“ULSTER needs a combined hurling team competing with the top sides – but possibly not a full Ulster team at senior county level.”
Graham Clarke’s interview in last week’s Irish News has re-opened debate in hurling circles across the province on the merits of an Ulster team competing at the top level.
Michael McCullough coached and managed the last such team, an Ulster Schools’ team in 2013. He believes that, if that initiative had continued, there would be considerably more players of a higher standard available at senior level.
“Seven years ago, we put together an Ulster team to compete in the Croke Cup, the All-Ireland Schools’ A hurling series. Before that you had the Down schools combining to play in the Danske Bank Mageean Cup,” recounts the former Down Games Development Officer who was also involved with that Down team.
“I was going to schools’ B games involving St Colman’s Newry, the Red High etc and I was seeing young lads like Pearse óg McCrickard, Conor O’Neill who had a skills’ set that was as good as any.
“Alongside them on their school team were a couple of lads at corner-back, corner-forward, maybe a big footballer at midfield who were needed to fill out the team.
“Now that is great to see from the point of view of participation and the schools’ Council have done an awful lot to increase the number of schools playing hurling since the time I was playing with St Mary’s CBGS when there was no more than half a dozen schools playing.
“But what was being done to develop the likes of Pearse óg, Conor, Eoghan Sands or Matthew Lennon over in St Patrick’s Armagh? We are fixated with developing the numbers playing and not developing the top players.”
McCullough, who teaches in Ballymacward Primary School, compares it to children in his classroom.
“You have kids right across the ability range in the one room. What if I was just to pitch work at a level that keeps the weaker kids involved and didn’t stretch the more able? The more able would lose motivation, switch off.
“A teacher, just like a coach, has a responsibility to get that balance right every day. I don’t think we are getting the balance right in hurling.”
The next move was obvious to McCullough, whose coaching first came to the fore when he took over Rossa camogie team and led them to the first ever Ulster team to win the All-Ireland senior club title.
“We pushed for a combined Down team in the Mageean Cup despite the logistics of gathering a team together from schools across the county to play midweek afternoon games. But it worked, because Sean óg (McAteer, Down secretary) and the players made it work and we exposed the boys to a higher level of competitive hurling.”
An Dún reached several finals before eventually collecting the Mageean Cup in 2018. But the pay-off was more in the Ulster minor championship.
“Take a look at Down’s results in the Ulster minor championship in the years before the Mageean initiative. The margin of defeats was embarassing. Then we won the 2012 title. It wouldn’t have happened without showing them through the Mageean how good they were collectively”.
“We exposed them to the level of the Antrim and Derry lads before the heat of Ulster championship arrived. Now we don’t even have an Ulster minor championship!”
The Ulster schools’ team followed in 2013 with McCullough and Ronan McWilliams as coaches.
“You had the All-star schools’ team selected before Christmas. We took those 15 boys and we invited others who had been to the final trial so that we had a panel of more than 35 training together over the winter months.
“There was a good buy-in and we went down to Tipperary and Kilkenny and had challenge games against St Peter’s Wexford, minor county squads etc.
“Then we played the Croke Cup quarter-final against a combined team (Mercy Schools) from Galway in Ashbourne.”
Ulster led the Galway team for most of that game before losing by a point from a free scored by future All-Ireland medallist Jason Flynn.
“Can you tell me coming off the field that day that those Ulster players didn’t believe that they were every bit as good as the Galway lads? Three of those Galway hurlers are regulars on the county senior championship team at the minute, a few others have played league hurling for them.
“Same with St Peter’s Wexford. Four of their players in 2013 were in Davy Fitz’s team last year. We beat them and beat them well.”
However the All-Ireland schools’ Council voted against combined teams in their competitions at the AGM that followed and the ray of hope that many people saw for Ulster hurling was gone.
“If only we had been able to bring four or five boys from Armagh or Tyrone through each year with that team, gave them that experience, allowed them to play against the elite. And do the same the following year and the next one.
“Just imagine 25 or 30 young lads now in 2020 at 25 years of age or under on each senior county panel that had come through that experience. Would each of the counties in Ulster not be at a better stage than they are now?”
“Hurling is a primal game. Playing for your county rouses something deep in you. I felt that pulling on the Saffron jersey. Later when I went to live in Tyrone and played senior for them, it was enjoyable, but I couldn’t feel the passion.
“An Ulster initiative puts us all in the one boat. We are a small hurling community in Ulster. Outside of Antrim there would only have been seven teams this year that could have gone on to the Ulster senior club championship.
“An Ulster initiative at senior level with Antrim involved, just like the colleges, would be something special; something to get the interest and juices going again because we would be representing our province.
“Look at the provincial pride in Newry rallying behind Slaughtneil when they played Ballyhale. That could be replicated week in, week out for a number of years and help us build hurling back to something to be proud of up here.
“Even if Antrim were to go it alone, it would still be a hugely positive venture. The aim is to expose more players to a higher level of hurling. As it stands Antrim are on the cusp of Division 1. That’s to be celebrated.
“An Ulster team without Antrim should have the same target. Then you take Antrim’s 30 man panel and the rest of Ulster’s 30 man panel and you would have 60 players across the province playing at Division 1 level.
“Just imagine some time in July each year an Ulster v Antrim final for the Liam Harvey Cup again. We can bring hurling back in the province but we need to do it, initially anyway, together.
“We have to expose young players to top level hurling through an Ulster side at under-age level, and each county will be a lot better at senior level.”
McCullough is highly in demand as a coach and has been involved with various county set ups including recently the Kilkenny senior camogs and Dublin senior hurlers as well as Ballyboden St Enda’s senior hurlers.
“If we don’t have a combined schools’ team, maybe a minor or an under 20 team would work. The general attitude in most Ulster counties to the under 20s is terrible anyway. Age-wise, it is maybe a little late. But I think it would be worth a try.
“Ulster hurling has slipped since that schools’ team was tried. Down won the Christy Ring Cup in 2013. Since then no Ulster team has won it and Down, Derry and Antrim (twice) have lost finals.
“We are getting left behind. If we don’t try something, we are going to slip further back.
“What have we got to lose?”