Antrim can't be allowed slip into abyss
Hurling's most northern field still vital to the game's growth
Published 27/05/2015 | 02:30
Bye, bye, Antrim, when will we see you again?
Well, unless we head for the thinly populated terraces around Division 2 of the league and Christy Ring Cup games, Antrim hurling won't be on view at all in 2016.
Relegation from Division 1B in April has been followed by expulsion from the Liam MacCarthy championship tier in May, arising from defeats by Westmeath and Carlow in the Leinster round robin series.
A win over Laois, who beat the other two, wasn't enough to save Antrim from dropping out of the top flight.
And so, the county that gave hurling the Donnellys, the McNaughtons, Gary and Gregory O'Kane, Paul McKillen, Dominic McKinley, Olcan McFetridge, Ciaran Barr, Paul McKillen and many other wonderful exponents of the game will be outside the top 12 in the league and the top 14 in the championship next year.
It's easy to shrug it off as another example of sport ruthlessly establishing a pecking order, but there's something especially poignant about Antrim's unfortunate experience.
Right through hurling history, they were seen as Ulster's enduring standard-bearers, bravely defying the odds as they engaged with opposition south of a border from Dublin to Mullingar to Galway.
Their isolation made it very difficult, even down to having to travel massive distances for a challenge game. That's assuming, of course, that the big powers facilitated them.
And, in the darkest days of the Troubles, a period when having a hurley carried serious risks for players' safety, Antrim's spirit remained unbroken.
Terence 'Sambo' McNaughton told some chilling tales in his excellent book 'All or Nothing' of being stopped at UDR checkpoints and asked about "these bits of wood" in his car.
Replying with typical Sambo forthrightness on one occasion that they weren't for "stirring my tea", his hurleys were tossed over a ditch, before he was detained for half-an-hour. He returned the following day, hoping to retrieve his prized sticks but there weren't there.
Antrim's spirit took them through those awful times. Yet, in an interview with this newspaper after Antrim's relegation last month, Sambo warned that unless corrective measures were taken in these altogether more settled times, Ulster hurling would be confined to exhibition games in a decade.
It was petty strong stuff, which drew the charge that he was being alarmist, especially when Antrim beat Laois in the first series of Leinster round-robin games.
A few weeks on, however, Antrim are out of this year's All-Ireland race and next year's as well.
They will be replaced by Down, Derry, Kildare or Kerry so there's a still a chance of Ulster representation at the top level. Still, whatever happens over the rest of the summer, Antrim cannot be back in the Leinster championship until 2017 at the earliest. Even that requires them to win the Christy Ring Cup next year.
It's ironic that 24 hours before Antrim's fate was sealed on Sunday, the GAA's Central Council agreed to the Hurling 20/20 proposal to appoint a Director of Hurling and to "work with an external consultancy organisation to produce a best-practice template as a blueprint for all counties in effort to develop hurling."
It sounds great, but will the Director of Hurling have real power? McNaughton argues that unless he has the authority to take decisive action in counties like Antrim nothing will change.
As for the appointment of external consultants, it doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Straight away, you think of Irish Water and what their geniuses came up with. At a very large cost, of course.
Best practice. Template. Blueprint. Impressive buzzwords, but what do they mean?
Instead of all the jargon, why not ask the real hurling people of Antrim - and indeed Down and Derry - what they want. They know better than anybody what the issues are and can do a lot more to address them than a manual filled with guff.
The Belfast question should be first on the agenda. The city is a virtual hurling wasteland, which requires the same focused attention that was given to Dublin. If it worked so well in Dublin, why not Belfast?
And even if it wasn't to be quite the same success story, there's still an awful lot that could be done to make Belfast a more active hurling city.
That's a longer-term project but, in the meantime, it's vital that hurling dips no lower in Antrim.
That raises another point. Why is it necessary to restrict the number of counties competing at All-Ireland level to 14?
Surely if a county like Antrim wants to stay in the Liam MacCarthy tier, they should be allowed.
After all, there's no restriction on football counties, all of whom (Kilkenny excepted) play in the All-Ireland championship so why have it in hurling?
Bottom line: Antrim's demise is seriously bad for hurling. They need to get all the help they need to arrest the decline. And quickly.