I had to turn off TG4 at half time, I couldn’t take any more punishment. But it was a familiar scene, another humiliating hammering for an Antrim team in the U21 All-Ireland Hurling Semi-Final. Waterford 5-25, Antrim 1.5. ‘We knew how bad our preparation was, this team was only pulled together in five weeks’, manager Ollie Bellew said afterwards. This remains one of the great mysteries of Antrim hurling for me, a proud hurling county. Why was the team pulled together in five weeks? It seems like every county in Ireland are aware that the All-Ireland hurling semi finals are held in August except for Antrim, where they are annually taken by surprise and pulling teams together after one training session.
Last year before Antrim faced Wexford in the same fixture, manager Kevin Ryan disclosed that his team were in for a ‘massive hiding’ after they couldn’t get a panel together to even train in the weeks leading up to the game. Back in 2008, I sat on the bench as Derry beat us in the Ulster U21 Hurling Championship Semi-Final. We trained twice leading up to that game. So Antrim are continuing their tradition of hoping to defy the basic first principle of sports performance in their quest for All-Ireland glory: Preparation.
Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail
You would think that they would make the most of the incredible opportunity to compete against one of the big teams in an All-Ireland semi-final by training really, really hard. But that would make too much sense. And for years we’ve had a County Board who for some bewildering reason thought that the U21’s were best served by appointing the Senior hurling manager to also manage the U21’s. This season, what I gather from reports is that the manager this year was appointed in June.
It is heart-wrenching to witness the catastrophic collapse of Antrim hurling in recent years. Growing up dreaming off wearing the Saffron jersey and representing the senior hurling team, surrounded by stories of ’89. Sitting in the Nally Stand in 2002 as a 14 year old, watching Antrim rattle the All-Ireland Champions Tipperary. I can still see Liam Richmond blasting the ball past Brendan Cummins. Then returning with confidence the following year, as Ciaran Herron, Brian McFall, Winker and co. hurled Wexford off the park for 60 minute. We lost by three measly points but we were proud walking through the streets of Dublin afterwards.
In 2005, when Sambo and Woody brought Seán Óg Ó hAilpín to speak to our minor team, he had the hairs standing on the back of our neck with his speech. ‘I wish I could bottle the passion ye have for hurling in Antrim and bring it back to Cork’, he said. ‘Antrim men have two arms and two legs just like in Kilkenny and Tipp’. And he was right, we did love Antrim, and we could hurl. Then we trained like dogs for 8 months and low and behold competed with the best of them. There was no magic formula. Just a management team who believed in us, and 25 hurlers who cared and committed themselves to the cause.
Lessons from Limerick
Studying and living in Limerick after that, I winced at every patronizing comment I heard about Antrim doing a great job ‘keeping the game alive up there’, and I would get angry and defensive when someone would belittle my ability as an Antrim man. But there is nothing more offensive to Antrim hurling than the indifference shown to the sport by officialdom in Antrim itself. I don’t even know who is to blame. But having been involved with the Limerick Hurling Academy in recent years I have seen what it takes to breed talented young hurlers. It takes a plan and the proper structures, committed coaches who care about hurling in the county, support from the county board and the clubs. Then you will get hurlers who are also committed and who care. Then you prepare diligently. It’s not easy but it is relatively simple. I watched the Limerick U21’s last year en route to their fantastic All-Ireland Championship win in September, training ferociously from the previous November. While in Antrim, someone decided that preparations for the same competition should begin the following summer. I’d love to know who makes that decision.
The Limerick minor hurlers will step out in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day next weekend, a group of hard-working and honest hurlers who have come all the way through the Academy structure from U14, guided by mentors who live for Limerick hurling. They have put in over 100 training sessions this season on their way to Croke Park. Last year they put in the same amount of training, and the year before that again when they also reached the All-Ireland final. They have prepared. As Seán Óg said, Antrim men have two arms and two legs just like everyone else. We know Antrim have good hurlers, we see them in the Club Championship every year. The scoreline in last weekends All-Ireland semi-final is not due to a genetic variance between Ulster men and Munster men, it is a lack of preparation.
The Long Road Ahead
Unfortunately, although I don’t know much about what is going on behind the scenes in Antrim hurling these days, the biggest obstacle to progress in the county is also the most frightening because you can’t fight it; apathy. People don’t seem to care. Of course, there are coaches and volunteers in every club in the county who are dedicated to hurling in Antrim. But their efforts are not being honored by those who are charged with leading and directing hurling in the county, and it seems that this has taken the wind out of the sails of those who do care.
Saffron Vision gave us a glimmer of hope for the future when they ambitiously announced their intention to make drastic changes at the County Board level last December. And in recent days the County Board have announced that there is to be a strategic review of hurling in Antrim. It remains to be seen whether or not real change comes about in the coming years.
When the proper structures are put in place with the support and backing of all stakeholders of Antrim hurling, we will have young hurlers inspired and committed to prepare just as diligently as their Munster counterparts. Until then they will continue to be sent out like lambs to the slaughter against the likes of Waterford. The rot will continue beyond the Christy Ring Cup for the seniors, beyond thrashings in the U21 and Minor Championship, right down to the grass roots where once strong clubs like my own Naomh Pól are plummeting through the divisions.
It will be a long road back to health for hurling in Antrim, it will require a huge culture change, and a huge commitment and effort from everyone who cares about Antrim hurling. When that day comes, if it ever comes, and Antrim earn their place in All-Ireland Semi Final’s and Quarter Finals, that pride will return and the next generation of young saffron hurlers will have something to dream about once again.
Cairbre is the face behind Feed Me Strength. Currently the Head Strength and Conditioning coach for Arsenal Women FC. He has a passion for athletic performance and an endless curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind.
UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.