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Ulster hurling can be fan-tastic

By Declan Bogue

The fine Derry GAA complex lying at the foot of the imposing Benbradagh Mountain squared off against the main stand.

Your humble reporter was first into the press box, that one that someone in the Derry county board had the exquisite taste to decorate with a picture of the late Eamonn Coleman, with bold font proclaiming his famous line to reporters after his side had upset the odds: "Youse boys know nothing about football!"

In comes Liam Peoples, Derry's Ulster Council delegate, and a discussion begins on how many might show up.

My estimation is around the 3,000 mark. He said they felt 2,400 to 2,600 may be more realistic, taking 800 from each club and 600-800 floating voters.

At the start of the second half, people were still coming through the gates, held up by the painful traffic through Dungiven town.

The enormous crowd was caused by a perfect storm. It was the standout fixture of the day, the weather was fine and there was no television coverage.

Derry ladies were in action in Clones, but Slaughtneil don't bother with ladies' football.

It was a game deserving of a wider audience, though that is not without its dangers.

An Ulster hurling tie was never going to get the Sunday bells and whistles treatment that TG4 can offer, especially on the weekend of the Tipperary county hurling final.

Recently, we have witnessed a number of counties rolling out ambitious projects to cover club action, such as the excellent Armagh TV that now provide a glimpse into their club action and recently the Omagh v Greencastle tie in the Tyrone Football Championship staged at the Athletic Grounds.

Perhaps the Ulster Council might look themselves at granting somebody somewhere the opportunity to screen these games. The health warning with this comes just as eir Sport are rolling out their coverage of the Donegal Championship.

The attendance at last week's clash between Gaoth Dobhair and Glenties got a mention in Brian McEniff's Donegal Democrat column: "There is no getting away from it, the attendance was small given the teams involved, Naomh Conaill and Gaoth Dobhair, two big traditional GAA areas.

"The general feeling is that TV is a factor with both semi-finals shown live on eir Sport."

Back to Owenbeg though, and just think, over 6,000 at a club game.

In Cavan on the same day, Castlerahan were taking on Cavan Gaels in the county final. While the scoreboard announced a crowd of 4,000, attendees in the press box believe the figure could have been a fair bit short of that.

At the Down county final the week before between Burren and Kilcoo the figure was also 4,000.

Allow me briefly to declare an interest. Around 10 months ago, a group of people gathered in the Clogher Valley area with the aim of establishing a hurling and camogie club.

Hemmed in by football strongholds like Errigal Ciaran and Augher, the reaction was cautious from many. It would be a thankless task trying to root hurling in such an area, like pushing the football agenda in Kilkenny.

Yet, with two teams fielding at underage, a number of successful fundraisers and a summer scheme under our belt, not to mention an order to kit out 50 children in replica jerseys for their Christmas box in the works, we might say different. Some of the keenest young hurlers come from serious football families. The goodwill is there.

There are those that would say we are wasting our time. People said the same about the late Thomas Cassidy, a one-man force of nature who pushed hurling in Slaughtneil and passed away just before they became the first Derry club to win an Ulster title last October.

"I owe a lot to Thomas Cassidy," said an emotional Slaughtneil captain Chrissy McKaigue after that win over Loughgiel.

"He made me captain of the U12 team when we won the Championship in 2000 - that was the first time the club ever won an U12 Championship. People tend to forget those things, but it just kind of snowballed from there.

"He was the main driver. He was the man that was coaching, he was the man who was driving us around, he was the man who was fighting the lone battle when hurling wasn't that fashionable - and it wasn't fashionable."

One thing that would hasten the development and spread of hurling in Ulster is a successful county team. We don't have that.

So what about re-visiting the idea of a 'Team Ulster' competing at the highest level?

The theory was first offered up by journalist Kieran Shannon in the Sunday Tribune in 2009. It wasn't without its merits, but it found strong opposition from what is the establishment hurling counties.

But other prominent hurlers such as the Hinphey brothers in Dungiven said around that time that they would welcome the opportunity to pool playing resources and see just how they might cope in the company of Tipperary, Kilkenny and Galway.

Where it should have gone to from there was a think-tank set up by the Ulster Council but, for whatever reason, it never happened.

In some Ulster counties, hurling is on life support in grave danger of flatlining. But the appeal is there.

What it needs now is creative thinking and men to tap into the spirit of Thomas Cassidy.

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