Ulster sound alarm bells over underage hurling
MAJOR concerns have emerged over the future of Ulster underage hurling following an alarming decline which left Antrim and Derry facing embarrassment this year.
Antrim came close to withdrawing from the All-Ireland U-21 semi-final with Dublin in August as they struggled to assemble a squad, while Derry had earlier withdrawn from the Ulster championship, having been unable to field a team.
There are fears that the malaise may spread to the Derry senior grade amid warnings that unless clubs show greater co-operation, future involvement in the Allianz League could be in doubt.
Cavan no longer compete in the league, while Antrim have withdrawn from the Walsh Cup. However, it's the fall-off at underage level which is most alarming, especially as it has spread to Antrim and Derry.
"Any drop in standards is a worry and yes, underage hurling is under pressure in Ulster," said Ulster Council chairman Aogan Farrell.
News that Antrim came close to conceding a walkover to Dublin in the All-Ireland U-21 semi-final stunned the hurling world.
Nobody expected them to beat the Leinster champions, but it wasn't widely known that they were having difficulty assembling a team a few hours before throw-in.
Antrim were beaten by 26 points but at least they fulfilled the fixture, unlike Derry, who withdrew from the Ulster championship.
The Saffrons' minors also had a humiliating experience, losing by 38 points to Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Antrim had beaten Derry by 18 points in the Ulster final, further underlining the low standard which prevailed in the province.
Farrell said that the introduction of the Tain hurling league, which will feature club teams from Ulster counties joining with counterparts from Louth, Longford, Leitrim and Sligo in a special competition next spring, should bring about an improvement as it will give players more games than in previous years.
"We're hoping that the extra games between clubs from different counties in different provinces will freshen up the scene and lead to an improvement at all levels," Farrell said.
"In Derry's case, nearly all the lads who hurl play football as well, so they come under huge pressure at certain times of the year.
"Antrim's situation is different but they'd be the first to admit they have a lot of work to do also."