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Players come before blocks

HERE are two statements that cut to the chase of our national obsession, mirrored at every level of the GAA, with bricks and mortar.

"We have a lovely stand in Tullamore, but I wonder will we have players to play in it in a couple of years' time? A lot of money has gone into the stand, but not a lot has gone into hurling and football" - Offaly hurler Brian Carroll, speaking ahead of their SHC opener against Kilkenny last June.

"There's two fields there - how could that be a centre of excellence? If I was a club person, I'd be looking for a review of that. That's going to turn out a centre of mediocrity" - former Cork hurler Donal Óg Cusack on The Sunday Game two nights ago.

Cusack was speaking in the wake of Cork's tame-beyond-belief ten-point defeat to Tipperary in an All-Ireland semi-final they were favoured to win. He was commenting on Cork county board's €70m project for the redevelopment of Páirc Uí Chaoimh - including the aforementioned 'centre of excellence' - coming at a time when this fabled hurling stronghold continues to endure something of a juvenile horror show.


Now, given the historic animus between Cork's ultimate rebel and the big chiefs in 'the Páirc', some of you cynics might well riposte: "He would say that, wouldn't he?"

Yet his complaints - and the similar ones voiced by Carroll - are worthy of closer examination and being treated on their merits.

Just consider Cork's fall from grace. They haven't won an All-Ireland U21 hurling championship since 1998, when Cusack was part of a future All Star cast that landed back-to-back titles as the precursor to winning three senior All-Irelands over the following seven seasons. Since then, five of their main senior rivals - Kilkenny (five), Limerick, Galway, Clare (three apiece) and Tipperary (one) - have enjoyed success in the grade. Their last Munster U21 title came in 2007; in last month's provincial final, they were (to quote Cusack) "embarrassed" by Clare on a 1-28 to 1-13 scoreline.

Their record at minor is only marginally more palatable. Their last All-Ireland triumph came in 2001. They have won four of the ensuing 13 Munster minor deciders - but the last of these came in 2008 and they haven't qualified for a final since then. Once again, Cork are being left behind in the conveyor stakes by Kilkenny, Galway, Tipp and latterly Waterford and Limerick.

By comparison to Cork, Offaly are paupers seen to have punched above their weight in football (during the '70s and early '80s) and hurling (in the '80s and '90s).

Their disadvantages are obvious: low population trying to sustain a dual county mandate, a perennial headache exacerbated by the recent twin scourges of recession and emigration. Even on a provincial level, how could Offaly hope to cope with the noughties omnipotence of Kilkenny (who only have to worry about small ball) or the recent emergence of a Dublin footballing dynasty?

All valid arguments - but it's equally hard to argue with the inference (contained in Carroll's critique) that trying to pay off the €10.5m spent on redeveloping O'Connor Park may have consumed the county board, to the detriment of training facilities and underage structures.

While Offaly's history in the juvenile ranks has always veered between peaks and longer valley periods, they haven't achieved any underage hurling success since doing the Leinster minor and U21 double in 2000. They have now been cast adrift by the renaissance of Wexford, who ended their minor and U21 hopes this year.

Offaly's last underage footballing successes came in 1995 (Leinster U21) and 1989 (minor), albeit they reached five Leinster minor deciders in the decade leading up to 2010. This year, high hopes in both grades were cruelly extinguished at the semi-final stage by Meath U21s (2-16 to 1-10) and the Dublin minors (6-13 to 0-6).

Eventually, consistent underage failure will reap a barren senior harvest. In last year's qualifiers, a pristine but four-fifths empty O'Connor Park accommodated the 3,308 witnesses to Tyrone's 1-27 to 0-8 slaughter of the Offaly footballers. Based on this summer's results, they are now officially behind Longford and Wicklow.


And the hurlers? A few days after Carroll's doomsday prediction, the Sky cameras came to Nowlan Park for their much-hyped debut and broadcast a 5-32 to 1-18 massacre. Offaly's veteran forward fought the impossible fight by scoring 1-11, then lamented: "We're light years behind in terms of underage development."

Soon enough, Cork will have their new Páirc but their centre of excellence should have 20 pitches instead of two, according to Cusack, who went on: "Why is it that we've got only five games development officers in Cork? Dublin have probably over 50. If I was one of the clubs and I was going into the Cork county board, I'd be asking that question - and why are we investing 70 million in a monument?"

Bricks and mortar or concrete structures ... as Cork limp home to Leeside, the debate rages.