How did that happen? Along with St Finbarr’s, these are two of the ‘Big Three’ of Cork hurling: between them the three have 82 Cork senior hurling titles. Are they just having a bad patch, or is there a deeper problem here, one with implications for the GAA a whole? Alan Browne collected three county titles with Blackrock, going back to their last championship win in 2002. He says the Rockies have been doing well at underage level in recent years, but he rounds out that picture fully.
“The minors have been good, so have the U21s, and we were expecting the U21s to come through already, maybe, but there are no guarantees.
“Years ago I was playing U21 with Blackrock but I was the only one from that U21 team who went on to the club senior team. That’s one out of 25 or so players on an U21 panel.
“You also have fellas, well... to succeed at hurling you need a certain mentality, and you’d have fellas who decide to play junior because their attitude dictates that; they don’t want to train four nights a week and lose out on their Saturday nights out.
“If they play junior they’ll get away with that, even though they may be good enough skill-wise for senior. I’ve seen a bit of that too, and it’s not confined to Blackrock.”
Then there’s the change in the environment. Diarmuid O’Donovan, a lifelong member of Glen Rovers, broadens the discussion.
“You can’t divorce the Glen’s current situation, and the situation with other city clubs, from the changes in the urban area.
“For instance, one significant thing in the background of this whole thing is that up to the ’70s there was very little private housing built on the northside of the city. A lot of Glen Rovers officers in the ’60s, for instance, were living away from the area — in Douglas, Bishopstown, places like that, because they simply couldn’t buy a house in the area. That didn’t help, though the Glen still had a very successful ’70s.
“The centre of it would have been Seamus O’Brien’s shop in the middle of Blackpool, which was the Twitter of its day — the club revolved around it. Where it all got complicated was when that faded away, and when the old lanes around Blackpool were demolished. That destroyed the social fabric of the area.
“The high rise flats that were built never worked, and never became part of Blackpool, and didn’t contribute to the Glen.
“The Glen also had a conveyor belt in the North Mon, Farranferris and Blackpool National School. The latter two are gone now and the Mon isn’t the force it was in colleges hurling.
“Finally — and this goes for a lot of clubs — is that buying grounds and developing dressing-rooms and clubhouses became important, and people’s energy was devoted to that. So when you had officers who were capable but who weren’t living in the area, they only had so much time to give to the club, and a lot of time they were putting that into buying grounds and opening club bars, and so forth. And not into training teams, necessarily.”
In his day job with Murray Browne Auctioneers, Alan Browne sees the impact of demographics as well, though it’s slightly different in Blackrock.
“Older lads, from 25, 26 up, are probably not living in the area and younger lads will find it hard to buy in the area. There aren’t huge housing developments in the area, though properties are coming on stream individually.
“We’d have sold a lot of properties in Blackrock and Ballinlough, and a lot of times those would have belonged to people who’ve passed away — new people move in, their kids go down to the local club, but it takes time for them to come through at adult level.
“People who’ve moved from Blackrock to Carrigaline or Ballincollig or wherever, unless the parent has a particularly strong affiliation with the club then they’re not going to fight the traffic all the way back a couple of times a week to let the kids play for their old club.
“They’ll let them play away with their school friends or friends from next door at the local club, otherwise they’re just uprooting them. That’s understandable.”
Player movement works another way, too. John Considine, UCC lecturer in economics and former Cork hurling manager, offers a historical perspective.
“This isn’t something that just happened in the ’00s. This has been coming for years.
“The last dominant city senior team was the Barrs in the early ’80s and they had players from Mallow, Aghada, Aghabullogue, Cloughduv, Wexford... players from outside the city who transferred to the Barrs. That happened with other clubs as well: people were coming to work in the city, to live in the city, and then they played in the city.
“Now that’s changed. Transport options mean people stay with their own clubs — and with their own local schools, too, which means you don’t have a couple of big successful schools in the city — no matter where they’re living.
“In one estate in Glanmire for a while you had Diarmuid O’Sullivan, Mark Landers, Mark Mullins and Seanie McGrath — you nearly had an inter-county team in a street. But they were all playing with their home clubs.”
Alan Browne agrees: “Noel Keane came to live in Cork from Tipperary, and he came to play for us. We were a target because lads from outside the county would say, ‘Blackrock are a successful club, I’ll join them’. But we don’t see players like that any more.”
So it’s a catch 22: players from other clubs who move into your area stay loyal to their own outfits, and the players you export to nearby suburbs keep their kids playing locally?
“Exactly,” says Browne. “Not living in the area, I think you lose that edge a bit. You go to training and then you’re gone, and there’s no affiliation with the area apart from playing with the club.
“If you’re living locally you go to the shop, you meet locals, you’re with a few lads in the pub for a pint on a Friday. In Blackrock that’s changed. Before you’d be heading to mass on Sunday morning and you’d meet other players, or their parents, you’re talking about the game that Sunday or the night before, everyone’s interested in how the club is going.”
Is part of the problem the big clubs’ image of themselves?
“There’s a perception within the big clubs that they have the right to do things, and outside the club there’s a perception that they’re better than they are,” says O’Donovan.
“There’d be a sense of ‘we’ve always done it this way’ but the reason for that is because trial and error in the past found that was the best way to go. I think the Glen and Blackrock — the Barrs to a lesser extent — feel they have to carry the standard, and they haven’t realised that their role within the community has changed totally.
“If you got a map and drew a circle around the Glen grounds that represented a mile in all directions, if you knocked on every door within that circle and asked what colours the Glen wore, you’d get a disappointing answer. But if you did it with Clyda Rovers, or Boherbue, they’d name the team for you.
“The clubs in the city aren’t connected to their communities: there are big walls around the facilities to keep vandals out, but they’re also shutting out the community. The big three clubs in the city have massive assets, but they’re not connected to their communities the way rural clubs are.”
O’Donovan sees this as an issue that goes far beyond relegation concerns for clubs in Cork. “It’s a big challenge for the GAA as a whole, by the way, and one they haven’t addressed properly yet. The relevance of the GAA club in post-Catholic Ireland, where the parish means nothing, hasn’t been addressed, and Croke Park seems more focused on getting bums on seats rather than re-establishing the club’s relevance in urban environments.”
There are advantages to being a city club, though. O’Donovan sees one plus that would benefit GAA units in the city on the double.
“The city clubs should come together and bargain collectively with breweries, with the City Council and so on — they should strike deals, as a collective, to improve the prices they’re getting to buy beer, on rates, on various goods and services.
“That would free up fellas within the clubs to concentrate on the core activities, the games. Most clubs are under such financial pressure that the energy is all being focused on keeping the club afloat, pure and simple. That’s why it’s more important to elect a good financial committee at the club AGM than it is to get the best selection committee for your senior team.
“You can always come back into the senior grade if you’re relegated. You can fix that within a season. But one year of maladministration and the club is set back a decade. In that sense I actually think relegation has been helpful. It’s bringing this to the fore. It means clubs have to face up to it rather than limping along at senior level when they don’t deserve to be there.”
Browne sounds a similar note: “Blackrock are facing relegation, the Glen could be facing relegation, and clubs must realise that things have changed. They have a small pick and they have to make the best of it.
“The other side of it, of course, is that you just need that one win to give you the momentum to drive you on.”