A WEEK before Ballyhale Shamrocks played Slaughtneil in the All-Ireland club hurling semi-final in January, Henry Shefflin stood in front of the Ballyhale players and flipped over the first page of a flipchart.
On the sheet was a list of all of Slaughtneil’s achievements over the previous seven years; three Ulster club hurling titles; three Ulster club football crowns; 11 Derry senior hurling and football titles, including seven-in-a-row in hurling.
Shefflin’s intention was to focus Ballyhale minds ahead of what he saw was a significant challenge against a side with massive experience at that level.
Ballyhale scored 2-24 and still only won by five points in a thrilling match before a huge crowd in Newry. Slaughtneil’s performance illustrated the massive potential within Ulster hurling but it was only an isolated example because Ulster hurling has largely become a dormant province on the national stage.
The Ulster hurling championship has been defunct since 2017 but it had already been effectively dead throughout the last decade; apart from the 2014 and 2015 finals, Antrim won the other six Ulster finals by an aggregate margin of 92 points.
Last week, the broadcaster and video journalist Jerome Quinn put an excellent discussion together on Ulster hurling on YouTube, probing a potential way forward for the province.
Interviewing 11 people from across Ulster, the main theme was on a combined ‘Team Ulster’, with Quinn then teasing out if the concept could work.
Seven years on after a Team Ulster idea was floated as a means of reviving hurling in the province, the situation has only, unfortunately, got worse. Unless Antrim can win a Joe McDonagh Cup, Ulster players will never play in the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
Antrim have the numbers and the potential to go to another level but there is no real pathway, or attraction, for elite inter-county hurlers throughout the province.
Yet, could that happen through a Team Ulster? The precedent is there. Seven years ago, a combined Ulster Colleges hurling side lost an All-Ireland Colleges quarter-final to Mercy College by one point.
In that Ulster squad, 12 schools, 16 clubs and five different counties were represented. It was clearly the way forward but almost instantly the GAA condemned it to the past; after a Waterford Colleges team won the All-Ireland, any further combined sides were prevented from competing in the All-Ireland series.
But could that model work at inter-county level? A few years back, Micky McCullough, who trained that combined Colleges team, and who coached the Dublin seniors last year, challenged those people who said the concept wouldn’t work:
“I’d say to them - have you any experience of it? No. Have you tried it? No. So what are you basing your conclusion that it wouldn’t work on? All they can say is, ‘I just don’t think it’d work.’ But the combined colleges showed it can.
“And what I’d say to anyone who is against the idea of a Team Ulster is, well, is it going to make things any worse than it is?”
Antrim will always be the biggest stumbling block, especially when they want to forge their own path. They have the best players so could a separate Team Ulster compete at a level higher than the Joe McDonagh Cup, where Antrim currently play?
Antrim’s Neil McManus said during the week that the idea is “not going to be entertained in Antrim”.
McManus also said he fears the potential unintended consequences could do more harm than good.
“What happens those county teams if they don't have their strongest players there?” asked McManus. “Does hurling stop for those counties then?”
Identity is an issue but, outside of Antrim, most Ulster counties don’t have any sustained identity as a hurling entity.
There will always be roadblocks. Even if Antrim were to join a Team Ulster, how could that squad collectively train on a sustained basis, especially if the individual counties were still playing national league and in the rest of the Tiered championship competitions? It would also be a logistical nightmare.
There is also another side to this argument. If Ulster got the green light, what about a Team Connacht, outside of Galway? Do the best hurlers in those other Connacht counties not also deserve the opportunity to play on the biggest stage?
There are a thousand ways to outline how this concept wouldn’t work, right across the board. But, if the will is there, maybe it could happen.
Towards the end of Quinn’s debate, the former great Down goalkeeper Graham Clarke told a story about his 13-year old son, Cian, who is a highly talented hurler, being at a match in Parnell Park last year, when Clarke was Dublin’s goalkeeping coach.
Clarke saw a young Dublin kid looking at the Dublin players beforehand. While that kid may have been picturing himself like those Dublin players some day, Clarke wondered if his son may have been thinking: “I’m never going to get this opportunity (to play in the Liam MacCarthy).”
That’s the greatest tragedy of all facing future generations of talented young hurlers in Ulster – that they can’t aspire to play at the top level of their national sport.
“If we don’t give kids their own heroes to emulate, then we’re always destined to be kicking around the second or third tier of hurling,” said Down hurling manager Ronan Sheehan to Quinn.
“Hurling will always survive in Ulster but are we really just interested in subsistence hurling? Hurling survives in Ulster at times from day-to-day. Is that all we are aiming to be? Surely we should be aiming to be something a wee bit better.”