League revamp 'will kill hurling in smaller counties'
IF THE GAA goes ahead with its planned revamp of the Allianz hurling leagues they will "end up killing hurling in the smaller counties", according to Casey O'Brien, who managed Wicklow to a Division 3A title and a historic Christy Ring Cup final appearance at Croke Park this year.
But O'Brien says he will probably step down in disgust if Wicklow don't get the promotion to the league's second tier that their results this year should automatically earn them.
The former county dual star is furious that hurling's league structures are being redrafted again, describing it as a "kick in the teeth" for many weaker counties that he believes will have only one outcome.
"It will help make the strong counties even stronger and give the weaker counties nothing to play for," O'Brien said.
"We hear all this talk from Croke Park about promoting hurling -- but what it has really become is an elitist game at the top level, and this is only going to increase that. This is the kind of thing that will end up killing hurling in the smaller counties.
"You work your way up the ladder and get so far and for what? To get kicked back down it again? If this goes ahead, I'll have to reconsider my position because I don't think I can face that again.
"In Wicklow, we will definitely lose players as well because this is a real kick in the teeth to them. We got a number of key players back on the strength of our two-year programme and winning promotion. If that's taken away, the players -- like me -- will just lose that drive again."
O'Brien and Wicklow expect that the latest league reshuffle -- currently being drafted and expected to be revealed to Central Council next month -- will result in the Garden County's hurlers getting left where they are, despite two brilliant seasons that were due to see them promoted into the second tier of the league next season.
A revamp of next year's NHL is expected to amalgamate the first two divisions into a new 1A and 1B and leave Wicklow in Division 2, which will be the equivalent of the third tier.
"This isn't just about us," O'Brien said. "John Meyler has done a brilliant job in Kerry and so has Kevin Ryan in Carlow and there's other counties, like Louth, where Paddy Kelly has done brilliant work.
"This will be a huge blow to all the weaker counties who are working so hard to raise their standards, only for our prime motivation (promotion) to be taken away from us.
"There's talk that Division 2 teams can't compete with the top teams when the championship comes around and that extending Division 1 is meant to counter that.
"But look at Limerick this summer -- they're a Division 2 team and look where they are next weekend," he said of the Shannonsiders' All-Ireland quarter-final tie with Dublin.
"Counties like ourselves need to be playing teams like Offaly and Clare.
"Obviously we're not able for the likes of Tipperary or Kilkenny or teams like Dublin, Cork or Galway, but we really need the experience of playing in the second tier.
"Not only will it mean our players will improve, but also that more people will come and watch our games and that has a big knock-on value all around."
Wicklow didn't win one league or championship game in 2009, but O'Brien's appointment two seasons ago has brought them to the summit of the smaller hurling counties.
He was able to use their Division 3B victory last year, and the chance of further promotion, to get some of the county's dual stars, and injured veterans, back into the fray this year, which really paid dividends.
"Don Hyland came out of retirement, Wayne O'Gorman battled his way back from injury and then this year Chester (Stephen Kelly) and Leighton Glynn (both county senior footballers) got involved in the late stages of the league when we really needed them," he said.
"We lost the Christy Ring final to an excellent Kerry team but getting to it, playing in Croke Park, that was all a bonus. Our primary aim was to win the league and promotion and we did that and now that looks like it will be taken away from us."
Wicklow are particularly furious because this is not the first time they've suffered relegation as a result of a structural revamp.
"It happened twice in the 1990s when I was playing," O'Brien said. "It was exactly the same thing then. We had progressed to the top of the third division and we were about to go up into the second, when they re-drew it and we were back to where we'd been again.
"If they do it again I can see a lot of our lads thinking 'what's the point?' and just and throwing their hat at it."