Ulster always produced fine hurlers but a united team could harness them all

Ulster always produced fine hurlers but a united team could harness them all
Ray Ryan, Cork, in action against Shane McNaughton, Antrim, in the 2010 All-Ireland hurling quarter-final. No Ulster county has reached that stage since. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

AN interesting idea was floated last weekend by star Derry hurler and footballer, Chrissy McKaigue, a member of the hugely successful Slaughtneill club.

He put forward the suggestion that a combined Ulster team should be allowed to compete in the All-Ireland SHC.

He believed that a combined Ulster team could make an impression at the highest level of the game, but only if the best players in the province were on board with the idea.

Derry's Chrissy McKaigue. Picture: Oliver McVeigh/SPORTSFILE
Derry's Chrissy McKaigue. Picture: Oliver McVeigh/SPORTSFILE

Ulster counties have always produced quality hurlers, Antrim, in particular, containing the quality of Sambo McNaughton, Olcan McFetridge, Dominic McKinley and O’Donovan Rossa’s Ciaran Barr back in the ‘80s.

One recalls being in Croke Park on that never to be forgotten Sunday back in 1989 when they defeated an odds on Offaly in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Nobody could really believe what was unfolding before their eyes that day as the game aged and it became increasingly likely that a gargantuan shock was on the cards.

It did come to pass and one remembers the sportsmanship of Offaly that day when they formed a guard of honour for the team that they had just lost to.

When Tipp and Galway followed that day, people were still in a state of shock.

The dream died in September of that year when Tipperary easily overcame the Saffrons and that was the last time that Antrim or any other Ulster team came near to emulating that feat of Antrim being present on All-Ireland final day and what it meant to the people of the Glens.

Hurling is very strong in pockets of the province just as it is in North Kerry and Cushendall, Dunloy O’Donovan Rossa and Lougheil have produced club teams that would match most.

Antrim came into Leinster back in 2009 but have struggled and six years later they were relegated into the Christy Ring and Joe McDonagh Cups.

The idea of an Ulster team being allowed to enter the All-Ireland field has been doing the rounds for a few years now without a whole pile of notice being taken. But recently a virtual symposium was held in the province of very interested stakeholders and they put forward their viewpoint.

A hurler of the highest quality, McKaigue was one the passionate speakers.

He believed that the province is falling further behind their Southern counterpart and this idea might just be the perfect answer to igniting interest in the province.

He said it was not about forcing the issue down people's throats but just having a proper conversation about it.

Being brutally honest, it’s difficult to see the concept ever being adopted. In the old Railway Cup Ulster teams competed but were often on the end of some terrible beatings form Munster and Leinster.

But this is a different time and maybe the idea should be examined, a case of nothing ventured gained.

Jonathan O'Callaghan holding off Antrim player Michael McCambridge in 2004. Picture: Dan Linehan
Jonathan O'Callaghan holding off Antrim player Michael McCambridge in 2004. Picture: Dan Linehan

Here on Leeside there has always been a strong connection with Antrim hurling and the county has benefited enormously from the excellent coaching of Justin McCarthy in the past.

Midleton’s Jerry Wallace has also been up there doing good work, Tipp boss Liam Sheedy too and the game of hurling would benefit greatly if you had strong competitive participants putting it up to their Southern counterparts.

There has been no Ulster championship in hurling for a few years now and that’s a pity because the passion for the game up there is great.

On Munster final day in Thurles or wherever you could have a couple of hundred fans making the long journey, such is that passion.

Of course, the question has to be asked, would Antrim be on board with the idea of an Ulster team given that they are the strongest county up there.

Antrim icon Sambo McNaughton. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Antrim icon Sambo McNaughton. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

Maybe they believe that they can still stand on their own two feet.

There would be an awful lot in getting this concept off the ground and how would it work out.

Would an all-Ulster team compete in Leinster like Antrim did in the past?

Could the team realistically hope to compete on a level playing field with Kilkenny, Galway, Wexford and Dublin?

Looking at the situation right now it appears that hurling in the province of Ulster is nowhere near up to that level.

But if everybody came on board and maybe if you could get 20 or 25 players who would not be out of their depth really interested, something might come of the idea.

Could county rivalries be put aside? So much involved. Who knows but that fine hurler McKaigue has certainly opened up the debate.

The Slaughtneil club in Derry has produced excellent camogie and hurling teams in recent years. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
The Slaughtneil club in Derry has produced excellent camogie and hurling teams in recent years. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Broadening the hurling landscape would be wonderful and an all-Ulster team would be a right novelty if all the stakeholders joined up.

In these days of no play anywhere it would be interesting to hear something from Croke Park on the idea of an Ulster hurling team.

Would they nip it in the bud or would they be open to developing the idea?

It probably won’t happen in the near future but there’s nothing wrong with maybe some sort of a discussion on it.

And how would the rest of the hurling world weigh in behind it?

Let’s see what transpires.

More in this section

Sponsored Content