Hi there, Limerick hurlers – hope you’re finding balmy Portugal to your liking this week. Probably not as hot as Florida and the Bahamas, where you enjoyed a lavish holiday in January, but a whole lot warmer than here right now.
ou’re on a training week, getting away from the home routine and working like full-time professionals as part of the foundation work for the All-Ireland four-in-a-row attempt.
You’ll be back for the weekend, all refreshed and ready to play Westmeath in Mullingar on Sunday. They will have shivered their way through training this week and, having lost their first three games by an average of 14 points (it would have been higher if Cork had fielded their strongest team in the last round), they know they are heading for a relegation play-off.
That’s the way it is for Westmeath, Antrim, Laois, Carlow and a whole lot more. No need to make sure their passports are in order for holidays (apart from those they fund themselves) overseas.
They can only peer in at the golden circle and dream. Every so often, one of them sneaks in a side door but it’s always a brief stay before they’re ejected. And so it goes, right down the pecking order, the gap widening all the way.
We hear about the standard of hurling at the top level never being higher and, in many respects, that’s true. However, it’s not leading to a widening of the elite band and it most certainly isn’t extending into large tracts of the country north of a Dublin-Galway line.
Yes, there are competitions for them all but how much real progress is being made in football-dominated areas, not only in narrowing the inter-county gap but also in providing a meaningful club programme?
What was it Liam Griffin said in an interview I did with him in 2000? “If someone can market coloured gripe water, call it Coca-Cola and clean up worldwide, we should be able to sell hurling in Longford.”
Twenty-three years on, 12 counties (Longford, Fermanagh, Leitrim, Cavan Tyrone, Mayo, Louth, Monaghan, Donegal, Sligo, Roscommon and Armagh) have only 55 adult clubs between them.
Many of them have higher numbers of juvenile clubs but, whether at senior or underage level, it’s still sparse. And since clubs have to move across county boundaries, it involves travelling long distances in many cases. That’s quite a challenge not encountered elsewhere.
At a higher level, the divide between mid-ranking and the top shows no sign of narrowing. Everyone knew at the start of the league that Westmeath would finish bottom of Group A (Division 1) and that Antrim or Laois would do likewise in Group B.
Meanwhile, Offaly, four-time All-Ireland winners between 1981 and 1998, are in a three-way battle with Kildare and Kerry for promotion from 2A. Whichever of the trio comes up will almost certainly finish bottom of Division 1 next year.
Down have lost all three games in 2A, leaving their exciting days in the 1990s a distant speck in the past. Thirty years ago this month, they beat Kilkenny, who had 13 of the 1992 All-Ireland-winning team on duty, in a league game in Nowlan Park.
Down finished second in a group which, as well as Kilkenny, also featured Limerick, Tipperary, Offaly and Antrim. Kilkenny were relegated. Whatever happened to Mourne momentum?
Let’s get back to Limerick and Westmeath. The Limerick squad, helped by a GAA grant payable to All-Ireland finalists, enjoyed a luxury holiday in January and are now benefiting from being in a county rich enough to send them abroad for training. Others have done the same over the years.
It’s great to see players well looked after – indeed I would have no problem with some form of formal payments – but where’s the equality?
For example, Westmeath full-back Tommy Doyle, as good a full-back as there is, will never get the perks enjoyed by Limerick defenders who, between them, have won 16 All-Star awards since 2018. And that’s just the start of the perks range.
Geography is the only difference between Doyle and them. The same applies to hundreds of players, depending on where they were born. Such is the reality of GAA life, which raises a key question.
Allowing for the fact that, for obvious reasons, there will always be imbalances between counties, where is the plan at official level to balance opportunity when it comes to dispersing grants, holiday hand-outs, coaching expertise etc?
Actually, it’s nowhere to be found.
Away days tough for the big boys
Having lost to Donegal by a disputed point and to Tyrone in a game after which Jack O’Connor complained that his side “couldn’t seem to buy a free in the second half”, Kerry will be glad their league journey takes in no more Ulster trips this season.
“It’s very hard to win games away from home, you know,” remarked O’Connor after Sunday’s three-point defeat in Omagh. It sounds very much like he suspects hometown decisions are running high.
That’s a matter of opinion, but what’s beyond question is that home teams are doing very well, especially in Division 1. Of the 20 games in the top flight, 14 have been won by the home team, three by the visitors, while three were drawn.
The only away wins were Armagh against Monaghan in Round 1, Roscommon against Galway in Round 2 and Mayo against Roscommon last Sunday.
Away teams are doing much better in the other three divisions. Of the 60 games played, 31 were home wins, 25 away wins and four draws.
Cleary’s plan so simple, it worked
What will the coaching gurus make of it? Will they demand that John Cleary provides an explanation as to why he offered such a straightforward analysis of how Cork unleashed so much second-half power against Clare last Sunday?
“We just tore into it. Whatever tactics there were, you could throw out the window. It was either get stuck in or go back down the road with our tails between your legs,” he said.
What? No talk of going through the processes, getting the alignment right or some other mumbo-jumbo?
‘Tore into it. Get stuck in.’ Sorry, John, you’re not playing the game. That makes it sound far too simple in an era when so many managers/coaches, not to mention attention-seeking pundits, try to dazzle the rest of us with pseudoscience.
Cleary called it as he saw it. Cork got ‘stuck in’, and it worked. In fact, it’s beginning to work well enough to suggest they are on a long-overdue upward curve. Cleary’s refreshing approach is a welcome tonic.