'The Christy Ring final is played in front of no-one with only the echo of your own voice coming back at you'
Former Kerry hurling manager Eamonn Kelly says the GAA must boost quickly the profile of the Christy Ring Cup or the competition will lose its appeal to emerging counties.
Kelly also feels that Croke Park then needs to take a more concerted approach to helping the competition's winners bridge the gap to Liam MacCarthy Cup standard.
The former Kingdom boss is concerned that the Ring Cup is presently more of an afterthought than a showpiece.
"It's ran off over just a few weeks," he says. "Games are sandwiched and come at you fast and furious. Then you reach a final and it's played in Croke Park in front of no-one with only the echo of your own voice coming back at you. I know players want to play there but to have any future the Ring Cup final needs to be played before a big qualifier, an All-Ireland quarter-final, or even a semi-final. That really shouldn't be too much to ask."
After two years in charge of the Kingdom, Kelly has just stepped down from his position. His resignation was a huge blow to the Kerry players with whom he had built up a serious relationship. He doesn't want to see them take a step back in his absence, but feels the powers that be can invest more to help cultivate their progress.
Kelly took over a group of disaffected players and turned them into winners. But he points out that like Westmeath, Carlow and Laois, who have all made the step from the Ring Cup, Kerry - and the likes of Kildare - need continued help.
"In Kerry, it's not a money problem. The hurlers would get more gear than a Tipp hurler, for example. The problem there fixtures. And the fact that we played a Ring Cup semi-final on a Saturday and the day after eight of our players were wanted to play senior club football with a Ring Cup final just six days away. People just couldn't understand why we didn't want the lads to play football whereas I couldn't understand how they could be expected to.
"In other counties it is very often a money or resources problem, however."
The GAA currently fund targeted and designated hurling counties with a 50,000 sum each year but one football manager from a developing county told the Sunday Independent this week that it would take a lump sum of 250,000 euro to implement the strength and conditioning and underage programmes necessary to transform the county into serial challengers for honours.
With no hope of that, it has been left to some managers to put their own money into projects. Kelly says that the game badly needs new faces at the top and admires the steps that Cheddar Plunkett took with Laois. He says they have made a breakthrough of sorts.
"Cheddar took it to a professional level bringing in the likes of Ger Cunningham (Newtownshandrum) and Brendan Cummins and holding a pre-season regime and they have made the leap to a fair extent.
"They have taken the place of Offaly in the Leinster championship next year and that's huge. Westmeath and Carlow are not far off making the breakthrough either but they all need help. And they need it now.
"Rushing off the Christy Ring Cup in four or five weeks is ridiculous, they need to look at it and not rush it as much. And then they need to take a leaf out of Sean Kelly's book and put it on a bigger stage. It needs that bigger platform. Croke Park was empty when we played there and as a manager that's fine because all I'm doing is looking out onto field, but where does it get you in general? Who is talking about the competiton? Do we put it on before bigger game? Or move to a smaller venue? Either way action is needed."
Kelly, who also guided his club Kildangan to All Ireland intermediate honours and delivered a first North Tipp title in 75 years soon after, also says that it will be a scourge and a blight on the game if the emerging counties try to implement defensive systems that are currently all the rage in the game.
"There is a case to be made for employing that system because it does work but something needs be looked at in that area too, whether you would experiment in a competition and make it 13 a side. You can't argue with Waterford's results - they justify what they are doing but the danger is teams at all levels will copy them and we will lose what is special about hurling."
The Kildangan man says rather than pouring money into weaker hurling counties the GAA needs to install more full time development officers and get into schools early. They also need to educate officials as to the benefits of being a dual county.
"From a Kerry point of view I was drawing from eight clubs in the north of the county - and I think they have the most passionate club championship I've ever seen but we need to spread the gospel to south Kerry and other areas. I was made aware of three very good players in Kenmare so I rang them to join panel and they never even returned the call.
"Players like them - and officials who stand back and let it slide by - need to be educated. We need to change the culture. It won't happen overnight, but constant evolvement and development of the game are needed, especially in counties like Kerry who will be in Division 1B next year. They can't make it on their own. It's only now they are getting going and only now they need real help from the top."