Climate not yet right for return of Ulster SHC: Noel Sands
NOEL Sands would not be in favour of a hasty resurrection of the Ulster Senior Hurling Championship and linked its viability to the Casement Park rebuild.
The Liam Harvey Cup was put into cold storage by the Ulster Council in 2017 and although there were attempts made to pass off the Conor McGurk Cup – a pre-season tournament – as the new version of the competition, the participants weren’t convinced.
As the tiered national hurling championships – Christy Ring, Nickey Rackard and the Lory Meagher – get underway this weekend, there is no movement of the Ulster Championship coming back.
Since the inception and subsequent success of the tiered national championships and Antrim’s seemingly endless dominance in the northern province, the Ulster Championship was uncompetitive and limped along for several years before being removed from the calendar.
A passionate advocate of Ulster hurling, Sands believes the GAA calendar doesn’t currently allow for its return and feels that the Ulster Championship would probably only thrive again if Casement Park was rebuilt.
The competition’s halcyon days were undoubtedly in the 1990s and early 2000s when Down and Derry raised the bar to topple Antrim on different years with Casement always its brilliant stage.
“At the minute I would say no to bringing the Ulster Championship back,” said Sands, a former Down hurling great.
“There is just no room in the GAA calendar, but if it did come back you would want to aspire to being better than the Conor McGurk Cup.
“Antrim use that competition for its own ends and Down and Donegal did well out of it. Down always go into it all guns blazing.
“But I think if Casement Park was up and running the Ulster Championship should be brought back - absolutely, because you would have the arena to play it in.
“That would be one of the main reasons for bringing it back.”
Antrim hurler Neil McManus recently spoke about the need to bring the Ulster series back – and other high-profile names in hurling have echoed the Cushendall man’s calls.
But Portaferry native Sands doesn’t believe the provincial series would be the same without a fitting stage to play it.
Antrim, Derry and Down shared many memorable battles at the old west Belfast venue, which closed its doors somewhat prematurely in 2013, with the assumption renovation work would begin soon afterwards.
Almost 10 years later, the site still remains closed.
“Casement Park was the next best thing to playing in Croke Park,” said Sands.
“The groundsmen always did a fantastic job with it, you had 15,000 at Ulster finals back in the 90s. It was just electric. It was a delight to go up there.
“We always had to fight with the stewards to get in which made your blood boil a bit more. These guys had made it hard for you to get into the ground and you were ready for anything in the changing room.
“But it was a terrific place. We got to know the stewards and had a bit of a laugh with them when they got to know us. It was just brilliant to be there. We won the Ulster Championship one year on the 12th of July - a glorious 12th for Down.
"Any time you played there, it was a bit like Croke Park, whether empty or full it was a great place to be. I hope they get it built over the next five or six years and you could then make room for the Ulster Championship.”