Brendan Crossan: Hurling needs more than charismatic leaders in order to ‘close the gap’

Antrim senior hurling manager Darren Gleeson (left) has highlighted the intense demands on his squad in the Leinster SHC. Picture Seamus Loughran
Antrim senior hurling manager Darren Gleeson (left) has highlighted the intense demands on his squad in the Leinster SHC. Picture Seamus Loughran Antrim senior hurling manager Darren Gleeson (left) has done well since taking the reins Picture Seamus Loughran

IN his post-match interview in a small office underneath the main stand in Cusack Park last Saturday evening, Joe Fortune struck me as a quite pensive, passionate hurling man. Maybe a bit mad too.

You must be mad to stare down the barrel of a gun most weeks in Division 1B.

In truth, what chance have the Westmeath hurlers against the likes of four-in-a-row All-Ireland champions Limerick, one of the greatest hurling teams ever assembled, and Tipperary and Galway.

These are three unwinnable games.

How does a manager prepare a group of players knowing they’re going to lose – heavily in some instances?

What you’re doing is trying to get buy in from players ahead of an imminent defeat. And here was a man who on the previous Monday night at 5pm didn’t know where his squad was training the following evening.

John Kiely, Liam Cahill, Henry Shefflin or Derek Lyng don’t encounter problems like these.

People like Joe Fortune, and indeed other hurling managers competing on the fringes of the country’s elite, must find goalsetting a tricky business.

It takes a fair degree of skill and charisma.

Fortune pitches it like this.

“I said to the boys, if we look at the scoreboard at the end and we win it, it doesn’t matter. If we lose it, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we keep making progress.”

What also matters to Fortune and Westmeath this season more than anything else is winning the Joe McDonagh.

Last Saturday was one of the better days for Westmeath hurling as they took Antrim’s scalp which gives them a fighting chance of finishing in the top four in Division 1B should they beat Dublin Parnell Park on Saturday.

With the best performing fourth-placed team in Division 1A and 1B making up the seventh team in next season’s new-look Division 1A, Westmeath would be better placed in 1B in 2025.

It’s such a tough station for counties on the coat-tails of the elite.

For teams like Antrim, Westmeath and Offaly to gain an inch against hurling’s aristocracy takes an unfathomable amount of effort.

At the risk of patronising them, you can only tip your cap to people like Joe Fortune, Darren Gleeson and indeed other managers such as Ronan Sheehan of Down, Ollie Bellew of Cavan and Joe Baldwin of Fermanagh that fight for more elbow room on their respective inter-county stages.

Down's Ronan Sheehan talks to Diarmuid O'Sullivan. The former Cork hurler has been a key asset to the Down hurlers Picture: Philip Walsh.
Down's Ronan Sheehan talks to Diarmuid O'Sullivan. The former Cork hurler has been a key asset to the Down hurlers Picture: Philip Walsh. Down manager Ronan Sheehan

It may sound like a sweeping statement but the amount of physical and emotional energy Gleeson, his backroom team and players have put into making Antrim competitive against the elite on most hurling Sundays over the last four years is truly off the charts.

But there is no glass ceiling quite like hurling’s glass ceiling. It is virtually impenetrable. For as long as I’ve been reporting on Gaelic Games, the dominant narrative has been about ‘closing the gap’.

Antrim and Laois have probably been the two counties that have chiselled hardest at hurling’s glass ceiling over the last two decades.

Take Antrim as a case-study since Gleeson took the reins. Their senior squads have undoubtedly improved, and the players have generally returned to their clubs much better than when they left.

While Antrim have invested heavily in their underage structures – Gleeson rarely does a media interview without mentioning the work that goes on beneath the senior team – they are still a distance away from closing that much-maligned gap everyone always talks about.

What counties like Antrim and Laois have banked on over the years is praying for a good crop of hurlers will come along so that they can make a decent fist of the Championship for a couple of seasons.

It’s sustaining that challenge that becomes the issue. While much-improved, Antrim aren’t in a situation where they can compete with the game’s top dogs unless they have close to a full deck to choose from.

There is a talented group of U20s coming through, but they need time – and that’s when transition in counties like Antrim becomes such a painful process because the gap begins to widen again, and all those hard-earned inches are lost.

In an interview with The Irish News last year, ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett of Laois said: “We get halfway up the hill again and slide back down. Somebody needs to think that out. Why can’t we make a couple of extra steps?”

While the introduction of Championship tiers in the mid-Noughties have been inter-county hurling’s salvation, the development models in counties are clearly flawed.

Why? Because nothing ever changes at the top echelons of the inter-county game.

It wasn’t so long ago – in 2014 to be precise - former GAA President Liam O’Neill was throwing €1m at developing counties over a five-year period, which was €1m wasted.

It was a PR exercise on behalf of the association and to look good. For a short while.

Creative thinking is as important as money when the GAA talks of ‘closing the gap’.

There are now higher numbers of hurlers in counties like Laois, Carlow and Offaly being exposed to Fitzgibbon hurling. Meanwhile, UUJ and Queen’s are still playing at Ryan Cup level.

It’s a well-worn line, and has been tried at different underage levels in Ulster, but would it be better to start up a Combined Ulster Colleges team to compete at Fitzgibbon level and expose more players to it?

Underage fixture space is also a key issue where hurling sometimes falls off the cliff in counties as the big-ball code steamrolls everything in its path at U14 and U16 level.

And the GAA needs to get away from box-ticking development programmes where schools insist on coaching resources in non-traditional hurling areas where there is no established school-club links and therefore more money and energy is washed away because it looks good in a shiny new booklet or press release.

The hurling evangelists in counties like Antrim, Westmeath, Down, Fermanagh, Laois and Carlow are the heartbeat of the game – and they inspire those around them.

But for hurling to really flourish in these places and the glass ceiling to even show fractured signs, it requires more than charismatic leaders attempting to pull rabbits out of hats on any given Sunday.