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Antrim point the way: McCarthy's Croke concerns can't be ignored any more

By Declan Bogue

It's the time of year for GAA books. Any day now, they will bomb through the letterbox with a cover note for review.

Anthony Daly's autobiography is reputed to be excellent, ghosted in the talented hands of Christy O'Connor. Pat Nolan has produced a wide-ranging and definitive history of the illustrious Furlong family in Tullamore, Co Offaly.

Paul Galvin has gone down the entirely novel route of penning his own autobiography and for a man who has said plenty about the state of Irish sports journalism, it is a brave move. His employment in recent years centring around the somewhat disposable world of social media, this will be a test of his powers.

Last week, I managed to track down a book released over a decade ago. 'Hooked - A Hurling Life' was an account of Justin McCarthy's life as a Cork hurler and coach. To put beef on the synopsis, he had a gruesome leg injury a few years after winning the Hurler of the Year, and while in recuperation, coached Antrim to an Intermediate hurling All-Ireland title.

Yep, Antrim - 300 miles away. He could understand their accents and they struggled with his. Yet he brought them to what is the equivalent of today's Christy Ring, before going back and hurling for Cork.

There is so much more to the story but we reached straight for the northern angle.

It was July 1970 when he went to lend his services ahead of an All-Ireland Intermediate quarter-final against Galway. While Belfast burned, something organic was growing in the sporting world.

We spot the familiar themes. The passionate hurling men in Niall Patterson and Frank Smith. The tensions between the country men of the Glens and the city lads. The striking of the northern players is too slow - something of a perennial observation by southern coaches in these sessions, and we chuckle at the lines: "The lads from the Glens were particularly hard to understand.

"They sounded Scottish, as if they were eating their words.

"I'd instinctively go, 'Hey, pull on that ball there boy, will ya?' They'd look at me and go, 'Sorry, what about ye, Justin?'

'Em, just keep the ball moving'."

They beat Galway, Dublin and Warwickshire to land Antrim's first All-Ireland title.

There is a delightful reference to the famous Liam Hinphey later in the book when he is idling by the wire at a Cork training session after McCarthy had returned from his injury. A native of Kilkenny and father of current Derry players Liam Óg and Kevin, Hinphey told McCarthy that he had been at the Kilkenny session a few nights before and thought it a bit flat.

Imagine that happening now? There is no beast that has been quite as insecure as that of the northern hurler.

There are only so many times you can be told that there is no difference between a hurler in Ballyhale and a hurler from outside Ballymena before it becomes radio noise.

It seems to me that this is changing. Perhaps the best place to get a sense of that was in Loughgiel last Sunday, covering the Ruairí Óg Cushendall win over Slaughtneil. In those clubrooms, there is no sense of an inferiority complex. They have their two All-Irelands and enough pictures on the wall of the Tommy Moore Cup never to have to bow and scrape.

It didn't save them from defeat to a crowd from 15 miles away. Still, there is work to do.

In his final assessment, McCarthy had this to say back in 2002: "The reality is that they do need outside assistance... Croke Park is doing little for them… Antrim need serious competition at underage, not adult level; even by minor level it is too late."

The sad thing is, in Antrim they realised this a long time ago, hence the strides that Sambo McNaughton and Woody McKinley made as underage managers a decade ago

What a pity it would be if we were saying the exact same things a decade on from now, over 20 years since McCarthy voiced his concerns.

Belfast Telegraph

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