Paul Coady is concerned. In many ways, he has no right to be. The Carlow hurler has just enjoyed the greatest year of his career. A Division 2A and Joe McDonagh Cup medal sit on his mantlepiece. 2019 will bring unchartered waters and inclusion in the Leinster Championship. Yet despite the general delectation and imminent promise, he remains gravely disturbed.
You can hear it in his voice. Feel it in the unrelenting sighs. As the conversation wears on, he becomes increasingly blunt in his assessment of the plight currently facing his county: “Something needs to happen or hurling in Carlow is going to die.”
There are several worries that currently occupy his mind: the gap in standard between the upper echelon and the chasing pack that was shown up in the recent preliminary quarter-finals, the lack of promotion or regard afforded to the second-tier hurling championship, the inaction at the prospect of hurling’s demise in numerous weaker counties. All momentous problems hindering the sport's development.
Carlow’s most recent match was a preliminary quarter-final against Limerick. That game came just six days after a Joe McDonagh Cup final success and it told as John Kiely’s side doled out a 27-point hammering.
The Limerick match was a big disappointment… all I’ve been feeling for the last two weeks after that has been more so disappointed than looking back on a great year. To tell you the truth, I’ve been so down with that. People would tell you I’d be so grumpy that I don’t see the good in things half the time but eventually I’ll look back and see it was a great year.
We felt good going into it. I know we had a six-day turnaround after winning the Joe McDonagh but when we played Limerick there was a massive difference there in every way. Physically, the speed of the hurling… the thing that is after hitting me is that we are after improving so much in the last 24 months compared to where I’ve been with the county. Then we play Limerick and I am scratching my head thinking how far do we have to go? How many steps are on this ladder? We are maybe halfway there if we are climbing a ladder in my eyes.
Coady is familiar with quality opposition. This is his seventh year as an inter-county hurler having made his debut at 18 while last year saw his club, Mount Leinster Rangers, make it to a Leinster semi-final. However, the collective imbalance was still a shock to the system. To him, the power of Limerick’s performance resembled another awesome sporting unit.
"I remember about ten years ago, New Zealand coming out in the Rugby World Cup and saying ‘respecting someone is giving your 100% and if it is beating them by as much as possible, it is beating them and never letting up.' That was Limerick that night. They showed where we need to go."
This debut season of the new second-tier hurling championship has been an unmitigated success. The Joe McDonagh Cup produced competitive and entertaining games as six teams vied for a place in next year's Liam McCarthy Cup. It is competitions like this that carry the greatest hope for hurling, that provide the sole genuine possibility of one day hosting an All-Ireland Championship that truly involves all of Ireland.
Unfortunately, the entertainment and promise was inaccessible to the majority of the nation’s sporting fans. Coverage was almost non-existent. Not a single game was broadcast live. National publications often overlooked the tournament, one national newspaper printed the wrong results. Coady knows none of this is supposed to matter, that an inter-county hurler isn’t supposed to be occupied by the lack of coverage, but he is not one for stock answers.
The only thing I would say of the Joe McDonagh Cup, I’m sure you can see it from the outside, the promotion and the coverage was shite. It would have been nice if it got a little more… there were really good hurling games. Maybe regarding who could make a statement that people in the GAA might believe, Liam Sheedy was with Antrim. Brendan Cummins was with Kerry. They are well regarded in the GAA. they have spoken up a small bit about the Joe McDonagh the quality of games and the lack of coverage. The more noise the better.
The lack of publicity inflicts lasting damage to the game's development and this is Paul Coady's primary concern.
Does it matter? There are two answers. One where the only thing that matters is hurling, and it does. That is not the honest answer. It is great to be hurling for your county and we don’t do it for the coverage. My real issue is… at the moment there are four senior hurling clubs in Carlow. there was six last year. There was eight a few years ago. Going forward, something has to change dramatically in Carlow or this good year will all be wiped out in five years’ time. Right now there are young people in Carlow, imagine if they clicked on the Sunday Game on a Sunday evening and they were talking about Carlow hurling and highlighting what they were doing?
It doesn’t have to be much. It would do so much for hurling in Carlow. Kerry, Westmeath, Antrim, Laois, they need the promotion of hurling. The promotion of hurling isn’t needed in Kilkenny, Tipperary, that is there. It is us fighting a losing battle a lot of the time and it is really frustrating. That promotion would do untold for hurling in the county. So yeah, it is a really good time for hurling in Carlow at the moment, but I am apprehensive for the future.
This year's format was a once off, as next season the Joe McDonagh cup will be reduced from six to five teams. It means the Christy Ring Cup winners, Kildare, will not gain promotion. Once again, Coady feels this is a move inhibiting the growth of the game: "I can't understand why they would go back to five teams. Kildare need to break into the next tier. How happy would they be if they were going back training for the Joe McDonagh? What is the logic of five teams? It didn’t work in the Liam McCarthy and six worked perfectly. Where is the common sense from the GAA? There is enough things flying around at the GAA at the moment but…"
No one is in need of convincing at the joy hurling is capable of providing. The fact is that this adulation could be tenfold if the tournament was more competitive. The prospect of a widening gap is all too real and with it comes the slow, gradual decline of the sport across the nation. Carlow town recently lost their senior hurling team and Coady fears the malaise is spreading. Only collective action can halt extinction.
"This is something I do lie in bed and think about. What can we do like? As senior hurlers, we all have a responsibility to get around to see those areas and we went up to Carlow town for the Setanta hurling camp with the young kids. It was amazing, there was 60 or 70 kids and seven or eight senior hurlers there. It was a really positive night. That is something young lads would never forget."
As players, we need to get around to as much of the county as we can. The county board needs to do it as much as they can by appointing development officers, get national schools involved. It's just all of that would be in vain if there isn’t help from the outside.
I think in 2016 Dublin had €1.4 million in development officers and Carlow had €178’000. I'd rather see those numbers reversed. If it was the opposite way, it is us that needs them. It is Carlow, it the counties outside those succeeding at the moment that needs the development. Or else the gap will just widen. We need to put a 12-month plan in place, a 24-month plan, a five-year plan, a 10-year plan.
Great to see the @Carlow_GAA colours eveeywhere you go in the County. First time in my lifetime ever seeing anything like it in Carlow, shows pride & a real buzz. Long may it continue 🇨🇬🇨🇬🇨🇬!
— Paul Coady (@Paul_Coady10) June 23, 2018
What was planned to be a brief reflection on a phenomenal year quickly became a comprehensive deliberation and as the interview draws to a close Coady offers a half-apology for the downbeat nature. At the same time, he stresses, this is far more important. There are of course noteworthy positives. This current team is on the cusp of a whole new opportunity.
We will go back training in October, November. We are all looking forward to that already, for the first time ever. We are not in 2A again, no disrespect to those teams but it is new opposition. We'll be welcoming Galway, Waterford and taking on Dublin. Then roll on the Liam McCarthy in June or so. There might be a lesson or two learned along the way but it is better to get the lessons than not get them. We are all hugely looking forward to 2019.
Beyond that, the future is far more uncertain. But Coady knows it doesn't have to be: "I just hope someone listens."