N EXT Friday, after five years travelling the length and breadth of the country, Paudie Butler will pull his trusty Toyota Avensis into the driveway and apply the brake to his term as National Director of Hurling.
It's been an evangelistic and often solitary existence. Since taking the job in 2006, he's clocked up almost 300,000 miles, but hurling's struggle for survival is as ferocious today as it was in the 1960s when a report found that the game was almost dead in 16 counties.
Over the years Butler has seen it all -- apathy, lack of funding and resources, misplaced enthusiasm and burnout. At the start, some kids could scarcely access a hurley whereas the most talented ones were pulled from pillar to post, like Tipperary's Eoin Kelly who played 55 games in one season at just 16.
Upon taking the director role he frequently found himself making lengthy round trips from his home in mid-Tipperary to Ulster and parts of the west. The job brought him to places where hurling was only an irritating after-thought but he paid little heed to the acrimony and now departs office satisfied that the gospel at least got an airing. But did the message seep through? Could one man make a difference?
"Hurling is gathering energy and momentum every year," he says. "We're now in most primary schools and communities all over Ireland -- that wasn't the case. You won't see the real fruits of our labour for another 10 years, but now any youngster who wants to hurl is within 10 miles of a team that can oblige. We have increased participation, improved coaching and underage skill levels are excellent. Counties like Tyrone and Donegal now hit 19 points a game and we've convinced many county boards with no interest in hurling to give it a chance."
The former school principal knows the ancient game will never capture the hearts and imagination of all 32 counties. He doesn't make excuses when it's put to him that only 14,000 watched the entire opening weekend's league fixtures, or that Cavan want to disband their hurling team. Nor does he dismiss Liam Dunne's view that Wexford hurling is edging closer to Christy Ring status. And he won't deny that Offaly, Limerick and Clare have all regressed badly.
"Yes, we've a long way to go but we have turned a corner," he insists. "Look at Dublin hurling -- incredible work. Take Armagh; I took a coaching clinic there lately and expected 20 to 30 players but had 120 kids waiting. I saw the joy in Longford at winning the Lory Meagher Cup, I see coaches trying to get hurling breathing in Killarney and Tralee. St Patrick's Maghera winning the All-Ireland colleges title. We're getting there.
"Once upon a time, 15 or 16 counties would down tools after the league because they'd be walloped by 30 points in the championship. But now everyone has a chance of glory. We should have been alive to all this 20 years ago while we pitted the likes of Roscommon against Galway and saw them lose by 50 points. These days everyone has a shot at winning across four divisions."
Yet, the fixture list is hackneyed and the Liam McCarthy Cup continues to be a shoot-out between Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork. Save for Dublin's promise it's the same old few. To get a glimpse of Butler's legacy, you must scratch well beneath the surface.
In Tyrone, Brendan Harkin is overseeing a nursery that has already targeted the county's 48 football clubs for extensive hurling coaching and weekly matches. In July, he will hold a Féile to cast the net well beyond their six hurling clubs. "Here, our two codes are important and the football people understand that," he argues. "Hurling coaching takes place every week for kids and young adults and we've got a good presence in primary schools now. It's a start."
Tyrone currently top Division 4, while Mayo lead the way in the division above having engaged Murt Connolly, from the famous Galway hurling clan, to oversee their fortunes. Their goal is winning Division 3B and impressing in the Christy Ring Cup. Division 3A pacesetters Wicklow know they'll always be fighting a losing battle in football terrain but their hurling officer Jim Doyle is undaunted.
"When you have an international footballer like Leighton Glynn back training with the hurling team, it gives everyone a lift," he argues. "We've established the Don Hyland School of Excellence for juveniles and we have four coaches through FáS, and they are enormous help. We'd be struggling only for them because of the financial aspect."
Wicklow have seven senior hurling clubs and 12 adult outfits to draw from, not a bad base but their biggest challenge is getting dual players to give them a twist and fighting the general indifference around the place. "We'll be gearing up for a league final in a couple of weeks but there won't be a word about it," Doyle adds. "There's no profile but you've no idea what a lift we'd get if Today FM or RTE mentioned us in a bulletin."
Doyle's crew have adopted the Setanta model used by Laois and adapted by their hurling missionary Pat Critchley. It's a template that imparts the skills and techniques of the game to kids aged from ten to 13. Essentially, these are development squads for players of any standard or ability, not just promising stars. Critchley's model has kept kids together and developed a unity not always associated with Laois hurling.
While Wicklow are trying new methods to maintain their position beneath hurling's top tiers, the likes of Meath are simply hanging in there until some new talent emerges. But after a worrying start to the season their prolific forward and former captain Neil Hackett hopes they're finally stabilising under Offaly's 1998 All-Ireland winner Cillian Farrell. "I remember the first weekend of the league, sitting in the dressing room in Ruislip after losing to London by a point on a pitch that was cut to shite and hardly being able to talk," he says.
"For a moment or two you'd question yourself. Still, we have a tight bunch of 25 or so, all young enough, and Cillian has been at the top so you just get on with it. There's little or nothing coming through at underage because everyone plays football but if we don't keep going the thing will just slip away.
"Back in the 1990s we were mixing it with the big boys, playing Offaly and beating Laois, but now it's just about hanging in there, giving the Christy Ring a right rattle. Our hurling board is ploughing a lone furrow but we understand that we're a football county. Our biggest problem is that some of our best players won't line out, but we have two weeks before the Christy Ring starts and the good thing about hurling now is there's always something to aim for. A medal. A Croke Park final."
While Meath strive to consolidate their position on the landscape, fallen giants like Limerick are clawing their way back to better vantage points. Last March 140 players turned out in Martinstown for Joe Quaid's Tony Forristal trials. And last month saw UL and LIT meet in the Fitzgibbon Cup final while Ardscoil Rís captured the Harty Cup. Their county intermediate side is now an under 23 development outfit while board officials recently visited Liam Brady at Arsenal to get an insight into their youth set-up.
Next autumn they'll move their seven full-time coaching and games personnel to UL to avail of high-tech services and facilities. They finally look to be repelling the threat of Munster rugby. "Munster rugby was always there," Butler shrugs. "I taught in Limerick in 1972-'73 and saw the love people have for rugby. But hurling is back in the primary schools and we're recovering in the city with full-time coaching. For a long time the GAA neglected Limerick City but that's not the case now."
Senior hurlers Gavin O'Mahony and James Ryan were recently appointed to the coaching staff while Quaid was appointed coaching and development officer for the next five years, targeting kids aged between 10 and 21.
Across the border, John Meyler's commitment is to some day mould a young Kerry team into a Division 1 outfit. In Leinster, Kildare were ambitious enough to try and secure an established inter-county player like Galway's Rory Gantley under the approved transfer system. The good work slowly continues and it would be dreadful if it receded once Butler leaves office, a concern the GAA share. Director-general Páraic Duffy has ideas to maintain the tempo.
"The National Hurling Development group have a document coming back to us in April," he says. "They're looking at the resourcing of hurling in overall terms and recommending a plan. There will be some good ideas in that and hopefully they'll be implemented. Paudie was one of a kind, an evangelist, but maybe you need a different way of doing it."
The trick is to build on the foundations that Butler has laid. Turns out one man could make a difference.
Sunday Indo Sport