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Hurling in Ulster needs a big helping hand, says McManus

 

Warning shot: Antrim’s long-serving forward Neil McManus
Warning shot: Antrim’s long-serving forward Neil McManus
Mattie Lennon
John Campbell

By John Campbell

In a week in which Down and Armagh are putting the final touches to preparations for their respective Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard Cup deciders in Croke Park on Saturday, it seems almost like heresy to suggest that hurling in Ulster is in decline.

But when someone of the stature of Neil McManus, last year's Ulster GAA Writers' Association Player of the Year and a veteran of several campaigns with his club Cushendall and county Antrim, stresses that remedial action is required quickly or the sport will suffer irrevocable damage, then his views merit serious consideration.

Whatever about the progress of Down and Armagh - and it is to be commended - there has been a long-held theory within the province that a successful Antrim side is generally taken as an indicator that all is well in Ulster.

That, though, is not the case just now. Thirty years ago, the Saffrons reached the All-Ireland final only to bow the knee to a majestic Tipperary side in which the imperious Nicky English was at the peak of his powers.

Today, however, the county has been consigned to a sporting wilderness having succumbed to Westmeath in a last-gasp bid to remain in contention for the Joe McDonagh Cup, the second tier of the All-Ireland Championship series.

It's this dismissal to the sport's backwaters that is of immense concern to the passionate McManus, a player who has worn his heart on his sleeve since he first took up a hurl.

"Maybe hurling will not die altogether in the Glens but at the moment the Antrim county team is struggling. For the first time ever, it is totally reliant on the Glens for their players," pointed out McManus.

And then comes the ultimate sporting weather warning: "Other sports are spreading. There are some young lads from Cushendall going to Ballymena to play rugby and soccer. That was not happening when I was growing up."

In an era in which players are drifting away from senior county football and hurling teams, the stark warning from McManus seems certain to strike a chord with officialdom.

"I still regard it as a great honour to represent Antrim but the fact is that we need to be playing at a higher level. It's alright having club and county medals at provincial level but the actual sport itself requires a big helping hand if it is to regain its impetus," insisted McManus.

There is no doubt that McManus' views are shared by people like Down manager Ronan Sheehan, who can't wait to see his side take the field at Croke Park on Saturday, and indeed by his Armagh counterpart Padraig O'Connor, who is similarly enthused by his team's all too rare appearance at Headquarters.

Both are pragmatic, thoroughly grounded hurling enthusiasts who share the view held by McManus that stern action is required if the sport is to survive never mind thrive in Ulster.

Only recently, Tyrone manager Mattie Lennon suggested that competitions could be overhauled and expressed his desire to see more streamlined coaching put into place.

Lennon, a native of Armagh, believes that there is hurling talent in Ulster but it does not always get the chance to come to the fore.

"There is no doubt that the restructuring of the All-Ireland series has given teams the chance to be in the mix for honours but there is big commitment expected from the players at all levels. I think that the county hurlers put in every bit as much work as their football brethren but maybe they don't get the same share of the spotlight," said Lennon.

The Ulster Council has been making strenuous efforts to promote and market hurling and has been encouraging the various counties in this respect.

Subsidiary competitions provide a shop window for emerging talent but in what is already a congested annual fixtures itinerary some of these can be downplayed.

The scrapping of the Ulster Championship, a competition in which Antrim were perennial winners, was seen as a practical move but the hope that teams from the province might gain added status via the different strands of the restructured All-Ireland Championship has not as yet come to fruition despite the efforts of the dedicated band of coaches and managers who have the sport's best interests at heart.

While there is much good work being done by many at grassroots level, it's the success or otherwise of a team like Antrim that tends to paint a picture at national level of what hurling life is like in Ulster at any given time.

And the view of McManus is that it is not a pretty picture right now.

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