Belfast Telegraph

Declan Bogue: Why Ulster deserves big time hurling

Great occasion: TJ Reid of Ballyhale Shamrocks
with fans after the game with Slaughtneil
Great occasion: TJ Reid of Ballyhale Shamrocks with fans after the game with Slaughtneil
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

An hour after Sunday's epic All-Ireland Club hurling semi-final victory over Slaughtneil in Newry, Ballyhale manager Henry Shefflin was still posing for selfies and signing hurls and Kilkenny jerseys proferred from all angles outside the dressing rooms.

When you are one of the greatest players of all time, perhaps the greatest, then this kind of popularity doesn't elude you above the unofficial hurling Mason Dixon Line between Dublin and Galway.

At one point, the crowd parted to let a young lad, Dominic McFlynn, in to Shefflin. The Ballyhale boss immediately engaged him in hurling chat and asked if young Dominic was fond of the football side of things as well.

"Not really, more the hurling," he replied, to which Shefflin smiled and exclaimed: "No wonder youse were so good!"

Dominic lost his brother Michael Óg in an accident on New Year's Day. It's been a devastating time for the family and one thing that he wanted was to meet Shefflin, who couldn't have been more genuine and warm in his interactions.

As he stood talking, the Slaughtneil chairman, the ever-genial Sean McGuigan, looked over to his fellow clubman, the Derry Post sports reporter Michael McMullan, and they shared a look.

"Puts it all into perspective," McGuigan half-whispered to McMullan, who assented with a nod. For Dominic, this was meeting a superstar.

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Because the GAA is rooted in communities, interactions like this are commonplace. Dreams come true all the time.

On the same day, Middlesbrough met Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup. A number of fans from both teams tweeted their disgust that, after having waited hours to greet the Spurs players, only Erik Lamela came over to say hello or pose for a picture. The rest walked on, some pretending to be on their phones.

We don't know if something like this is a club diktat or something else entirely. Either way, it makes what happened in Newry - a club chairman acting with compassion and Shefflin instantly getting the gravity of the gesture - something quite special and certainly unique.

As too was the game itself. It may be a controversial thing to say given that Loughgiel Shamrocks have previously won an All-Ireland Club title, but there is a case to be made that this was the single best performance from an Ulster team in the All-Ireland series this century, given the quality they were up against.

If Ballyhale Shamrocks were a car, then the way they scraped past Slaughtneil in Sunday's semi-final would have left them without both wing mirrors, a front wing and a back bumper. And maybe they'd have the windscreen put in for good measure.

The skill levels shown on Sunday from Colin Fennelly, Evan Shefflin, Gerard Bradley and Chrissy McKaigue were off the charts. The scoring ability of Brendan Rogers was simply sensational. The dead ball striking of not just TJ Reid but Cormac O'Doherty was as good as anything on the island.

Slaughtneil manager Michael McShane summed it up perfectly when he said: "We came here to win and we haven't, but we can walk away with our heads held high. We've proved Slaughtneil from Co Derry belong at hurling's top table."

With the Ulster County Provincial Championship discontinued, this was as good as it gets for the small ball code in Ulster - and it turned out that it was pretty damn good. It wasn't long before the reflections began.

The RTÉ Radio commentator Pauric Lodge tweeted: "The GAA should consider playing this year's Allianz Hurling League final at an Ulster venue. Met loads of families in Newry today - parents with hurling-mad children saying they rarely get a chance to bring them to a top-level hurling game in the province."

Credit to RTÉ, they kept that theme going, and on Monday's Game On show on 2FM, eight-time All-Ireland-winning former Kilkenny hurler Eoin Larkin expanded on it.

"Ulster is kind of the forgotten province in many ways with hurling," he said.

"There is huge work being done up north to sustain hurling and get more clubs involved. I think the GAA (should) really buy into it, help out these clubs, help out Ulster a bit more, maybe have a few home games for the Ulster teams up there.

"Bring the likes of Kilkenny up, Tipperary, Galway. It's going to die a slow death up there if they don't get more coverage.

"You have to take your hat off to the people working with kids, clubs and inter-county teams up there. They are putting so much into it and getting nothing in return really."

And that's about the size of it really. It's a truism that Gaelic games are organisations that begin from the ground up, but Ulster hurling needs a helping hand. It's been needing it for decades.

There are initiatives and certain measures put in place, but for sheer promotional clout, to really turn people on to the sport, a few mouth-watering games in the likes of the Athletic Grounds, Healy Park, Clones, Brewster Park and so on could achieve that.

What is there to lose?

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