Tuesday 23 July 2019

'You are not playing catch up, you are actually getting further away' - Where now for hurling in Antrim?

With the Ulster Championship put out of its misery and the county team struggling,Neil McManus worries about the future although he still considers it a total honour to line out for the Saffrons

Antrim’s Neil McManus counts himself fortunate to have grown up in the hurling stronghold of Cushendall. Photo: Sportsfile
Antrim’s Neil McManus counts himself fortunate to have grown up in the hurling stronghold of Cushendall. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

To begin, we talk about Johnny Joe's, a local public house. One of three Cushendall bars and, with no disrespect to Terence McNaughton's premises, by some distance the most renowned. Johnny Joe, one-time proprietor, is no longer with us.

"I don't remember him," says Neil McManus, Cushendall's best known hurler of the present vintage, "just stories that people tell you. Like, the bar closed when it was dinner time so he could go and have his dinner. He left his bar to his nephew, Joe McCollum. There was no tv. You wouldn't be caught dead with a mobile phone, there is no signal anyway. It's a big part of Cushendall, that wee pub."

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For those who drank there, certain customs were deemed wise to observe. "There is a seat in what is the kitchen which was Richard McMullan's seat," explains McManus. "He passed away a couple of years ago but when you came in, you knew not to sit in that seat. It was his seat."

The seat of hurling power in Antrim is in the Glens, where Cushendall lies, and the game's influence has always been pervasive. Neil McManus has been playing with the county since 2007, with the exception of one season spent travelling after his club lost the 2016 All-Ireland club final to Na Piarsaigh. When they reached the Christy Ring final against Meath later that year, he watched the first instalment in Vietnam on GAAGO. Meath won the next day. He followed that defeat on Twitter.

That disconnection was temporary. He lives next to his parents' house is Cushendall, where he is settled and married. A process engineer working for Andor in West Belfast, he was born in 1988, too young to have any memory of Antrim reaching the All-Ireland final a year later, when beating a then high-flying Offaly. Yesterday saw Offaly defeated by Kerry and relegated to the third tier of the championship.

Antrim, though still in the McDonagh Cup were resigned to their fate knowing that last weekend's loss in Dunloy to Westmeath ruled out their prospects of making the final and a potential shot at being involved in the MacCarthy Cup race next year.

McManus, in spite of being one of the country's best hurlers in a place steeped in the game, is from outside the catchment area where county hurling prospers. He could write a book on it, the sense of isolation, the struggle, and the growing divide between rich and poor. But he wouldn't change being a hurler for club and county for the world. In 2010 Antrim sent Anthony Daly tumbling into a dark cloud of depression after shocking Dublin in the championship, a result that put Antrim into the All-Ireland quarter-final. One of those days that keeps an Antrim hurler believing, but they know they can't count on them.

This year Antrim had no specialised strength and conditioning coach or team psychologist. They went on a four-day training camp to Portugal before the McDonagh Cup with the players helping to raise the funds themselves. McManus had never been on one of those camps before. Their sponsor is Creagh Concrete, a business developed from scratch by the McKeague brothers in Dunloy. He has played with three of the sons and Nicky McKeague is his current midfield partner.

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"A lot of companies provide sponsorship for the benefit of the company," says McManus. "Let's be honest, Creagh Concrete don't get a huge amount of benefit publicity-wise or business-wise from sponsoring Antrim. They are doing it because they love Antrim."

This being the 30th anniversary of Antrim's last All-Ireland final appearance, it seemed an apt time to reflect on what has happened since. Antrim are far worse off and the Ulster Championship, which once provided an All-Ireland semi-finalist, has been stalled.

As a child, McManus has cherished memories of travelling to Antrim matches. "I remember running on to the field at Casement Park, the autographs, and Seamus 'Mushy' McMullan of Dunloy, Jackie Carson, Conor McCambridge from my own club, like even the Coulters from Down and Ollie Collins from Derry. I remember wherever my father used to bring me and my brother John to every Antrim game, we'd pick up my uncle Charlie and head on up the road. It was far better than any holiday going to Casement Park in those days."

McManus was captain when Antrim won Ulster in 2013, but after 2017 the competition, already removed to the periphery and long disconnected from the main championship, was put out of its misery.

"There is a pre-season competition in memory of a Gael who had a connection to Queen's University," he says. "The Conor McGurk Cup. And we were playing in it (January 2018) and the official from the Ulster Council who was there said, 'I suppose this is the Ulster Championship this year?' And we were sort of looking at each other, we didn't know, the players, that there was going to be no Ulster Championship. Now the competition had run its course. There is no doubt about it. Antrim had won 15 in a row or something like that.

"When we joined Leinster we would just play the final which wasn't really fair on everyone else. I still think that instead of getting rid of the Ulster Championship, because it is so hard to reinstate something after it's gone, they should have continued without Antrim. Because those games were going back and forth, Donegal, Armagh, Down, Derry were beating each other quite regularly at that stage."

This topic has earned greater attention in recent days thanks to Carlow hurler, Paul Coady, whose comments struck a chord for those striving to break free of the restrictions placed on them by hurling's notoriously settled ways. McManus read the Twitter post and thoroughly approved of what Coady had to say.

"He is saying we need some help. That sums it up. And the first thing is financial help. I thought it was very well put together, his thread, because he had backed up his emotive talk with figures. Like the disparity in the allocation of funding. Like, Dublin is the capital city and it is a massive help to the Association to have Dublin going well and I totally understand that. And also for that fact that Dublin being strong helps the GAA make money. But we should be distributing that money. I think the GAA can afford to put some money into those Joe McDonagh teams and help them progress. Cheddar Plunkett made a great point in a podcast recently that you look at the sponsorship bigger counties have. You are not playing catch up, you are actually getting further away."

So what can the GAA do? "I think it is up to the county boards to come up with a plan and say this is what we propose to do within our county."

They haven't done this? "They have to some extent. Antrim County Board came up with a plan called Gaelfast. They got a million pound for it. And you think, a million pound - that's a lot of money. But it's not. We need to get a hurl in the hand of every young person passing through the schools in Belfast. And I am only talking about the Nationalist side. There are figures for it, I think it is only three or four per cent of Nationalist children in Catholic schools play hurling.

"There is somewhere south of 350,000 people living in Belfast. Obviously the biggest population base in the North. You have to cut that in half straight away because of the political situation in the North. But that is still a massive chunk of people. And we need to do something to start creating senior hurlers for Antrim out of that pool.

"When Antrim were at their strongest in the late 1980s and early '90s, the Glens provided most of the hurlers. But Belfast were supplying more. Ciaran Barr was the captain of the team and he was from (O'Donovan) Rossa. Donal Armstrong was from there too. There are now two from the city on the squad, three if you count St Enda's in Glengormley. Three at the most."

One of Coady's points is that the benefits and lessons Carlow received in this year's Leinster Championship need to be over a more sustained period, not just one year, to have lasting effect.

"Everyone knew Carlow were coming up to go straight back down. Would Carlow win a Leinster game next year if they were left in it? Possibly. Those teams in the second tier are the best placed to make our senior hurling championship more inclusive and a better spectacle as well and to cover a greater area.

Straight away, with having none of the Joe McDonagh teams involved, you have one team from Connacht involved and no Ulster teams. It is really Leinster and Munster. We are effectively having no representation in the top tier of our All-Ireland hurling championship in half of our country."

In the 1960s an Armagh man, Alf Murray, had a vision to spread hurling nationwide when president of the GAA. It never worked out. Can it ever? "I think it can," replies McManus. "But will it? Will that happen? I don't know because tradition is so much of what we are in all aspects of life. Like, I don't believe that there will ever be a good cricket team in Cushendall, if you understand what I mean."

McManus, bright and articulate, made an excellent first appearance as a pundit on The Sunday Game last weekend.

"Ireland and the GAA as a whole needs a representative from Ulster before the game totally dies in this province."

Really? Die? In the Glens? "Maybe not in the Glens but at the moment the Antrim county team is struggling, for the first time ever it is almost totally reliant on the Glens for their senior hurling team. Other sports are spreading. There are some young lads from Cushendall going to Ballymena to play rugby and soccer. It was not happening when I was growing up."

His mother's family are born and bred Cushendall, but his father is from north Belfast. He came from Clifton Park Avenue in the Cliftonville area. "It was a Protestant/Unionist area and Catholics were being moved out of those areas. And so was my father's family. And they moved to the house they usually rented in Cushendall (when on holidays)."

Not by choice?

"No, not by choice. I don't know what's the right way to word that. They were displaced is probably the best way of putting it."

Cushendall was mostly immune from conflict. "The Troubles had a minimal impact. Nothing happened in Cushendall, certainly not in the '90s. I feel very lucky I grew up in the Glens as opposed to Belfast. When my mother and father married, my mother was working in Belfast at the time and they were going to live in Belfast and the house fell through. And they bought a site in Cushendall and just built a home there."

Ruairí Óg in Cushendall won its first senior county title in 1981. The club won again in '85, '87, '91, '92 and '93, '96 and '99. McManus was part of the next triumph in 2005, later beaten in an Ulster final, before retaining the county in 2006, then winning Ulster and losing the All-Ireland semi-final to Loughrea. In 2009 they played De La Salle of Waterford and lost narrowly once more, a point up with seconds left when Brian Phelan put over a line ball from way out the field. "And he comes over to me afterwards saying he never scored a line ball, hardly."

Finally, after repeated semi-final failures, they defeated Sarsfields of Galway in 2016 to reach the final, but were no match for Na Piarsaigh. Earlier this year they reappeared, losing to St Thomas's by a point.

Growing up in Cushendall, the local butcher's, Donal Kearney's, acted as a mine of information. "Before social media came along, it was the hub where if you wanted to find out anything, or a ticket for a dinner dance, or you wanted to book your place on a bus to go to an away match, you went there. Like, the team was put on Kearney's window, so if you wanted to see the team you went to the window.

"Like, it wouldn't have taken a genius from Loughgiel or Dunloy to come over and look at the team on the butcher shop window. My mother would be going in to get meat and me and John, my brother, only wanted to look at the window to see what the team was for Sunday or something like that."

He has six county medals, but he missed the 2011 final when they lost to Loughgiel, who won the All-Ireland the following March. Despite Antrim being where they are, he still plays with the same desire he did when he first started. "It is a total honour."

Two years after beating Dublin, they ran into Limerick in the qualifiers at the Gaelic Grounds in 2012. The final result read Limerick 8-26, Antrim 1-15. One can't imagine what that does to the psyche. But he still wants to play and Cushendall, he is proud to say, have always been reliable supporters of the county team.

Some things are deemed immutable, like the chair in Johnny Joe's in Cushendall where Richard McMullan sat before he passed on. That chair belonged to Richard, everyone accepted it as an unwritten rule, save maybe the odd unsuspecting tourist. But who does hurling belong to and, more appropriately, where?

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