Does hurling in Cork, Offaly, and Wexford need an Emergency Response Unit?

In 2014, the then GAA President, Liam O’Neill established the Hurling 2020 Committee, under the chairmanship of Liam Sheedy, to look at the game and to submit proposals for appropriate change to ensure the improvement of the game over the next 20 years.

Does hurling in Cork, Offaly, and Wexford need an Emergency Response Unit?

The appointment of a National Director of Hurling was one of the main proposals. If a hurling consultant looked at the inter-county game in the top 10 counties he would be concerned with the state of play in the bottom three —Cork, Offaly and Wexford.

Offaly won three minor All-Irelands in 1986,’87 and ’89 but haven’t won since. These three victories provided a strong base for the All-Ireland senior wins in ’94 and ’98. They have a good chance of reaching this year’s Leinster semi-final. But they are not remotely close to Dublin, Galway or Kilkenny, the other likely semi-finalists.

It is a similar story with Wexford. The last minor title they won was the 1985 Leinster final. Their county board can point to victory in the last three U21 Leinster competitions but the reality is that they are struggling to make an impact at the top level. County Cork coaching officer, Kevin O’Donovan, feels that there is now a crisis by Leeside. Cork have no U21 All-Ireland since ’98 or minor since 2001.

So is it now time for a director and directorate of hurling to be appointed in Croke Park? Of course there is no point in appointing a director who will mainly spend his time visiting clubs in the four provinces as a PR exercise or to partake in coaching courses. I would envisage the director heading up, what is to all intents and purposes, a hurling “emergency response unit” and it would begin with visits to the three aforementioned counties.

It would aim to establish ‘best practice’ throughout the nation in hurling development and promotion. Obviously the hurling director would work with county boards to seek solutions to ongoing developmental problems but she/he could also set up a task force within the county to implement proposals without having to go through hours of planning committee meetings seeking a consensus that one may never achieve. County boards, by their nature, are conservative institutions and as WB Yeats might say change “comes dropping slow”.

This unit could examine county development policies, commission reports, interview county board officers, implement plans, bypassing local committees if the need arose. If county boards lacked the wherewithal to develop and promote the game at inter-county level, then the director of hurling and the directorate would step in and deal directly with games promotion and development over the head of the board, more or less as the IMF did with the finances of this country a few years ago.

I’m unsure as to how Offaly or Wexford coaching officers view the state of hurling in their areas but the Cork coaching officer has put his views on the record. He received a round of applause from conservative board delegates for his state-of-the- nation address. So you can take it there is a crisis in Cork, and crises always demand strong responses.

It is a given that national, or at least provincial, success is one of the greatest tools in existence for games promotion among the youth. Successful teams create heroes. These inspire youngsters and encourage them to practice the skills so that one day they will follow in their footsteps.

One sees evidence of this constantly throughout the league. At half-time, like a swarm of ants, young hurley-wielding enthusiasts invade the pitch and cover every blade of grass of hallowed turf in various venues. Then, when requested, they melt away back from whence they came. This 10 minutes of free time hurling in a big stadium, where one’s heroes join battle, is inestimable in the development of a young player. This constant cycle perpetuates the magic of the county jersey and therefore the ‘county brand’ from one generation to the next.

Inspiration is the spark that lights the hurling fire in the heart of youngsters in every county, but mediocrity hardly inspires. Once the ‘brand’ slips from great heights, just like evolution, who knows if it’s on its way to being an endangered species or worse, extinct?

At times county boards take an insular view. When one seldom goes outside to look in, it is difficult to see the wood from the trees. A directorate in Croke Park would have the advantage of viewing things dispassionately from afar and might clearly see opportunities that could well be missed by those constantly working at local level. Just as the Skibbereen Eagle was keeping an eye on the Czar of Russia in 1898, the hurling director could keep an eye on hurling development standards within counties and be in a position to move quickly to organise a response if required.

If such a directorate existed in Croke Park, it might feel that Wexford, Offaly, and Cork have slipped dangerously into the ‘At Risk’ category. Having looked at the underage records of these counties the director might conclude that direct intervention was the only way forward. Speed of planning and implementation would be of the essence to arrest the slide.

Dublin wrote the ‘book’ for the revival of inter-county hurling. This model could be followed and modified for Offaly, Wexford, and Cork. One area that ‘direct rule’ could influence very positively would be coaching in primary and second level schools and in the urban areas. Comparing the number of school coaches in Dublin to the number in the three troubled counties would be a good indicator of the efforts required to what it takes to turn things around. County boards will always look at the economics of change. Lack of finance will always be trotted as an excuse for inactivity but ambition costs nothing.

Overseas fund-raising is commonplace today. Offaly and Wexford are probably better off financially than Cork as their county ground development works are completed. When are Cork going to cop on to the idea of raising finance abroad? Every loose penny in Cork GAA circles will be hoovered up, for the foreseeable future, for the development of Páirc Uí Chaoimh. All-Ireland winning captains and hurlers of note could be used as ambassadors globally to raise funds for the development of Cork hurling. Of course it should have happened long before now. These funds would be ring-fenced and used exclusively for coaching expenses and the development of hurling centres with all-weather facilities, hurling walls and grass pitches. It would be administered by a special finance committee, independent of the board, which has enough money issues to worry about with the massive sums involved in the stadium development.

I’m aware from Michael Moynihan’s recent piece in this newspaper on New York GAA that they have concerns about ‘over fundraising’ by various GAA units in the city and the impact it will have on funding renovations in Gaelic Park in the Bronx. If funds were raised for Cork hurling in NYC, could a portion of the funds not be given for Gaelic Park redevelopment? It might encourage all fundraising groups to follow suit.

Of course, there are quite a few other cities in America other than New York...

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