Sunday 20 August 2017

No surrender to sad reality

24 February 2009; Drogheda United supporters. Pre-Season Friendly, Drogheda United v Dundalk. United Park, Drogheda. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
24 February 2009; Drogheda United supporters. Pre-Season Friendly, Drogheda United v Dundalk. United Park, Drogheda. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Eamonn Sweeney

C avan County Board secretary Liam McCabe may have stirred up something of a hornet's nest locally by suggesting that perhaps the time has come to withdraw the county hurling team from senior competition. But this is not just a Breffni matter, McCabe's musings are to a certain degree in line with Croke Park's thoughts on the future of the weaker hurling counties.

After all, only last April, ard-stiúrthóir Páraic Duffy in his report said: "We have an inter-county programme for these counties that runs from January to July. That incurs significant training costs. I question the value of competition from January to March for teams in the lower divisions. It is questionable whether the current expenditure on inter-county teams in these counties is justified. For seven months an inter-county team is being funded in counties that often have only a handful of active clubs."

The feeling at the top of the Association seems to be that the bottom flight in the hurling league could be scrapped and replaced by inter-club competitions for the likes of Sligo, Donegal, Fermanagh, Leitrim, Cavan, Louth and Monaghan. These counties would play in the Lory Meagher and Nicky Rackard Cups, effectively reducing their inter-county season to a paltry one month in length.

It's a move which is unlikely to be popular with those on the various senior panels involved yet it does seem to make a certain amount of sense. Liam McCabe pointed out that Cavan do not have either a minor or under 21 team and that the money might be better spent promoting hurling at underage level. There is a sense in which the Association is being forced to confront a very harsh truth, namely that the GAA has not done a very good job of promoting hurling outside the traditional strongholds.

The GAA is a tremendous organisation and comes in for plenty of praise in this column but it is remarkable how weak hurling remains in so many counties. I spent some time with the Longford hurlers a few years back and found them to be a great bunch of lads, dedicated to keeping the game they loved alive at local level. Yet the lot of hurlers in the weaker counties is often a miserable one. They play in front of some of the most minuscule crowds attracted by an Irish sporting fixture, they are often unknown to the average GAA fan within their counties and the standard is so far behind that of the top-ten counties that there would be no point in even arranging a fixture between these sides and Kilkenny or Tipperary because the margin of defeat would be horrendous. Something has gone badly wrong along the way.

It's hard to understand. Hurling is the game everyone professes to love. Take a straw poll of fans from even a football county and you'll get general agreement that the small-ball game is the superior sport. Most players who have played the two games seem to get more enjoyment from hurling. Hurling is 'the fastest field game in the world', 'the Riverdance of sport' and we never stop proclaiming our justifiable pride in it.

Yet there are many areas in the country where hurling has simply never caught on. I'm writing this column in the parish of Castlehaven, a GAA-mad area where people follow one of the finest small clubs in the country. Yet there is no hurling club here which, considering that we're located in Cork, is astounding. Because if the GAA can't even ensure that hurling's writ extends to West Cork, what hope is there of promoting it in Cavan or Donegal?

There will be a suspicion that effectively disbanding senior hurling teams for most of the season has more to do with saving money than promoting the game hence national director of hurling Paudie Butler's comment that, "hurling people don't want to be tricked into something that is cost-saving for football." And, given the huge amount of money spent on preparing county teams these days, it must seem immensely tempting for Cavan, and other Boards, to axe a side that few fans within the county are very bothered about. Because it's a sad fact that if the curtain is brought down on Division 4 hurling, hardly anyone will notice.

Of course what it will mean is that Croke Park would be taking the view that an orderly surrender is the most honourable way to proceed at this stage since hurling is never going to make a meaningful impact in at least a third of our counties. There seems to be something immensely sad about this admission of defeat and impotence which can be seen as a slap in the face to the hardy few who've kept the show on the road in counties like Cavan against overwhelming odds.

But perhaps Liam McCabe and Páraic Duffy should be commended for telling it like it is. Because there is a lot of lip service paid to hurling. In this respect it is like the Irish language -- we all approve of it in principle but most of us don't practise it.

And, just as people are always making glowing statements about the health of the Irish language which have more to do with wishful thinking than rational analysis, there have been too many pious statements made over the years about the mighty progress being made by hurling at grassroots level in places where, realistically, it remains a Cinderella sport and always will, no matter what new initiatives are undertaken.

That might be unpalatable for people who like to pretend everything is rosy in the GAA garden but it happens to be the truth. And maybe the idea that a National Hurling League for the weaker counties is simply not worth the bother anymore is just a belated recognition of reality.

However, if the axe is wielded the GAA should ask itself why it has failed so signally to give every member of the Association a chance to play this wonderful game. Is the cost of equipment prohibitive? Is hurling just too difficult a game to win mass appeal in non-traditional counties? Or is there simply a lack of willpower and a generally complacent attitude in the strong counties that the weaker ones are no loss to the game of hurling? I don't know. But things surely didn't need to turn out like this.

There might be 80,000 at the All-Ireland final and 80 at your average Division 4 game but the players involved deserve to be treated equally by the Association they love. They're inter-county hurlers too. They might not have the talent of a Shefflin, a Corbett or a Canning but they are to a certain extent the peers of those players.

Downgrading the status of those players may make perfect sense in terms of money. But the GAA has always been about more than just the bottom line. I hope those teams, and their league, survives. And if that shows that I prefer romance to reality, I'll have to plead guilty.

There should be no second-class citizens in the GAA.

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