Thursday 5 December 2019

Tommy Conlon: Senior grade careers of gallant young Westmeath hurlers already doomed

We feel duty-bound to advise those gallant young hurlers from Westmeath that their careers in the senior grade are already doomed. Stock photo: Sportsfile
We feel duty-bound to advise those gallant young hurlers from Westmeath that their careers in the senior grade are already doomed. Stock photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

It will go down as one of the feelgood stories of the year, so one almost feels bad about raining on their parade. But we feel duty-bound to advise those gallant young hurlers from Westmeath that their careers in the senior grade are already doomed.

All the joyful optimism they banked from their miraculous defeat of Kilkenny in the Leinster under 21 championship 10 days ago will eventually run into the sand. It will dissipate into frustration and disappointment as they experience the reality of life in one of hurling's perennial backwaters.

Seasons will slip by in circles of apathy and anonymity. They will spend most of their time down where the buses don't run, where the crowds don't appear, playing bad games against poor teams. They might get the odd day out in the championship.

More probably they will take beatings that border on the embarrassing. Managers will come and go. Players will come and go, demoralised by the futility of it all.

By the time they've reached their mid-20s, the sheer thrill they enjoyed that May evening in 2016 will seem like a moment of lost innocence. In their dejected adulthood they might even look back and marvel at their naivete at the time. They had all sorts of dreams of future glory but here they are now, turned cynical by the treadmill of mediocrity, wondering if it's worth another year of their time, what with the job and the girlfriend and the mortgage.

We have all seen this movie played out over and over, in hurling and Gaelic football. A minnow county happens upon a good underage generation; they pull off a few improbable victories and for a brief, glorious time, the limelight is theirs. Then they cross the bridge into the senior universe, the world of hardened men and big-game talents - and they discover the hard way that it's not a bridge they're trying to cross, but a chasm.

What's worse is that we all collude in feeding them this lie. Everyone pumps them full of hope at this age. It is the mythical narrative on which the GAA sustains itself: the romantic notion of The Breakthrough being just around the corner for the weaker county, the smaller parish, if they just push that little bit harder and try that little bit more.

It doesn't take a lot to peddle this line. One or two wins in a given season are enough. These are the straws that are clutched as signs of progress, harbingers of better things, staging posts to the glory that awaits just over the next hill.

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The win in question will be billed as "a great boost for . . . " - fill in your own blanks here. That remarkable two-point victory for the under 21s was, of course, "a great boost for Westmeath hurling". In recent years we've had great boosts for Carlow hurling and Laois hurling and Fermanagh hurling and Longford hurling and even Warwickshire hurling. Yesterday Louth played Sligo in the Lory Meagher Cup final. Naturally, the winning team will have given a great boost to Sligo or Louth hurling, God bless the mark.

What will never be said is that none of these counties, and plenty more like them, will ever get close to becoming contenders at the top end of the game. Most of them have traditionally struggled to contend in football, by far the more popular of the Gaelic sports in their counties.

Westmeath football has won one senior Leinster title in over 120 years of trying. And it has the whole county from which to pick its players. Westmeath hurling has 13 or 14 clubs to choose from in total. "That's only as big as the West Waterford division," said Michael Ryan, their senior hurling manager, last week. "That's the size of the hurling fraternity (in Westmeath)".

What will never be said either is that this is a hopeless situation. What will never be said is that the playing population in so many of these counties is simply too small; and therefore that their teams will rarely be good enough for anything but the crumbs from the table.

The talk instead is always of putting the right structures in place, strategies for underage development, more coaching and promotion etc, etc. But all of these initiatives continually and forever run into the brick wall of demographics - player population.

The one idea that could make a meaningful difference, that might actually help the minnows put competitive teams on the field, is the one idea that remains taboo: breaking down the county boundaries. Allowing the free movement of players between counties. What if, for example, some top club hurlers in Kilkenny or Galway were allowed play county hurling, if they fancied it, for Carlow or Westmeath? Players perhaps not quite good enough to make their own home squads but who'd like to compete at county level and would get the chance to do so with another team?

But the notion remains apparently unthinkable. The principle of playing for your home county is such a sacred tenet, so embedded in the GAA's communal psyche, that few people appear ready to question it. The counties who suffer most from this demographic disadvantage have seemingly become so conditioned to their place in the pecking order that they don't challenge it either.

Let's hope the Westmeath under 21s are enjoying their moment in the sun, because sadly it might never shine on them again.

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