Thursday 22 March 2018

Dermot Crowe: Fighting to keep hurling flame alive

Bitter row over reforming Cavan senior team raises fears about code's future in Breffni County

Cavan players, led by Daithi Neary, on their way out to play Tyrone in the Ulster Hurling Championship in Mayo 2010
Cavan players, led by Daithi Neary, on their way out to play Tyrone in the Ulster Hurling Championship in Mayo 2010

Dermot Crowe

Cavan County Board is facing renewed pressure to re-enter a team in the National Hurling League and Lory Meagher Cup, following their complete withdrawal from national competition in 2011. This followed a string of humiliating League defeats and their failure to fulfil a fixture in the Lory Meagher due to injuries and low numbers. But a fifth successive year without a Cavan senior hurling team looks imminent.

While a group set up to lobby for the team's reinstatement claims there is enough support and player resources to warrant a return in 2016, this has been ruled out by the board, who say there may be scope to re-enter Cavan to the Lory Meagher in 2017. And there are no plans at the moment to reintroduce Cavan to the National League in the short term.

As it stands, Cavan is the only county without a team in league or championship hurling. The group campaigning for their reinstatement is unhappy with the board's level of engagement with them in recent months and the reasons being given for remaining out of competition. They have met with the GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail, who they say is supportive of their demands. Ó Fearghail could not be contacted, being presently in the US with the hurling All Stars.

The group, which calls itself the Cavan Concerned Hurling Committee (CCHC), says that the initial decision to disband the county hurling team was taken without consultation with the hurling clubs in Cavan, and that the abolition of the hurling board was also done arbitrarily. "There is no hurling board in Cavan at present, nor has there been for the last five years," a CCHC statement read. "In fact, there is no person responsible for hurling in Cavan at present. There is an Irish officer and a Scór officer and numerous other committees appointed in relation to Gaelic football, but there is nobody in charge of our national game (hurling) in County Cavan."

In 2012 the CCHC met officers of the county board and asked that the hurling board and county team be reinstated. In 2014 the committee and members of the underage clubs in the county met county chairman Gerry Brady, secretary Liam McCabe and honorary treasurer Martin Cahill.

"All the grassroots and hurling clubs present on the night requested the county board to reinstate the Cavan senior hurling team," the statement continued. "The three county board officials said no, no and no. They appeared to have made up their minds before the meeting to say 'no', despite everybody at that meeting wanting the hurling county team to be reinstated. Every person at the meeting felt angry and let down by county board officials. It was clear to everybody at the meeting that the county board did not want to spend any money on hurling."

In response Cavan county secretary McCabe denied finance was a factor, although he admitted that running a senior hurling team could cost up to €100,000. "We appointed a hurling development manager, paid him out of our own pocket, Eoin Morrissey, so they said we withdrew because of the money but we were prepared to spend €30,000 a year on a hurling development manager.

"We also put a development squad into the Westmeath league in 2015, they played in Division 3 reserve. John Mullane came up on three Friday nights to assist at the training. We appointed a manager and a trainer."

In 2014 the CCHC also met with Ó Fearghail in Cootehill. According to the committee's statement: "The meeting at the time was positive, with Aogán Ó Fearghail supporting the idea of having Cavan participating in the National Hurling League and Lory Meagher Cup in 2016. Members of the CCHC came away from the meeting buoyed by the prospect of having the county team reinstated in national competition."

Cavan suffered a series of hidings ahead of their withdrawal in the 2011 League, losing the first round to South Down 5-32 to 1-3, the second round 6-23 to 1-1 to Longford and the final match 8-23 to 1-8 to Fermanagh. In the years previously, with the help of some players from outside the county, they were more competitive; members of the CCHC blame the catastrophic results which spelled their doom on delays by the board in appointing county managers.

The board defended its decision on the grounds that the team was no longer competitive and could not be sustained, and argued that focusing resources on developing an underage base would be more fruitful in the short term. This view had some support nationally, with the Hurling Development Committee at the time advocating greater emphasis on building a stronger player base. The Tain League, allowing clubs in weaker counties to take part in competition with teams from other counties, was one such initiative designed to give players more meaningful competition in order to develop.

Speaking on Friday, Cavan County Board chairman Gerry Brady said the original decision to withdraw the team was based on a "policy that we go back to grassroots level and build from a youth policy up." Brady says that this move has been "reasonably successful", citing the wider engagement in juvenile hurling by clubs in the county and a spirited display by the county under 21 team this year.

"We feel at the moment we are not ready to compete at senior inter-county yet. We hope we are ready in 2017. With that in mind Liam McCabe is proposing to put together an under 21 tournament in early 2017 prior to going into the Lory Meagher. There are hurling people who are involved in developing the game and they feel the county board approach is the right approach."

The decision to enter a development team in the Westmeath lower leagues wasn't a success.

Other counties have played in leagues outside their jurisdiction, a notable success being Carlow, where Mount Leinster Rangers' involvement in Kilkenny leagues provided the platform that led eventually to a Leinster senior club title. Cavan clubs are a long way off that standard but the principle is the same.

"Definitely we would hope every player would aspire to play inter-county hurling," says Brady, "but we feel we need quality players who can compete at that level. And that the players have the right attitude and that it is coming through at minor and under 21 level."

In spite of their efforts to develop a stronger juvenile base, Brady admits they have still some way to go. "Unfortunately a lot of areas in the county are not taking an active part in hurling. Cavan town has no team. West Cavan has no team - that's a large area without any hurling that was a stronghold in the past.

"I would like to see, and I think with the approach we have at the moment, that we could be competitive at Lory Meagher level. And we should be in a position to re-enter the League. There are a number of dedicated people who have a passion for hurling and it would be great to see that we can compete. I think that will happen if the hurling fraternity in the county remain patient. That it will become a reality."

Earlier this year the CCHC met with the GPA, who support their quest that they be reinstated in line with the other 31 counties in Ireland. Last August, after hearing nothing from Cavan County Board, the CCHC contacted Liam McCabe by email to establish what plans were made to enter Cavan in the National Hurling League and Lory Meagher Cup in 2016.

Two days later an email was received from McCabe stating that the county board was not entering a team for the year 2016 in the National Hurling League. There was no reference to the Lory Meagher cup.

"This decision once again was made without any consultation with hurling grassroots or the four senior hurling clubs in the county," the CCHC stated. "This decision was very disappointing, to say the least, as Liam McCabe had made a verbal commitment to have the senior team back in 2016."

McCabe denied making any verbal commitment. "I never ever said the team would be back in 2016; what I did say at a meeting earlier this year was we would see how they would get on in the Westmeath league and we would review it. We later said we would discuss it at a management meeting. And the decision was taken not to go back but to look at entering the Meagher Cup in 2017."

On October 17, the Cavan senior hurling clubs and the CCHC held a meeting at the Hotel Kilmore. A total of 31 people attended the meeting, including 21 players, while another seven apologised for being absent but offered their support. The players present all signed a petition asking the county board to facilitate them playing senior hurling for their county.

"The meeting was positive and frank and what came out of the meeting was that the young people of Cavan were entitled to represent their county - the same as the young people in the other 31 counties of Ireland. The meeting also concurred that it was a sad day that volunteers in Cavan were not being facilitated after nurturing young lads up through the ranks and now when they reach 21 they have no team to play for. It is feared many young players will give up hurling altogether."

McCabe has no qualms about going it alone. "The bottom line is we have to do what is best for our county. I know there are a lot of other counties around me that would love to make that decision we have made, but are not brave enough to make it."

Asked why he would not consider re-entering the League in 2017, he said: "I would be afraid that we may not finish it."

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