Hurling and camogie

I would love to see Ulster Championship return: Derry's Meehaul McGrath

Attending yesterday's McDonagh, Ring, Rackard, Meagher promotional event at the GPA offices in Santry are, from left, Ben Conneely of Offaly and Maurice O’ Connor of Kerry with the Joe McDonagh Cup, Ryan Bogue of Fermanagh, Shane Briody of Cavan with the Lory Meagher Cup, Conor Grogan of Tyrone, Meehaul McGrath of Derry and Daniel Huane of Mayo with the Christy Ring Cup. Picture by Sportsfile
Neil Loughran

MEEHAUL McGrath needs no reminding of the connection his own county had with the Ulster Championship long before it was placed into cold storage.

The Slaughtneil stalwart, a cornerstone of an improving Derry side that sealed promotion to Division 2A of the National Hurling League last weekend, well remembers sunny days spent watching from the wings in Casement Park.

From the Ulster final showdowns of the early Noughties, even as far back as big Geoffrey’s famous overhead pull in the 1998 decider defeat to Antrim, McGrath has only fond memories of the provincial Championship’s heyday – but they are growing more distant by the day.

It is five years now since Simon McCrory was the last captain to hold aloft the Liam Harvey Cup, yet momentum has been growing behind calls to end the Ulster Championship’s hiatus.

As well as the Saffrons securing their spot in Division One after a relegation play-off win over Offaly, Down’s steady improvement saw them finish top of Division 2A before missing out on promotion to the top flight after defeat to Westmeath last weekend.

The Ardsmen will be joined by promoted Derry in 2A, Donegal finished second in 2B, Tyrone – under the stewardship of McGrath’s club boss Michael McShane - earned promotion from 3A, while Fermanagh finish top of 3B, sealing their move upwards with victory over Longford.

There is a clear upward trajectory among several counties, and McGrath admits he would love to see the Ulster Championship make a return to the inter-county calendar.

“I’m a big supporter of the Ulster Championship coming back,” he said during a GPA promotional event to launch the Joe McDonagh, Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher Cups.

“I was cross when it was took away. [Antrim player] Neil McManus has been vocal about it, you’ve Antrim, Down, Derry, Donegal, Tyrone, Fermanagh won a league, everybody’s winning league titles and ultimately you want to win a provincial Championship – or at least have the chance to compete in a provincial Championship.”

The 2017 success represented a 16th title in-a-row for Antrim, before players were informed by Ulster GAA officials at the following January’s Conor McGurk Cup that the provincial crown would not be contested for the time being.

Yet, while the Saffrons almost always start as favourites, McGrath believes it would benefit the likes of his Derry side to pit their wits against a county going toe-to-toe with some of the best during the National League.

“Antrim are a Division One team, you get the chance to play against a Division One team. You get to measure where you’re at and where you want to be.

“I don’t know whether it was an under hand move by Ulster GAA or not, but I would like to see the Ulster Championship brought back again.”

McGrath also believes it could have a galvanising effect in terms of sparking the interest of younger generations – just as had been the case for him. But he feels participation at schools level holds the key to hurling in Derry progressing in years to come.

“Schools is the big one. If you get school teams playing, ultimately children are going home then wanting to play for a club. The interest has to start in the schools.

“I know in Derry recently there’s three or four teams have started at underage level, and now there’s clubs started recently who have players on the Derry U17 panel this year.

“For young clubs to have county players, younger players at those clubs will be looking saying ‘I want to be like him – I want to play for Derry’. It just progresses from there.”

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Hurling and camogie