U17 Celtic Challenge can help Ulster hurlers progress at national level says Graham Clarke
LONG-serving Down goalkeeper Graham Clarke says the U17 Celtic Challenge hurling competition could help to prevent northern counties from dropping down the national pecking order.
The Celtic Challenge series began on Sunday and Clarke, who spent more than 20 seasons between the posts for the Ardsmen and ended his career with two Ulster SHC medals, two provincial club titles and 12 county senior titles, says Down's young hurlers will "definitely get something" out of it.
He first played for his club Ballygalget as a 16-year-old substitute in 1990 and continued lining out at senior level with them for the next 26 years. But the former Down netminder is worried that his own county - and the other Ulster sides - are not matching the progress of southern counterparts like Kerry and Laois who have undertaken massive development work over the past decade.
“We have dropped back to a standard, stayed there and the danger is that we will go no further above that,” Clarke says.
“If you are being straight about it, Antrim and Armagh are effectively in Division 3, Down and Derry are in Division 4, while Monaghan, Tyrone and Donegal are a tier below that again.
“Just take Antrim, Derry and Down and compare them to where we were 20 years ago. We are all a way off the pace.”
For counties like Clarke's, however, the introduction of the U17 Celtic Challenge last year has sewn some seeds of promise. The Celtic Challenge is the only competition in hurling that has teams from all 32 counties participating and the 2017 series, which begins in Ulster next week, features 155 games for 1,400 players across 47 teams. It will run off over the next seven weeks.
Clarke has welcomed the developmental thread of the competition and its programme of meaningful games.
But he has more ideas how the competition can evolve to further help struggling counties like Down.
“The Celtic Challenge is a good idea as it offers hurlers in Ulster a series of five games in a given period and young players in counties like Down will definitely get something out of that. But the trick then is to consider going a step further next year.
“I would ask the GAA to explore the idea of appointing an ambassador to every Ulster team for these group games with that person delivering a report and findings at the end of it, so that the coachers and players up here could soak up even more knowledge.
“They could then continue to refine and practise the methods shown to them by the ambassador, who would obviously be a well-known hurler.
“I know it would be a stretch for someone like, say, Brendan Cummins, to come up here for five weeks in a row and impart his knowledge in a series like this. But, if worked sensibly, can you imagine what it would do for developing Ulster teams?
“For too long, teams from here have gone down south, competed well at times and even won titles. We get a clap on the pack from the opposing managers who say: “Jeez, ye have some fine hurlers there.'
“Then we all come back up north again and we just don't have the same level of competition or levels of intensity for almost a year again. That immediately needs to change. The Celtic Challenge is one good step but an awful lot more needs to happen. Appointing a figurehead coach for designated teams could be the next step.
“We had Paul Flynn from Waterford coaching the Down team a couple of years ago,” Clarke continued.
“I was goalkeeping coach at the time and you could see the impact he made and the knowledge he imparted.
“If young Down hurlers of the future could come out of a tournament like this with experience and knowing that heroes and idols of theirs were invested it would be a good start.”
Clarke, who featured in the seminal book in hurling custodians 'Last Man Standing' written by goalkeeper and author Christy O'Connor, rues that while Antrim, Down and Derry were all playing in Christy Ring finals a decade ago, that is no longer the case.
Yet, he feels that if young players can come through underage programmes at a good standard - and equipped with the best practices - they will get their chance at senior level before long.
“Players in the 16-17 bracket, it won't be long before they are borderline senior hurling options,” he stresses.
“So if they can have meaningful games, proper coaching, a figurehead to look over them who will report back to the county board with recommendations and an action plan, then they can be helped. And Ulster hurling can be helped too. I would welcome anything that could achieve that.
“I just feel there are so many proud people in the province, all trying to drive it on. But we won't get to where we want to by doing the same old things we did. We need to try new things.”
*The Ulster group phase of the 2017 Celtic Challenge began on Sunday, March 19 with two tiers comprised of six counties.