Nobody said it was going to be easy
Counties in hurling's lower divisions face an ongoing battle against apathy and adversity
Hurling's popular marketing line of the 1990s was that 'nobody said it was going to be easy'. But that constituency, the game's elite, had it easy really. If you want to find hurlers who don't have it easy you need to mine lower into the ground. Move away from the crowds and the television cameras. You cannot mine lower than Division 3B in the National Hurling League. That's where you hit the hard rock, where there is nothing left beneath.
The county team that finished bottom of the National Hurling League in 2017 was Fermanagh. A Fermanagh county hurler is an endangered species working in hostile conditions. The county team has the pick of just one local senior club, Lisbellaw. It is a miracle that a county team exists at all. Nobody said it was going to be easy.
Winning the Lory Meagher two years ago gave the people in this small embattled community a rare day in the sun. Their manager is Seán Duffy, one of those anonymous figures who must be both realist and eternal optimist. All of the teams who competed in Division 3B of the hurling league last year face a similar challenge, just to keep the game going, but none are as impoverished on the ground as Fermanagh.
The situation has worsened. When Duffy played hurling for Lisbellaw there were up to a half dozen clubs competing for the local hurling championship. "It is a struggle," he admits. "There is no point saying anything else. It is not handy being a hurler in Fermanagh, definitely not.
"I am in it for the love of hurling. I always was a hurling man. I have two young lads playing on the senior team. I have two more young lads who are very handy who will be playing for us this year. From when I was a young lad, lifting a stick, I just fell in love with the game. I would hate to see anything happen to tell you the truth because it is in a precarious position in Fermanagh."
The Lory Meagher was launched in 2009, four years after the Nicky Rackard started, and has proven a godsend for counties like Fermanagh. With little prospect of making progress up the leagues, they were offered a competition in which they had some grounds for hope, with the powerful incentive of playing a final in Croke Park. They made three finals, before winning at the fourth attempt.
Staying afloat, survival, is the bottom line though. For Fermanagh to be able to field a hurling team, in Duffy's view, is something worth fighting for. Cavan dropped out of the National League five years ago, and are returning this year. Duffy sees that as a non-runner for Fermanagh. "I would imagine if the day did come that we pulled out of the National League or Lory Meagher I don't think you would see Fermanagh back. I don't think you would see a 'Cavan job'. They are different to us in that they are southern, they would pick up boys, Guards and that. We don't have that advantage."
Finishing just above Fermanagh in Division 3B last year was Leitrim who still had some success when they brought an adult hurling team to Croke Park for the first time, reaching the Meagher final where they lost to Warwickshire. In 1965, when Galway had their minor team playing in Munster, Leitrim won the Connacht minor hurling championship, relying on some footballers who gave the hurling a twist and a few outsiders who were brought up in the game. They had never competed in the minor championship before and the win was something of a freak. Reality dawned, rather brutally, in the All-Ireland semi-final where they ran into Munster champions Limerick and were slaughtered.
Leitrim has had a hard enough time trying to remain competitive in their game of choice, Gaelic football, to be overly preoccupied with starting a hurling revolution even if they were able. Making Croke Park for the first time - allowing the wider world the chance to see a Leitrim hurling team in the flesh - is progress. A Leitrim hurling team in Croke Park is a step worth noting.
Michael Coleman, the former Galway hurler, has been coaching them for the last three years and is still involved. He had years of experience in club coaching but this was his first stab at inter-county. "My nephew was working up there at the time and he was hurling with them," as he explains. "They were looking for someone to give a hand. We were just trying to bring up the level of skill and it takes time. And I suppose last year it was great, getting to the final, and first time ever to get to Croke Park. I suppose persistence is the big thing for them. Not to give up."
Coleman, an All-Ireland medal winner, came from a different planet in hurling terms. He says he doesn't feel sympathy for Leitrim. "They have the same passion as you would have down in Galway. But they have it at a different level. They know their limitations and they are getting better.
"One thing is that the refereeing at that level is very technical. It is not what you would get in senior inter-county at the top flight, you would see a lot of frees. That is an area they could look at. I know referees try and do their best. But sometimes you need to let the games flow more because there are some very good games and some of them last year were very exciting."
The Leitrim manager is Martin Cunniffe, a Galway native who arrived in Carrick-on-Shannon as a young garda in 1973. He hurled in the senior championship in Galway for Pádraig Pearses but eventually got involved with Carrick, training juvenile teams. Carrick was one of only four hurling clubs in the country at the time. "It took off from there," he says. "I started playing the club hurling here then."
From there he began playing for the county through the 1980s, usually meeting the same counties: Sligo, Fermanagh. His son Clement went on to become one of their best players and is still involved in his 30s. "I won a few county hurling titles with Carrick. Played with Leitrim then. I was near 40 when I stopped playing for Leitrim."
The number of senior clubs has dropped to three. Leitrim began training last Wednesday night in Mullingar, a venue chosen to enable several Dublin-based players to participate. There are the usual problems. They have lost a couple of players to the football panel. One of their best, Colm Moreton, is currently with the footballers but has indicated he will play both sports this year. That danger is ever present as many play both codes.
"We are in the Nicky Rackard this year," says Cunniffe. "We got punished really. Our chances of winning it are very slim really. It is a bit above us in fairness. We haven't won Lory Meagher, we are better suited to the Lory Meagher."
Why does he put himself through it? "I like the game. I love watching the hurling, I love being involved, and my son Clement, he has had great years, he did all his hurling with Leitrim."
They begin their league campaign on the last Sunday in January away to Sligo. "There might be days when you'd get a bad beating but you would always come back," Cunniffe explains, being part of a group of hurling people for whom it might not always be helpful to live too long in the present.
Sligo lost the Meagher Cup semi-final to Leitrim in 2017, but they won a Rackard in 2008 before losing two Meagher finals in this decade. Last year they made the papers for the wrong reasons when the manager Declan Loughnane lost his job in a dispute over 'permit' players from outside the county wearing the Sligo colours. This year they are under joint managers: David Hand, a Monaghan native who is teaching in Sligo, and Darragh Cox, a journalist and, like Hand, a former Sligo hurler. Cox's father Henry came from Roscommon to work in Sligo and played for Calry/St Joseph's as well as the county for a long number of years. His two sons were involved when they won the Rackard ten years ago, with Henry as selector. Darragh played for a few years for the county along with his father who played in goal until he was 50.
Long careers are legion. One of Sligo's best players, Paul Seevers, went to nearly 40 and they felt his loss even then. Sligo finished third from the bottom of Division 3B in 2017. Calry/St Joseph's dominate local club hurling, winners of the last seven senior championships, and four times Connacht junior title holders. The county has six senior hurling clubs, with a seventh hoping to launch this year. Hand says that they hope to increase the number of clubs playing senior hurling in Sligo twofold in the next 10 years.
Hand, 33, is from Carrickmacross, where he started hurling. He is working and living in Sligo only three years and was involved with the county under 17 squad last year. He is hoping to raise standards and aspires to getting back to the heights they achieved under the late manager Michael Galvin in 2008.
They have eight Dublin-based players on the squad who train with Na Fianna. Attendance at training is in the mid-20s as they prepare to face Leitrim in the first round of the league in a fortnight's time.
"The lads are buzzing," says Hand. "Naturally in a first year you would be apprehensive. But the response has been unbelievable. When you are in a minority sport you kind of feel you need to be tighter as a group and work harder to keep the show running. You find a real camaraderie there."
Last year Colum O'Meara was involved with the Ahascragh-Fohenagh hurlers alongside the late Tony Keady. Managing Longford, as he is now, was not on the radar although in 2005 he led London to victory in the inaugural Nicky Rackard. He is a native of Killimor in east Galway. Longford finished second in Division 3B last year, and won the divisional final in Carrickmore, beating Warwickshire.
"Just a friend of mine told me the job was going and I said I would go for it," explains O'Meara. "I put my name forward and ended up the Longford manager."
He was surprised by the line of questioning at the interview. "Usually if you go for a job you nearly have it before you go. I didn't know anybody. It was a clean slate. They wanted to know what was my set-up. The questions were fairly intensive. In Longford it is not about fitness, it is about a ball. I have some individual players this year and they would make any senior team in Galway.
"But the trouble is there are not enough of them. There are only three senior teams in the county. I would say there are 62 hurlers up there at adult level. Sure most clubs in Galway would have 60 hurlers; you can see where I am coming from. But talk about commitment from the lads I have, it is second to none."
They have already defeated Louth in the Kehoe Cup by seven points, a match they lost by 15 last year. On January 28, they face Monaghan in the league, having been promoted to Division 3A along with Warwickshire. "My aim," says O'Meara, "is to get to Croke Park on Lory Meagher final day." Longford have had some degree of success in the Meagher Cup, winning it in 2010 and '14.
Last year's Meagher champions, Warwickshire, are managed by a native of Belfast, Tony Joyce. He comes from the Gort na Mona club but moved to England in the 1990s and didn't hurl for around 10 years. He took over last year. But while they had success in Croke Park, the role isn't what he would consider glamorous. "I would say it's seriously unglamorous. Nobody knows who Warwickshire are. I would say we get a fair bit of stick being from England, from players on the field, but when you get a win in Croke Park it makes it all worthwhile. But it is tough going, you would pull your hair out. I looked about 35 last year; now I look about 45 in the space of a year - and I would put that down to inter-county management."
Though they finished on top of Division 3B they lost the league final after extra-time to Longford. The day made them feel well down the food chain. "It wasn't even in the Carrickmore pitch itself," says Joyce, "it was in a school down the road from there. We had to walk 200 yards across the road from the dressing room, there were no scoreboards, I think it rubbed off on the players. I was expecting to play somewhere decent, a National League final, we are trying to do something to keep it going."
Work took him away from home and eventually led him to join a group of managers at the bottom of the hurling pile. He ended up playing for the John Mitchels club after meeting a Galway man with hurling connections in Belgium. "I got an offer to work for an uncle when I was 16 and just went, I'd had a few trials before then for Antrim. The lure of England and getting £80 a week was massive. I never pucked a ball from 16 to 25. I lived in Coventry for 20 years and just didn't know hurling was there," says Joyce, an engineer.
But, like the others, the dream of Croke Park is as pertinent for his players as it is for any of those working under the game's top managers. It might be the thread that holds them together, that keeps them from going under and submitting to cynicism. "Croke Park was once in a lifetime," says Joyce of last year's win. "To have the final in Croke Park, it keeps it all going. Some of the best players in Ireland would never get that chance."
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