'They were joking over Christmas that they might play for it on Xbox'
The unplayed 2013 Ulster hurling final is a saga which reflects badly on the province, writes Dermot Crowe
THE Elk bar in Toomebridge hosted a hurling medal presentation on Friday night where the guest of honour was Jim Nelson, manager of Antrim's All-Ireland final team of 1989. Nelson hasn't been in good health of late and this year, being the silver jubilee of that famous semi-final ambush of Offaly, the county board decided to extend the evening's remit to honour his achievement and legacy.
Present also, to Nelson's complete surprise, were the members of the squad that reached the final and lost to Tipperary, a feat previously achieved just once in their history, in 1943 when they shocked Kilkenny in Corrigan Park, Belfast, before losing the final heavily to Cork. Friday night's duties neatly encapsulated Antrim hurling's plight over the last 25 years, the frequent somersaults and fitful existence.
Nelson made presentations to the county minors and under 21s for winning their respective provincial championships -- the under 21s also received All-Ireland runners-up medals -- but the seniors had to settle for the Walsh Shield. Missing was the customary set of Ulster senior medals which they have laid claim to since 2002. The 2013 Ulster senior final has yet to be played and there is uncertainty if it ever will. On an evening recalling one of Antrim's finest achievements, this was a reminder of the realities of Ulster as a peripheral concern.
The Ulster Council PRO John Connolly said a meeting of their CCC will be held on January 21 and the matter of the unplayed senior final discussed. He admitted that their failure to make provision in their fixtures plan for a drawn Ulster semi-final was at the root of the problem. It was, he said, "a lesson learned".
The 2013 hurling season was rightly lauded as one of the best in history but in the euphoria we tended to overlook that the Ulster senior final was failed by a cardinal error of administration and fixture planning. This is the kind of omission that was standard in the GAA in the early years and it reflects poorly on the Ulster Council's CCC even if the competition itself has been greatly devalued in recent years. Antrim have established a tedious dominance and the competition suffered additionally once the winners were excluded from the All-Ireland series.
Antrim's parallel move into Leinster further deprived it of oxygen and credibility. The Antrim captain, Neil McManus, has suggested that it might make sense for his county to withdraw from the competition while it participates in Leinster which would give the other counties a better crack at winning it. Antrim are automatically placed in the final.
"It was disappointing it was not played," he says. "It is very much the secondary competition to the Ulster football championship. I don't think there can be any doubt it is an also-ran competition and there is not a huge amount put into it. The simple fact that it does not progress you to another competition, as in years gone by; that alone has taken a lot of the prestige out of it.
"Last year for myself it would have been very nice for me to lead the team out -- in years gone by when my father was taking me to see games you had great regard for an Ulster final. I remember some great victories and some disappointing days as well. So it would have been nice personally for myself but that wasn't to be."
McManus has played in six finals and won each one. Since he came on to the team, having been part of competitive Antrim minor sides in 2005 and 2006, the senior competition has been a cul-de-sac off the main route. He would like to see the Antrim minor and under 16 teams admitted to Leinster competition like the seniors.
"I don't see it as fair that Antrim get a bye right into the (senior) final. I think while we are involved in the Leinster championship we should step out of the Ulster and that would hopefully bring some prestige back into the competition. I'd also like to see them bring some of the Leinster championship games into Antrim. That would be the next step. It would be fantastic to host a game against one of the big teams in Leinster. I would just love for that to happen."
The history of the Ulster senior hurling championship will reveal a blank for 2013 but the competition has had a chequered history. When Antrim won in 1989 that concluded the first Ulster senior provincial hurling championship played since 1950. The difference between then and now is that last year's championship was under way and presented two finalists. A final attempt to play it in November, four months on, fell through. The Antrim county secretary Frankie Quinn declared the affair "shambolic" in his report to county convention.
That the Ulster final had to be postponed was down to poor contingency planning on the part of the Ulster CCC. On July 7 last, Down defeated Derry in the Ulster senior hurling semi-final replay, the same date that had been set aside for the final. Down drew with Derry the previous weekend and no provision was made for extra-time in the event of a draw. Nor had the CCC left room for a replay. From there the final was subjected to a series of postponements. Down objected to playing on certain dates because they had players away on holiday or work-tied and they were after coming off a punishing run of games, nine in ten weeks, after winning the Christy Ring. An Ulster CCC meeting in early September ruled that the final would be played on November 3 at Celtic Park in Derry. The decision was taken to "ensure that clubs have access to all players for the duration of the county and provincial club championships".
The Ulster Council also announced its intention to honour the O'Donovan Rossa team from Antrim that won the 1988 Ulster club title and subsequently reached the 1989 All-Ireland final at half-time.
But the match was never played. A statement released by the Ulster Council, which caused resentment in Antrim, read: "The Ulster Council state that following correspondence from the Antrim County Committee, the decision was taken to further delay the final, which had originally been set for July 7, then postponed until November 3."
In his report to county convention in December, Antrim secretary Frankie Quinn cut loose. "Having offered to play the game on July 13 or 20, we received no reply. By rule we are required to submit our county championship programme to the provincial council early in the year and there are penalties for counties who deviate from their schedule.
"The next we heard the Ulster final was fixed for early November in a time period in which rule prevents county players from training or playing games. At all times Antrim were committed to playing this game but I must say it has been handled in a shambolic fashion. I will stress that Antrim are committed to participating in the Ulster senior hurling championship despite those within the media and indeed within Ulster who would attempt to suggest otherwise."
Quinn said he made contact with Croke Park over the issue of playing in November, which contravenes GAA rules, and raised this in an email to the Ulster Council. "They sent out a press release the next day saying that following correspondence from Antrim the match had again been postponed. We did not refuse. If the clarification had come back we would have played the match.
"When the Ulster semi-final was a draw, I rang the Ulster Council and asked were they replaying the semi-final on the Wednesday to allow the Ulster final to go ahead on the scheduled date. They said no. We offered to play the final the following Saturday night (after the replay). That was not acceptable. We offered to play the Saturday night after that. That was not acceptable. We could not go any further because we had internal championships under way.
"The fault lies solely at the door of the Ulster CCC because they never made provision for the semi-final match to have extra-time. They wouldn't ask the football crowd to wait half an hour (a football qualifier between Armagh and Wicklow took place immediately after the Ulster hurling semi-final draw between Down and Derry). There have been ridiculous suggestions it might be played in the first week of January. If Antrim were to reach this year's Leinster final, the Ulster final is down for the same weekend."
The Down secretary Seán óg McAteer said his county was "committed" to playing the final whenever it is refixed. Both counties are currently involved in separate competitions and they have league campaigns coming up in February.
Sambo McNaughton, one of the heroes of 1989, sees the failure to play the final as the latest blow to an already ailing competition. "I think it is sad that the hurling province can't have their own title, surely to God it could be fitted in somewhere? Down didn't want to play it and then the club championships started and players weren't going to be released and it became a dog's dinner, a mess. The reality is that it should have been played.
"What are we (Antrim) going for -- 12 in a row? It has become fairly meaningless. (County manager) Kevin Ryan's main priority would be to stay in Division 1B (of the league) and the championship is obviously in Leinster. I would say it is way down his pecking order if truth be told. I would imagine the players don't mention it. I know my own young fella did not mention it. They were joking over Christmas that they might play for it on Xbox."