highest level because there simply aren’t enough hurling teams in most of those counties. Carlow has only six club teams in total. In most of the “other” counties there just aren’t enough players playing hurling.

And when one of these teams does manage to make a breakthrough of sorts, it is invariably short-lived because of the absence of enough players coming through to make it sustainable. English, or any of the other “lesser“ team managers, just can’t afford to be too strict discipline wise because they could find themselves without key players very quickly.

Yet many managements and many players are very dedicated to their county team but with very little reward. The Pat Englishs of this world have to be much better managers than the so-called top managers. Their challenges are manifold.

There is plenty of comment in the media this week about the inadequate football structures. Former GAA president Seán Kelly summed it up well when he said “it would be fine if it was just a once-off but you’re talking about a lot of these players putting their lives on hold and the demands on them are absolutely unfair, yet they’re willing to do it. You can only do it for so long. It’s crucial that they have something they can aim for and can realistically aim for.”

The long-term solution to improving the playing population, in my opinion, lies with the GAA central body in ensuring that every primary school in the country has coaches coming into them all through the year. Obviously this would cost a lot of money to run but it has to happen if hurling is to survive in these counties.

The counties need proper financial support, not just spending money for the sake of spending it, but actually putting the correct structures and correct personnel in place to try to develop things and move them forward. This should be one of the main priorities for the new director of hurling. It is a tall order but it has to be tackled. On Saturday TG4 cover the Ring, Meagher and Rackard finals at headquarters. It is a big occasion for the hurlers involved. What a shame RTÉ and the GAA couldn’t afford them their day in the sun and not show the Dublin/Galway replay while TG4 are broadcasting from Croke Park.

As with the football a forensic hurling debate is necessary and change needs to happen. In the far off distant past, or back in the day as is the new vernacular, the “lesser” county rarely got a second chance in the event of a draw with one of the big three. Can Waterford buck that trend on Sunday and show that their win over Cork in the league wasn’t a fluke? Or have Cork garnered enough information to stop the Déise ascendancy. Last year Waterford almost had a sensational win when the sides met in the Munster championship but unfortunately for them they didn’t look like winning the second game from early on. The history of hurling is well populated with such near misses.

For Sunday’s game there’s a body of opinion out there that Cork won’t be caught this time, particularly with Waterford forced to play without freetaker Páraic Mahony. Any management would love to be coming into a big game full of confidence and self belief. Nothing can build it except performing well and winning and Waterford have certainly done that this season. It’s theirs to lose.

Added bonus

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