GAA in Ulster needs greater primary school presence: McCullough
HURLING, and indeed football, in Ulster will only improve if more effort is made to get people coming from a GAA background into primary school teaching, believes former Ulster GAA coach Michael McCullough.
The O'Donovan Rossa native is currently coaching Ballyboden St Enda's, who last week beat All-Ireland club champions Cuala in a group stage game in the Dublin SHC.
McCullough was employed as a full-time coach in Ulster between 2005 and 2015, and has gone on from coaching a UCD side containing the likes of Kilkenny captain Cillian Buckley and Matthew O'Hanlon (Wexford) to working on the Dublin club circuit, first with Kilmacud Crokes and now Ballyboden.
Dublin hurling has progressed hugely over the last decade as they've become regulars in the top tier, winning a Leinster title in 2013 and pulling away from Antrim, who were regularly competitive with them ten years ago.
While there have been small increments of improvement in some Ulster counties, the gap is only enlarging between the northern province and the aristocrats from the southern half of the country.
McCullough believes that the gap between Dublin and Ulster has grown because of the engagement of coaches with primary schools in the capital, and urged his native province to do more to follow suit.
“You ask a million people that play GAA who was their first influence, and it was either their parents or their teacher.
“Now there aren't very many people within the primary schools system any more who are involved with GAA clubs, and pushing kids towards playing for the local club.
“In Ballyboden, three of my senior hurling team are teachers in the local primary school. The three of them have been in around inter-county and they're all primary school teachers.
“In Ulster we get a lot of GAA people in secondary school but by the time kids get there, they're already lost.
“It's alright sending Ulster Council coaches in, and they do Trojan work, but if I'm sending you in as a Dungiven man to coach in Swatragh schools, do you really care if they go to Swatragh club? No.
“What if there was a teacher within the school who was involved in the community though? Then there's a vested interest.
“I think we've lost that in the last number of years. You look around the primary schools and there's not a lot of GAA interest, male or female, in the majority of the primary schools.”
McCullough, who played underage for Antrim before playing senior hurling for Tyrone, says the reason clubs are struggling for numbers in some areas is the lack of engagement at primary school level.
“That's in rural areas throughout Ulster, and in Belfast. A friend of mine was working in one of the big primary schools in Belfast and left recently to take up a principal's post. When he left, he said there'd now be nobody to take GAA in the school.
“This is a school with 600 kids. Another one was on a year's post in a school in Antrim, and he's gone now and there's nobody in the school to take hurling or football.
“We're losing out on hundreds of kids. In Dublin, they see the benefit of having someone like that in a school where the kids are the lifeblood of the club.
“I do think clubs need to take more interest and get into their local schools without relying on Ulster Council staff to do it, or more teachers need to have a GAA background in primary schools and that would get through to the club much better.
“That's what's happening in Dublin, and has happened for the last 10, 12, 13 years. They're getting the numbers because they've gone back and fixed the start of the conveyor belt.”