Butler hails rise from dark ages
WHEN he steps down at Congress in April, Paudie Butler will look back on his five years in charge of developing hurling with a deep sense of satisfaction.
On his appointment, he found a sense of isolation among hurling people in the weaker counties. He gave them a link to Croke Park and each other. Facilities have been improved and playing numbers are up. In his own words, the game has "turned a corner".
"I'll be happy, in the five years, that we have turned a corner for hurling," Butler said. "We have more players playing and higher skill levels in the weaker counties like Tyrone and Donegal, who can score 19 or 20 points in a game now.
"When the skills levels are up, children will be attracted to the game because if they can play it well, they will play it. We have the structures in place now where children are getting systematic coaching in every county. That's a massive improvement.
"That wasn't in place before. It's not depending on a single person. We have full-time people driving the thing and we have a great relationship with Cumann na mBunscol and we can now guarantee that children in hurling areas in every county will get coaching over a fairly extensive period every year.
"In Kildare, Westmeath and Meath, the hurling people are not far apart but they were totally separated. But with the Leinster League, they are playing each other and crossing county boundaries. Before they were on an island on their own and now you have a link-up and a much more buoyant coaching scene.
"Whatever we have done, we have done something really right there. Coaches are now demanding workshops and courses -- it's not being imposed anymore."
Butler welcomed the possible introduction of 'a fifth province' that would see clubs from weaker counties form a more meaningful league, but urged careful consideration before any decision to abandon the national leagues for weaker counties is made.
"In Sligo and Leitrim, Connacht can't do much for them as they are not up to that level to compete and their clubs are isolated. But 20 miles away you'd have several other clubs (at a similar level).
"If you take county boards at face value, what they are saying is that they want to make sure the money they are spending (on National league campaigns) is being well used. That's all very fine and appropriate. But we want to make sure the right thing happens and that we don't undermine hurling now that it has a foothold.
"You'd have to have your sceptical side on too and make sure that no one is trying to undermine the gains we've made. Hurling has a much higher profile in some of those counties than it had and there's always a bit of competition for scarce resources.
"So some counties might be genuine and some will be disingenuous about it and will try to save money for football. Everything must be done to keep hurling moving and not let any county board knock it back to where it was.
"I saw 30 players in Leitrim training flat out with real conviction because they have guaranteed summer hurling. There were 15 or 16 counties who would write off the year once the league was over because they had no hope of competing and they'd take their 30-point beating, but now, they are going with a chance of winning. You saw the joy in Longford at winning the Lory Meagher.
"We should have been alive to this 20 years ago but we were throwing in the likes of Roscommon or Mayo against Galway. They were getting beaten by 50 points and we were thinking it was good for someone. Now everyone has a chance of winning in four divisions and everyone can get to Croke Park."