Hurling and camogie

"Almost impossible" for Antrim hurling to stay in top tier without changes: Neil McManus

Antrim's Neil McManus was one of several key hurling figures in Ulster who took part in an Irish News debate that will be published in full on Saturday

THE introduction of properly tiered competitions at underage level and streamlined, merit-based funding from Croke Park are among the ways in which Ulster hurling can progress over the next decade, a number of leading figures have said.

In a roundtable discussion with The Irish News that will be published this weekend, Antrim’s Neil McManus, Derry boss Dominic McKinley, Cavan manager Ollie Bellew and Down chief Ronan Sheehan debated where the province needs to go in order to grow.

McManus admitted that staying in top-tier hurling will be “almost impossible” for Antrim if structures both inside and county the county remain as they are currently.

Highlighting the examples of Kildare and Sligo, who continue to progress through the tiers both above and below senior level, the Cushendall man says Antrim will only ever be capable of “one-off results” until a proper structure for developing the game is put in place.

“Nothing will change – there will be one-off results until somebody takes hold of it and says ‘this is how we’re going to develop it from 11 years of age’.

“The perfect example is Kildare. Four or five years ago, they were competing at U13 and U15. Now they’re competing at U17 and U20. What will happen in five years’ time? They’ll be a serious contender in the Joe McDonagh.

“They have a better chance than any Ulster county of progressing.

“Antrim have a really good group now but they’re all in their 20s. It’s over as quick as that. If there’s nothing coming behind them…

“There’s odd good players. We’re lucky we’ve such good clubs in Antrim, but we need more of them to be a serious Division One county, we need double what we have.

“We continue on the strength of the clubs to make upsets and have times when we’re there, but it won’t be continuous unless there’s a proper structure in place the whole way through.”

For both Antrim and Down, the focus on growing the sport in Belfast is central.

Down manager Sheehan, who has done a remarkable job to help improve their fortunes during his tenure, currently sits on the GAA’s Games Development Committee.

He said that while it was “not a popular opinion”, the Association must bring a more focused approach to funding hurling than the “catch-all” that currently exists.

“We send money from Croke Park into places all over Ireland where hurling is never gonna go. It’s gonna survive, but it’s subsistence hurling.

“The five or six counties that could make the next step are the ones that could really use the funding. It’s not a popular opinion but it’s something the GAA seriously needs to look at.

“If they’re serious about raising standards, they need to do it in those five or six counties first rather than the catch-all, which isn’t working and everyone’s just falling between the stools.”

While the four all agreed that the idea of a Team Ulster was a complete non-runner at senior level, there was agreement that piloting the idea at underage and schools’ level may be worth trying.

See The Irish News this weekend for the whole discussion

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Hurling and camogie