Antrim's 'disaster' sparks fears over future of hurling in Ulster
Ulster hurling is facing such a severe crisis that unless remedial action is taken urgently, the game is in danger of dying in the North.
That grim scenario comes from Terence 'Sambo' McNaughton, one of the most famous names in Antrim hurling history, who is deeply frustrated by the Ulster slump in general and his county's decline, in particular.
"If something isn't done, Antrim hurling is going to fall off the map. And if something isn't done across Ulster, we'll have nothing but exhibition games here in 10 years," said McNaughton.
As a former Antrim player and manager, All Star winner and, more recently, a member of the Hurling 20/20 committee, he is well placed to assess the state of play in Ulster.
His diagnosis presents a chilling reminder to the wider hurling community that while the game may be going well south of a line between Dublin and Galway, it's in serious trouble in the traditional Ulster strongholds.
Traditionally, Antrim has been Ulster's main hurling base, battling feistily against the odds to compete with the southern powerhouses.
However, they have been sucked into a downward spiral in recent years, reaching a low point last Saturday when relegated to Division 2A after losing a play-off with Kerry.
"It was a disaster, a dark day for Antrim hurling. Fair play to Kerry, they were all fired up for it but that's the sort of game Antrim teams should be winning," lamented McNaughton.
"You can call 2A what you want but, in reality, it's the third level and that's where Antrim will be next year. Worse still, there's no guarantee we'll get out of it."
McNaughton watched the game in Parnell Park with Dominic 'Woody' McKinley, his former Antrim colleague with whom he later jointly managed the team, and the pair were devastated by events.
"It was soul-destroying. We played for Antrim for years; we managed the team; this is our county; we love hurling," said McNaughton.
"And to see how it's gone in Antrim is shocking. There were no more than 20 Antrim supporters in Parnell Park and I could name every single one of them. It was our most important game for years but there's such an apathy about hurling in Antrim now that people couldn't be bothered travelling to support the team."
Derry or Down did nothing to lift the Ulster boat in this year's league, finishing fourth in 2A and third in 2B respectively.
It's all very different to 22 years ago when Down despatched Kilkenny, the reigning All-Ireland champions, to Division 2 with a win in Nowlan Park in the final group game. A year later, both Down and Antrim were in Division 1.
McNaughton is deeply unhappy with structures and systems in Antrim, maintaining that they are not geared towards restoring the game anywhere near the levels that took them to the 1989 All-Ireland final and within two points of Kilkenny in the semi-final two years later.
"I'm not surprised by what's happened. In fact, I predicted it ten years ago. I have always argued that our juvenile and minor teams should be playing in Leinster, which would bring them on. They have to be playing at a higher level - that's the only way they will improve," he said.
McNaughton believes that much of the money invested in Ulster hurling over the past 20 years has been a waste because the structures were faulty.
"As far as I'm concerned the Antrim county board has failed, the Ulster Council has failed and now it's time for Croke Park to take charge and make things happen," he said.
"We need real investment but it has to be properly targeted and there has to be accountability for it. It worked in Dublin and it can work in Antrim too if it's done properly."
As a member of the Hurling 20/20 Committee which reported last January, McNaughton is hoping that the proposal to appoint a full-time director of hurling will start a positive process.
"It has to happen. Liam Sheedy was chairman of the committee and is now on management so I'm banking on him to push this through. Whoever gets the director's job needs to be given real power. We need a strong man who comes into a county like Antrim and says how things are going to be," he said.
"He has to have the authority to see that things are done properly because they haven't been in the past."
Antrim's dismal league record over the last three seasons - three wins from 19 games - has been mirrored in championship failures. It has helped contribute to a sense of apathy which infuriates McNaughton.
"Antrim should be putting a big emphasis on the league. We're not going to win the All-Ireland so we have to get to the highest level we can in the league and build from there," he said.
"I accept that the quality of player isn't as good as that it used to be, but why it that? It has to come back to the quality of the coaching. We were producing better hurlers years ago when there was little or no coaching.
"Running around ticking boxes and calling it coaching is useless. it has to be the real thing, done by people who know what they're at."
There are concerns too over the decline of hurling in Belfast.
"The game is dying on its feet in Belfast. Clubs are amalgamating and still can't field teams in some grades. If that was happening in Dublin, Cork or Limerick, we'd hear plenty about it so why not the same for Belfast? The city needs huge investment," said McNaughton.
Football's dominant position in Antrim, Down and Derry - Ulster's top three hurling counties - is another factor that feeds into a problem, which McNaughton believes is more serious that the rest of the hurling world may appreciate.
"It kills me to see the apathy around the Antrim hurling team now. There's a lack of leadership, a lack of passion, people don't seem to care any more. I know I sound like a broken record, but I care about Antrim and I care about hurling," he said.
"We've got to get back to basics, get lads playing the right way. There's no point going into gyms four nights a week and not being able to hit the ball 50 yards."