Martin Breheny: All Stars bright lights hide darker side of hurling
BACK in early 2000, Liam Griffin remarked with trademark honesty that the GAA should be ashamed of itself for not doing a better job at promoting hurling.
He pointed to how the GAA joined with the AFL to create what is effectively a new sport, yet seemed totally paralysed when it came to expanding hurling in a meaningful way beyond its traditional hinterlands.
"Australia is 24 hours away, yet we can create a new game with the Aussie Rules lads. Longford and Leitrim are right here, yet we largely ignore them and many others too when it comes to promoting hurling. The new DJ Carey could be living in Longford, Leitrim or Donegal, but we'll never know. We have failed him," said Griffin.
He further alleged that GAA policy seemed to be based on allowing hurling to thrive in its strong heartlands, while paying lip service to the rest.
"If someone can market coloured gripe water, call it Coca-Cola and clean up worldwide, we should be able to sell hurling in Longford," he said.
More than 12 years on, what has changed? Granted, there are now structured championship competitions (Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher Cups) for weaker counties, but, on the broader scale, there are absolutely no signs that the gap between rich and poor is narrowing.
Indeed, the grip exerted by the 'Big Three', Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary has never been tighter, having won the last 14 All-Irelands between them. The opening 10 years of the new millennium was the first decade in championship history when the 'Big Three' won all 10 senior championships between them and Kilkenny (two) and Tipperary (one) have picked up three more since then.
As the All Star hurlers joined their football counterparts for the annual presentation ceremony in the Convention Centre, Dublin last night, the contrast between the sports in terms of nationwide standards could hardly be more stark. It's not that football is weighted perfectly evenly nationwide but, with the exception of Kilkenny, who have again fallen out of the competitive circuit, the game is doing pretty well.
The All Star spread remains rather uneven -- five counties still don't have a single football award winner, while another five have only one each -- but it's still a lot healthier than hurling where the 630 winners in the 42 seasons of the scheme come from just 14 counties.
Of those, Laois, Down and Westmeath have only one each. At the other end, Kilkenny and Cork have taken 43pc of the positions since 1971. Add in Tipperary and Galway and the dominance extends to 68pc. Stretch it to the top seven and the monopoly reaches 88pc.
Since the All Star system inevitably leads to most of the recognition going to the counties who do well in the championship, the uneven spread is expected to some extent, but delve a little deeper and it presents a worrying trend as counties fall off the contention list.
Given hurling's relatively small base, it might be expected that there would be a decent share-out of contenders for All Star nominations. Yet, this year, Offaly, Wexford, Laois, Carlow, Antrim and Down didn't produce one nominee between them. In fact, they didn't come close.
Offaly, who are in joint sixth place on the All Star award table, haven't had a winner since Johnny Dooley in 2000, while Damien Fitzhenry was Wexford's last winner in 2004. Antrim's last winner was midfielder, Paul McKillen in 1993 while Pat Critchley (1985) remains Laois' sole All Star, an honour held in Down by Gerard McGrattan (1992).
Offaly have won a total of 42 All Stars, but their drop down the rankings leaves them with very few nomination contenders anymore. Wexford, another former powerhouse, have suffered a similar fall. Perhaps the most alarming decline of all has occurred in Laois, whose standards have dipped so dramatically there's no guarantee they would win the Christy Ring Cup if they dropped out of the Liam MacCarthy tier, a level which left them badly exposed in recent years.
Repeated managerial changes, apathy among players, which results in some not making themselves available for the county panel, and a general drop in standards have combined to leave Laois in a very bad place at senior level.
Good progress is being made in the juvenile and under-age grades, but the severe hammerings shipped in the championships over the last two years have had a demoralising impact on hurling in Laois. Reaching the Leinster U-21 final provided a mini-boost this year, but there's still a very long way to go before Laois will come anywhere close to the level where all Leinster rivals regarded them as serious opposition.
There was a time, too, when Wexford and Offaly provided Kilkenny with serious opposition -- indeed, both enjoyed periods of dominance over the black and amber down the years -- but that's no longer the case.
Dublin's improvement is a plus, but the reality is that some other Leinster counties have fallen back. Galway's arrival in the Leinster championship has, to some degree, camouflaged the uneven standards in the province, but the truth is that the overall stock value in the east has dipped considerably.
Similarly in Antrim, who, under the old championship system where they qualified automatically for the All-Ireland semi-finals (up to 1996) and quarter-finals after the introduction of the 'back door' in 1997, regularly tested higher-rated opponents.
It was hoped that their move to Leinster in 2009 would enhance their progress, but that hasn't been the case. They lost to Westmeath in the first round this year and later suffered a 26-point defeat against Limerick in the All-Ireland qualifiers.
The glamour and glitz of All Stars night is always an enjoyable end of season affair, but when you look behind the bright lights, there's a dark backdrop to the hurling scene. Granted, the game is hugely competitive at the top end of the market and is likely to remain so, but further down, several counties are falling further behind.
For instance, what are the odds against Wexford and Offaly contesting a Leinster senior final over the next 10 years? Or Laois returning to the level where they were always competitive? Or Antrim beating higher-ranked opposition in the championship?
Eighteen counties have never won a hurling All Star, while Antrim, Laois, Down and Westmeath have only eight between them. Will they still have the same disappointing return in 10 years? And for how long more will Wexford be stuck on 31 awards and Offaly on 42?
Those discussions weren't on the agenda in the Convention Centre last night, but they should merit consideration not only in the counties involved, but also throughout the Croke Park corridors.