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Ulster Hurling Is Not As Dead As You May Think

Ulster Hurling Is Not As Dead As You May Think

With the All-Ireland hurling championship undertaking radical change ahead of 2018, the most northerly contingent of the inter-county scene will continue to toil in the wilderness.

There is no place for Ulster at hurling's top table - realistically, if any county therein was offered a seat they'd as likely fall off it.

In well over 100 years of All-Ireland hurling finals, only one team from Ulster has competed; Antrim losing by a combined 45 points to Cork (1943) and Tipperary (1989) on those rare occasions.

While a place in Leinster's provincial group will be made available for Antrim should they see off the competition in the second-tier of the All-Ireland, what good it would do them to face Kilkenny, Galway, Wexford and Dublin or Offaly is unclear.

With many prospective hurlers born in Ulster automatically excluded from ever competing in the Liam MacCarthy cup (let alone competing to win), does any hunger remain for hurling in a football-dominated region?

Well, Sunday's Ulster hurling club semi-final tie between Slaughtneil and Dunloy would suggest so.

Speaking on the We Are Ulster podcast, Declan Bogue described how a match with an expected attendance of 2,500 people ended up hosting well over double that amount.

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In Owenbeg, an estimated 6,000 people set an attendance record for a venue that has previously hosted All-Ireland senior qualifiers for Derry's footballers.

In what Bogue described as 'a great occasion for Ulster hurling', it is an exceptional event that ultimately proves Bogue's unflattering assessment of how hurling in Ulster is being handled however:

My contention is that there is an enormous appeal for hurling in Ulster and it's being spectacularly mismanaged, on a number of different levels.

Notions of inherent hurling ability being absent in Ulster runs a little too close along the ludicrous lines of Gordon Strachan blaming bad genes for Scotland's footballing woes - Bogue's allegations carry greater weight.

Furthermore, a look at the All-Ireland club hurling championship would seem to suggest Ulster has something tangible to offer to hurling - issues with 'mismanagement' aside.

Since its inception in 1971, clubs from Galway, Kilkenny and Cork have largely dominated proceedings; sharing 33 of the 47 championships between them.

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However, beyond this dominance, it is intriguing to note that ahead of Tipperary, Clare, Wexford, Limerick and Dublin, Antrim clubs have appeared in more finals across this near half-century.

Between Loughgiel Shamrocks, Dunloy, McQuillan's, O'Donovan Rossa and Cushendall, clubs from Antrim have appeared in 9 finals - albeit only winning 2 of them. Only Galway, Kilkenny and Cork have produced a greater number of clubs to appear at this deciding stage.

An indication of what club hurling in Ulster - or Antrim to begin with - has to offer, can this initial interest and legitimate shot at tangible success be harnessed and spread beyond 'small-ball' locales.

Declan Bogue is not overly confident. With hurling all but non-existent in a footballing hotbed such as Cavan, Bogue's argument that 'mismanagement' is ultimately the cause does not necessarily propose any solution.

Although 6,000 can turn out for a provincial semi-final, previous experience evidently leaves Bogue a little cold all the same:

I do know in one [Fermanagh] club efforts were made to just practically strangle the hurling wing of the club ... and the same story could be replicated across two or three others.

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Describing many of Ulster's further flung hurling enthusiasts as being 'left to wither on the vine' instead of being developed and encouraged, the disparity between standards within Ulster itself appears vast.

What can realistically be hoped for then?

In this year's U-21 hurling championship, many of those watching Kilkenny's semi-final victory over Derry were left a little distraught at the scene which developed.

Running up an 8-35 to 0-07 scoreline, the 52 point winning margin was made all the more disheartening when the same Kilkenny side were comprehensively outplayed by Limerick in the final.

If club hurling demonstrates what Ulster can do, and the county scene ultimately delivers embarrassing defeats and short summers, how do you solve a problem like Ulster hurling?

One suggestion that is occasionally mooted is the idea of a Team Ulster. Although a county with Antrim's relative prestige would undoubtedly shy away from such a devolution, a combination of Ulster's disparate hurling talent could, perhaps, offer a tangible solution to their inter-county woes.

Yet, the idea of such an overhaul taking place anytime soon seems remote, and, the best thing Ulster hurling can possibly do is extend and evolve their relatively burgeoning club scene.

It may not be the Liam MacCarthy, but an All-Ireland final on St. Patrick's Day is an All-Ireland final all the same.

See Also: Sean Boylan's Experience Suggests Pat Gilroy Can Succeed With Dublin Hurlers

 

Arthur James O'Dea

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