Belfast Telegraph

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Reaching Croke Park is no longer just for elite teams

By Declan Bogue

On the Croke Park pitch last Saturday, Fermanagh hurling manager Seamus McCusker stared up at his captain, John Paul McGarry, on the steps of the Hogan Stand, making his acceptance speech after winning the Lory Meagher Cup.

Just 45 minutes earlier, the two had a massive row in the dressing room when McCusker made a forceful point that McGarry stood 6ft 6in tall in his sock soles and it was about time he started catching some ball.

Drinks bottles and other items bounced off the walls, but now McCusker had his captain up there.

Then he thought of the tragic Shane Mulholland, killed in a car accident in April.

How he deserved to be there too and, try as he might, he couldn't stop the tears before Andrew Breslin came over, tapped his face tenderly and told him to tighten up.

A week earlier, Derry's win over Down prompted some reverie from their player Conor McSorley. It meant that they would contest the Christy Ring showpiece against Kerry in Croke Park and McSorley took to Faceback to pen a piece of prose.

Hopped up on emotion, the Ballinascreen clubman wrote: "Like any young cub, I had visions and dreams of gracing Croke Park, we went on holidays to Sligo, and even in our small games on the beach, I wanted to prove to all who watched that 'Them Derry boys can Hurl'.

"Being fearless is what will bring me to Croke Park next weekend, in an All-Ireland final. Today I played with two fellas that played on that beach in Rosses Point every night, of every summer during my teenage years.

"So to any young lads out there starting out in the game, work hard and have no fear, your dreams are not out of reach, mine is still alive, and I will be going out to play without fear next weekend."

This year's thing that everyone must have an opinion on is how the All-Ireland football competition must be restructured.

If the debate has been smouldering for several seasons, the 27-point hammering of Longford by Dublin has poured petrol on it.

It seems that you cannot be a 'thinker' on these matters unless you have an idea. Some are worthy. Some are madness and others are merely other people's ideas dressed up differently.

Jim McGuinness' suggestion is probably the best and fairest one so far though, and perhaps his club, Glenties, might pick it up in an attempt to get it discussed at Congress.

The danger with most of these arguments lies in perception, most significantly in players' perceptions.

If a player feels he is playing in a secondary competition, there is a temptation towards not feeling valued in some way.

Why put in all that effort just to play in a tournament that ultimately makes you the subject of gentle patronising?

Here's the thing, though.

Last Saturday, nobody from Armagh, Fermanagh or Derry felt like second-class citizens.

They were in Croke Park, participating in an All-Ireland final for their county. This is what they had dreamed of as a child and as an adult.

In seeking to find a solution to football's problems, it's as if hurling's success has been completely disregarded.

Consider that there were 30 men on the Fermanagh panel and across their five Lory Meagher games, every one of them saw action.

Some of these Fermanagh players have now played in Croke Park four times; a National League game against Fingal and three Lory Meagher finals.

It is as natural for a hurler like John Duffy to play at Croke Park as it is for, say, Richie Hogan. Isn't that a marvellous thing?

Former GAA President Sean Kelly divided opinion on many matters.

But one of his greatest accomplishments was to tarmac a road to Croke Park for all players, regardless of their standing, with the creation of the All-Ireland club competitions at Intermediate and Junior level, as well as the pre-existing senior level.

The hurling structures have democratised Headquarters. No longer is the hallowed turf for the gilded few.

Previous generations of hurlers from that county would never have dreamt of hurling on such hallowed turf. Now, this group are intimately familiar with how the pitch plays, its contours and dimensions.

What greater tool can there be for the promotion of football and hurling in what is termed the weaker counties, than the prospect of a realistic target of winning a trophy in front of your own fans in Croke Park?

Belfast Telegraph

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