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Brendan Crossan: Where does Ulster hurling go from here? Anybody?

Former Derry hurler Geoffrey McGonigle added much colour to the Ulster Championship

ONE of my abiding memories of the Ulster Senior Hurling Championship was standing on the Casement Park turf after the 2001 final.

Derry had just beaten Down by a point to retain the title.

Halcyon days for the Derry hurlers.

As their captain Colin McEldowney raised the Liam Harvey Cup, a few of the Derry lads shared a celebratory cigarette as they looked up into the main stand.

They were a fine bunch of hurlers.

On a technical level, Ollie Collins was an implausibly smooth hurler.

And then there was Geoffrey McGonigle.

Pure class, a bull of a man and a magician with a hurl.

You could bank on at least one piece of magic or one moment of brash humour every Sunday from the inimitable Geoffrey.

You also had smashing hurlers such as Kieran McKeever, Conor Murray and Emmett McKeever.

Around that time Down were still defiant as ever.

The likes of Marty Mallon, Gary Savage and Noel Sands shone brightest in the 90s, winning two memorable Ulster crowns.

Antrim may have been knocked off their perch by Down and Derry at different times but they were always going to come good again.

They were great days for Ulster hurling, even if an All-Ireland semi-final victory was generally beyond the provincial champions.

From 2002 onwards, Antrim owned the provincial title.

Last weekend, they claimed their 16th title in succession. Armagh couldn’t hold a candle to them.

The Ulster Championship has become a procession for Antrim. Or, more bluntly, it's become a waste of time and effort and should be rushed into enforced hibernation for a decade.

The Ulster Council should forget about trying to shoehorn it into the calendar because nobody cares any more.

It was terminally ill once Croke Park decreed that the provincial winners no longer gained automatic access to the All-Ireland series.

Instead, a new, cack-handed All-Ireland qualifying format was hastily introduced which saw Antrim face Galway on an annual basis for a couple of seasons.

And then with the emergence of a tiered Championship – Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher – the Ulster Championship was relegated to the backwaters of the inter-county calendar.

Trying different formats and different times of the year to give it life is akin to moving the furniture around the Titanic.

But there's no point in being pre-occupied with the Ulster Championship's fall from grace because, at the risk of using another clunky Titanic analogy, the Ulster Championship is just the tip of the iceberg.

The real focus should be on what's happening at grassroots level.

What's happening in Belfast? North Antrim? Derry? The Ards Peninsula?

Northern hurling folk looked on with envy when Croke Park ploughed millions into Dublin hurling.

The same kind of investment is undoubtedly required up here.

But Ulster has to have a vision first, a nailed down strategy before it can go looking for money.

Right now, the small ball game is at its lowest ebb in Ulster.

The northern province has become so obsessed with football that hurling has become a nuisance to some county boards.

In some sectors, hurling is an unwanted appendage to the football beast.

It simply gets in the road of a smooth fixtures calendar.

You won't have to travel far to hear hurling people give off stink about the state of the game, the poor state of coaching and the poor participation levels, particularly in vast swathes of Belfast.

But the most galling thing of all is that the hurling community accepts their fate.

They accept that they are the serfs of the GAA.

They accept that in a lot of cases, a football-dominated county board will dictate to them, while many GAA clubs still peddle the ideal of the dual player.

But given the increasing demands on players' time, the dual player doesn't really exist in its truest sense in the modern era.

You can't really juggle both codes and expect to reach your potential - Slaughtneil being the celebrated exception to the rule.

Seven or eight years ago, the Ulster Council launched their 'Belfast Rising' project at the Stormont Hotel.

We were handed glossy brochures and listened to confident speeches that imagined a utopian state for Ireland's second city.

The sad fact is we're still imagining it in 2017.

From the day and hour the media left Stormont Hotel, the 'Belfast Rising' project was never mentioned again.

The Ulster Council currently employs several hurling development officers.

The problem is they're spread too thinly across the province and as a consequence they yield few benefits. There are good people involved but there doesn't appear to be any overarching strategy or target-driven work.

If there was a firm strategy the game would be in a healthier state and there would be no rationale for this column.

And yet massive amounts of money are being spent in the province with very little dividend.

Outmoded Ulster Council appointment policies don't help either when the vice-chair automatically becomes chairman of the hurling committee.

It doesn't matter if that person is a hurling enthusiast or not - he gets the hurling portfolio.

That's how the Ulster Council rolls.

The whole thing lacks dynamism and strategy.

Everybody throws their eyes to the heavens at the state of hurling and everything trundles along with no rhyme or reason to it.

In Antrim, they have two full-time hurling development officers.

They travel the length and breadth of the county to visit schools and impart their hurling wisdom.

Two men can't do it alone.

They work in eight-week blocks in schools and the kids love it.

The problem starts when the coaches leave the school because by the time they return - often the following year - the hurls have been in storage the entire time.

And through no fault of the coaches, nothing tangible is achieved.

And another generation of kids leave primary school with no meaningful interaction with hurling.

Surely there’s a better way to use these coaches – both on a provincial and county-by-county basis.

Granted, there needs to be more of them.

But, rather than taking pitch sessions, these men should be strategising, co-ordinating and coaching the coaches.

Given the crumbling state of the game in Ulster, it has reached the stage where it might be more prudent to concentrate on nurturing the game where it is stronger rather than in places where it hasn’t taken root - a point not lost on the Ulster Council's top brass.

The poor state of hurling is the single biggest issue facing GAA officialdom.

It's a problem not easily fixed - but one that would benefit from a little more dynamism.

The hurling heartlands of Ulster deserve that much.

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