The northern fields are in serious need of fertiliser. They’re not exactly barren, but the green swathes of previous times are no more than a distant memory.
The memorable harvest of 1989 brought the lushest growth of all as Antrim stunned the hurling world by reaching the All-Ireland final for the first time in 46 years.
They didn’t win, but hopes soared that the spin-off would be hugely beneficial, not just in Antrim but also in other Ulster counties, especially Down and Derry.
For a time, it looked as if that would indeed happen. Down responded quickly, inching ever-closer to Antrim until they eventually beat them in the 1992 Ulster final.
They rose to the NHL Division 1 and did quite well before winning two more Ulster titles in 1995 and 1997.
Derry raised their game too and made a big breakthrough in 2000 when they won the Ulster title for the first time since 1908. They reinforced their No 1 status in 2001 when they retained the provincial title.
History had shown that Antrim were always the most likely to maintain a consistent level of opposition for the powers down south and in 2009, they joined Galway in the Leinster championship.
Initially, it looked like a good move. In 2010, they took Offaly to extra-time and later beat Dublin in the qualifiers. Ten months later, Dublin won the NHL Division 1 final.
The reality now is Antrim, Down and Derry are all a long way from the heights they reached at various stages pre-2010.
A glance at our Ulster top 20, with Derry’s Geoffrey McGonigle arguably unlucky, underlines the quality of players produced, reviving memories of times when there were realistic hopes that Antrim, in particular, would drive on in pursuit of the southern powerhouses. It didn’t happen and hurling is all the poorer for that.
ULSTER TOP 20
1. ‘Sambo’ McNaughton (Antrim), 2. Eddie Donnelly (Antrim), 3. Dessie Donnelly (Antrim), 4. Paul McKillen (Antrim), 5. Noel Sands, (Down), 6. Ciarán Barr (Antrim), 7. Olcan McFetridge (Antrim), 8. Gregory O’Kane (Antrim), 9. Brian Donnelly (Antrim), 10. Gary O’Kane (Antrim), 11. Noel Keith (Down), 12. Dominic McKinley (Antrim), 13. Gerard McGrattan (Down), 14. Marty Mallon (Down), 15. Niall Patterson (Antrim), 16. Liam Watson (Antrim), 17. Neil McManus (Antrim), 18. Paddy Branniff (Down), 19. Ollie Collins (Derry), 20. Danny Hughes (Down)
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