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Ulster hurling needs a leg-up from its loyal fan base

By Declan Bogue

Some weeks ago, a Donegal journalist tweeted from a match: "Donegal Under-17 management team refused to give me their starting XV. Worried about other counties getting too much info, apparently."

Management teams of Gaelic football sides are currently in a grip of paranoia. For the matchday programme of Monday night's Ulster Under-21 final, there were four changes to Donegal's first XV. Three substitutes not noted in print were added to the panel and two of them started, including Jason McGee - a young man that could well develop into their version of Brian Fenton.

You wouldn't get that in hurling.

Matter of fact, you could call up an Ulster hurling man on Christmas Day for a story and he would regale you with tales.

For me, it has always been an absolute pleasure to cover the hurling programme in this half-light between the end of the league and the start of the Championship.

The off-piste locations of the grounds, the nice spring weather and the sport itself are a great combination, but there is a warmer feel to a hurling match. Hurlers are not a higher caste or anything, but they certainly appear more willing to share their time, wit and humour.

And so, we went to Inniskeen Road last Saturday. Armagh produced a stirring comeback to defeat Down in the Ulster Championship semi-final. Anyone from the Orchard County couldn't have failed to have been stirred. Only, there was hardly anyone there.

Across the two Ulster semi-finals, fewer than 200 people attended.

It wasn't always this bad. A rare clip from @HurlingHotspot appeared on Twitter recently displaying a deft 'double' in the air by Derry cult hero Geoffrey McGonigle from an Oliver Collins sideline cut that sailed past Shane Elliott in the Antrim goals in the 1998 final.

There were thickets of people all along the old grass bank in Casement that day, like a picnic scene of Victorian England. The main stand was packed with fans and flags.

Not even five years later, the grass bank was gone and I sat alone on the concrete watching the same two teams in another Ulster hurling final. Where had the crowds gone?

It leaves us to question why hurling has never truly taken root in Ulster, outside of a few strongholds.

One socio-economic theory held that in the ancient beginnings of the game during the 1600s, wealthy Anglo-Irish land-owners sponsored teams of hurlers that would compete against their peers in matches played in the flat lands of Munster and south Connacht.

Hurling in Ulster has another narrative. The accepted version is that the form of hurling that took root in the Glens of Antrim floated across with the flow of human traffic to the highlands of Scotland for paid work at harvest time. There, they became acquainted with the sport of Shinty.

They had a culture all of their own. It remains today.

Ulster hurling has always been a place apart, but the present fear for anyone this weekend is that this Sunday's Liam Harvey Cup final between Antrim and Armagh hosted in Owenbeg will be played in front of practically empty stands - just as it was last year.

It wasn't through lack of promotion. The Ulster Council staged a launch for the final and newspapers dutifully carried features on the main protagonists. Still, the crowds stayed away.

At lower level, the game is on life support. Cavan make a welcome return to inter-county action next weekend when they host Warwickshire. They took a sabbatical for a few years and put their resources into youth development. Let's be fair and give it time before making any judgment.

In Fermanagh, they are down to one senior club. A town like Enniskillen with a population of 14,000 has no hurling team. Neither has Omagh, with 20,000 inhabitants.

Would investment change anything? We might never get to know.

Former GAA President Liam O'Neill once vowed to "put a hurl in the hand of every child".

In Dublin, finance has made that possibility a reality.

A lack of finance has brought Ulster hurling to the inevitable. The obvious question to ask is, why are children living in one part of the island seemingly more valued than others?

Belfast Telegraph

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