All Antrim's League games should be played at home insists Clare legend Ollie Baker
CLARE All-Ireland winner Ollie Baker believes Antrim should be allowed to play all their National League games at home in a bid to level the playing field and help widen hurling’s appeal in Ulster.
The three-time Allstar, who served as a selector with the Saffrons in 2011 during Dinny Cahill’s second spell in charge, will be an interested observer when his native county makes the long trip north for Sunday’s Division 1B opener at Corrigan Park.
And he feels there is still an onus on the GAA to help Ulster counties overcome hurdles presented by “geographical isolation”.
“That was the biggest difficulty I found in my time there,” said Baker, a midfield stalwart in the Banner’s famous 1995 and ’97 All-Ireland triumphs.
“If you wanted to play a challenge game you were looking at coming down to Westmeath, Meath, Dublin… you’ve to make a weekend trip out of that.
“The time we were there we’d organise two challenge games for the weekend. The other county drives to and from that challenge game that day but you’re asking players to take a weekend - to ask players to do that consistently is really hard.
“When they get into Championship matches then, Antrim always have to travel down to Thurles or Croke Park or wherever. I’m delighted to see that Clare are going up this year. I’d be a firm believer that Antrim should have all home League games and, if needs be, the opposition teams should be subsidised to go up.
“That makes it competitive. If you go up to Dunloy, Ballycastle, Loughgiel, Cushendall, the facilities in the clubs up there are absolutely outrageous, they’re brilliant. You’d have it all to do to be beating Antrim every day you went up there and it would be a huge boost to hurling in Ulster.
“If Clare were to complain that they had to go to Antrim every time – so what lads. If Cork complain? So what lads. Antrim have to do that every day, you have to do it once. I just think there is a need to think outside the box.
“It would also get back to the core values of strengthening the game, and then when they finally get around to doing the full redevelopment of Casement Park, League finals should be played up there.
“The same goes for all those counties in Ulster who are doing a great job of keeping the sport alive. They just need that bit more support from the GAA than they have been getting, and that sense of fairness.”
For Darren Gleeson’s men, it is a first step back into the deeper waters of Division One, with the promise of some huge days to come.
Baker is delighted to see them there, and admits he was disappointed with comments that came from Donal Og Cusack in the wake of last December’s Joe McDonagh Cup triumph - the former Cork captain and RTE pundit voicing concern that Antrim would “suffer a lot of beatings” in 1B.
“Isn’t that the height of disrespect? After winning the competition, to be told that straight away.
“And that is the attitude that prevails, this hurling snobbery that if you’re not going to compete in the Liam MacCarthy then sure what’s the point?
“There’s an onus and a responsibility to spread the word right across so that there’s more teams hurling rather than less. Give them the respect they deserve for doing that.”