What are the GAA doing to help weaker hurling counties?

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Sometimes it’s hard to be a Carlow hurler. Well, most of the time it’s hard to be a Carlow hurler. Coming from one of the smallest counties in Ireland, with the third smallest population, your life always seems to be consigned to low budget, off broadway productions. Can you remember the last time you saw a Carlow hurling match on television? No? Ok. Well keep thinking about that.

In the last number of years though, things have improved. The county won the Christy Ring Cup in 2008, 2009 and 2017. They played in Division 1B of the National hurling league this year and secured a famous draw against Galway in Dr Cullen Park. In 2014 Mount Leinster Rangers progressed to reach an All-Ireland senior club hurling final. Considering the poverty of resources on offer, with only 4 senior clubs in the county, it remains one of the greatest feats in recent hurling history. The work that the county board has put in over the last number of years has been nothing less than exemplary.

This year Carlow returned to the top tier in the Leinster hurling championship after victory in the Joe McDonagh cup last year. They lost all their four matches and have now been relegated to the second tier again for next year. Was there ever any thought to them, facing a play off against the Joe McDonagh cup winners, to see who was more suited to playing in next season’s competition? Or seeing if they could play off against the bottom team from the Munster Championship, to gauge who was more deserving of a place in next year’s championship? Considering there is relegation from the Leinster Championship, but no relegation from the Munster Championship (unless Kerry won the Joe McDonagh) it seemed an unfair situation.

For anyone who hasn’t read Paul Coady’s wonderfully articulate thread on Twitter bemoaning Carlow hurling’s current situation, then they really should. Coady has been an inter-county hurler for the last 8 years, and is exceptionally well placed to comment on what he believes is best for the county. Then again, for those of you who are not on Twitter, there’s no point in me trying to paraphrase what was such a wonderfully articulate argument, so with all credit to the @Paul_Coady10 account, I’m just going to relay it here.

Firstly, I understand the consequences of finishing bottom of the Leinster Liam McCarthy group meant demotion to the Joe McDonagh for Carlow hurling. I believe we have got to experience Liam McCarthy hurling to learn from it. At the moment, I believe Carlow are about 8-14 points behind the teams we played; but how do we ever get this gap closer if at a best case scenario we just Yo Yo up and down from Joe Mac?

This year the intensity, hurling ability, tactics and preparation from opposition teams and from us against opposing opposition was something that Carlow hurling never experienced before and I do believe experience will provide growth. More experience = more growth! I live and breathe Carlow hurling and I’m too worried about the future of Carlow hurling to not at least ask these questions to the GAA. Is Carlow going down to the Joe McDonagh the best thing for Carlow hurling? What’s a best case scenario here for Carlow over the next 1/5/10 yrs?

Why is there a relegation from Leinster but not from Munster? Regardless if we’re even at Waterford’s level yet, it is still hugely unfair. Relegating Waterford would be wrong, because it wouldn’t do anything for Waterford hurling, and it’s a shame the same doesn’t apply to Carlow. Hurling has top 9 counties all at a relatively similar level. For 100 years, aside from the Offaly and Antrim, no other teams have ever featured in the All Ireland final.

The GAA have had 100 years to bridge that gap from the other 21 counties and have never done. Is this not a massive failure? For Carlow to close the gap, similar to Laois, Westmeath etc, we need serious help from the GAA, serious financial help, serious coaching, more officers and planning. The 9 counties ahead of us are heavily financially backed; big hurling populations, development officers, sponsors. All well ahead of Carlow.

Incidentally I’m not asking that the top 9 counties lose any of this, rather help the counties of Carlow, Laois, Westmeath etc to also become exposed to the same resources. For e.g, our training for the championship was a day in Tramore where other counties in the Liam McCarthy in 2019 are able to head to a foreign country for a full weeks training and tactics. It’s not the making of a successful team but it’s a help to show the gulf between the counties.

Coaching grants from croke park 2007-2018. Dublin €17,916,477 and Carlow was €856,897. Let’s talk Per player then and not population (€856,897 / 5,930 = €144.50 cw pp) (€17,916,477 / 39,197 = €457.09 dub pp). Games development in 2018 for Dublin was €1,303,630 and Carlow was €128,733.

Another massive issue is how big counties are able to work off huge sponsorship deals compared to other counties but still receive the same levels of grants funding. 9 of the 10 Liam McC had games shown live, 1 team hadn’t. 1 team had a 2 minute voiceover every Sunday night with every other team having highlights/analysis. 1 of 10 teams needs the promotion more than the other 9. That 1 team is obviously Carlow. Not looking for more, just the same.

Off topic but at least a 2 minute voiceover was more than the 0 coverage the Joe Mac teams get, with those counties also crying out for promotion. This is why Gaelic Footballers don’t want a 2nd tier cause they know it will get no respect or coverage and they’ll be all but forgotten. This year Carlow hurling had attendances for the first time in my career, it had colour, it had kids playing hurling more than ever, it had a buzz within the county. Take the Liam McCarthy away and Carlow hurling loses that. Do Carlow hurling go quietly and make as little noise as possible, take this as our peak, and thanks for the memories and just watch as the county will eventually slip backwards in a hurling regard and spend the next 100 years where we’ve spent the last 100?

I realistically think on some days, that the other 21 counties would be better coming together and boycotting the GAA until serious promotion, financial aid and planning, was put in place to help these counties wanting to improve climb these levels.

So lastly, I believe Carlow hurling is at a crossroads like many counties in hurling. There is an ambitious talented group there, doing their best at the moment, and for the next while, we can try squeeze as much as we can out of the little we have and try fight the drowning water.

The obvious thing is this generation moves on, the hurling population continues to decrease in Carlow, the county eventually just slides back down the ladder, and all we’ll have were good memories. If the GAA really helped and wanted to see us continue climbing the ladder, I believe we at least might have a better chance at long term success. The present way, we definitely don’t! Noise might help, but no noise certainly won’t help

Now, is there any part of that the GAA can quibble with? Even one line that doesn’t have some ring of truth to it? No? Well then you’d have to say the organization has some soul searching to do.

Carlow have played four games in this year’s Leinster Championship. It would be disingenuous to say they should have won any of those games, but considering they were only 3 points behind Galway in Pearse Stadium, approaching full time, and performed reasonably creditably in the other 3, they at least played to their potential.

Now compare and contrast their performance with Waterford in the Munster Championship. Their scoring difference after 4 games is an embarassing -52, worse even than Carlow’s -47. Why is it so poor?  Is it because they were playing vastly superior opposition? Well, considering that the standard of this year’s Munster Championship has been dubious, and Dublin Wexford and Galway Kilkenny have probably been the 2 best games of the year, you’d have to say no, not really.

Then again, if Waterford were relegated to the lower tier after the year they’ve had, there would be an outcry. Sure, you can argue that Waterford were only in the All-Ireland final a couple of years ago. There seems to be more potential for such a team to win honours than Carlow. Yet a lot of that’s probably because the GAA see Waterford as a viable hurling option, and not Carlow. Therefore, one county isn’t penalized for winning a game in their provincial championship, while the other is.

Let’s not forget that I can remember the day when Waterford got beaten at home by Kerry in the hurling championship. Yet due to the work put in at grassroots level, the county have managed to attain a competitive status, reaching 2 All-Ireland finals in the last 12 years. Now consider the strides Carlow have made in the last decade or so. Here’s a great article Christy O’Connor wrote about the work that’s been done https://www.rte.ie/sport/gaa/2019/0311/1035735-carlow-one-of-modern-hurlings-great-success-stories/ If the county kept pushing the way it is, and were encouraged to do so, could they not see even more improvements?

The Coady line about the top 9 counties is a most pertinent one. The Offaly hurling story of 1980-2000 seems even more of a miracle now than it was at the time. Can we ever see a county, with such a small population, breaking into the top bracket again? Well Carlow may be the best hope, but considering the vast resources needed to compete at elite level GAA nowadays, they’re not going to do it without help.

In keeping with the Paul Coady line of argument, we had Laois’s Cheddar Plunkett, who appeared on the GAA hour Podcast talking with Colm Parkinson this week, making a very similar point. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMpOcHZ1Btg&t=38s

Now Plunkett was the county’s manager from 2012-2016 and at one stage brought the county to within 2 points, yes 2 points, of defeating Galway in the 2014 Leinster championship. Unfortunately, the resignation of Cheddar led to Laois returning to the doldrums somewhat, though they have been revived by Eddie Brennan this year. At this stage, they probably look like favourites to take the Joe McDonagh Cup in a few weeks time. But what lies in wait for them after that? A return to the All-Ireland championship next year, a few respectable defeats, (if they’re lucky) and then a return to the Joe McDonagh cup for 2021. As Paul Coady may say, is that what’s best for Laois hurling?

As Cheddar Plunkett put it on the SportsJoe podcast, the GAA have a choice to make. They can either make a concerted effort to get the second tier counties to a higher level, or look at a 9 team championship for the next god knows how many years. Look at how Dublin football and hurling have progressed over the last 15 years. Consider that in the mid 00’s, Dublin were being beaten by Westmeath in both the Leinster hurling (2006) and football championship (2004). Now ask yourself, what would happen if both those games took place now? Is it just a fluke that Dublin are now significantly better in both codes? Is it merely a case of a golden generation of players? No, it’s a result of serious and continued investment in the games.

If the GAA put the same resources into the other counties, I’ve no doubt we would see similar improvements. Think about a county like Antrim, with the second biggest population in the country, yet due to the Casement Park fiasco, they don’t even have a stadium to call their own. 30 years ago they were competing in an All-Ireland final. 28 years ago they were agonizingly beaten, by 2 points, in an All-Ireland semi-final, by Kilkenny. Yet where are they now? In the mid regions of the Joe McDonagh, victims of their own unfortunate geography, and the GAA’s criminal negligence. The untapped potential in Antrim GAA has to be one of the most damning indictments of modern times.

So, considering the GAA made a strategic effort to put Dublin GAA back on the map, it’s clear they could put similar efforts into other counties. But will they? Or is it a case, as it often is in the GAA, that the strong get stronger, and the weak sit around on the sidelines looking for scraps? For the love of the organization, for Laois, Westmeath, Carlow, Antrim and whoever else, lets hope not.