In early June, I hopped into my car in Tullycrine in west Clare, made the short journey south west to Killimer before boarding the 1pm Shannon Ferry to Tarbert. Kerry were playing Laois in Tralee so going to Austin Stack Park is as handy for me as a trip to the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick.
There’s something liberating about sipping a coffee on the upper deck of the car ferry, the fresh breeze soothing your face and cleansing your mind. And making that trip always brings back great memories from my time managing Kilmoyley.
I was there in plenty of time but the crowd was so sparse that I wondered was the match even on. There was still little or no activity until about 2.45pm when, the Kerry crowd that had shot down from north Kerry, started filing in the gates. There was a decent travelling support from Laois but the attendance was still far lower than what you’d get for a Kerry county hurling semi-final double header.
I was a little surprised, especially with Kerry having come off a great win the previous week against Westmeath. I enjoyed the match but I still left Tralee feeling a little flat and disappointed by the whole experience. You can’t expect the GAA to drum up support for your own crowd, but my experience of the Joe McDonagh Cup that afternoon was of a great competition, with some excellent players, craving the respect it deserves, but is always unlikely to get.
The Joe McDonagh Cup was far more competitive than the Munster Championship this year, but the competition is forever going to be strait-jacketed unless the authorities do more to help the counties involved develop, fulfil, and realise their potential.
Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett, the former Laois manager, made some brilliant points last week about what needs to be done, not just to increase the profile and respect of the Joe McDonagh, but to grow the game to the level it needs — and deserves — to be at.
I’d love to see a guy like Cheddar involved in a high-powered committee that would draw up a long-term vision for 16 counties. Then let that committee look at strategic plans, operation plans and performance reviews required to close the gap that has always existed.
The GAA really need to get serious about this issue and the only way to drive these counties to perform and be competitive in an All-Ireland championship is through serious financial and structural investment.
The GAA have Martin Fogarty employed as a National Hurling Development Manager. They had Paudie Butler in a similar role before Martin. I was at a couple of Paudie’s workshops where he’d have the hairs standing on the back of your neck like a porcupine, and you’d leave the place hopping with enthusiasm.
Martin is such a passionate and knowledgeable hurling man that you’d stand out talking to him about hurling for hours in a thunderstorm. Yet how much can Martin really do? How much converting can one evangelist really manage?
It’s been a stain on the GAA’s name that it has failed the game for over a century but the organisation — particularly the hierarchy and leadership — have far less excuses now given the financial clout and resources within the GAA.
They can talk all they want about promoting the Joe McDonagh Cup, but that’s a load of rubbish. I was in the ridiculous position last week in Croke Park where the match was on behind me and I couldn’t watch it. I was taking notes on the Munster final while on duty for RTÉ but, even if I wasn’t working, of course I’d have been watching the Munster final ahead of the Joe McDonagh Cup decider.
Westmeath captain Aonghus Clarke said in these pages on Thursday that it was ‘totally unfair’ on his county to have just a seven-day turnaround before facing Cork tomorrow. Aonghus was being diplomatic because it’s a disgrace. Cork have had 21 days to get ready for this match. Dublin will have had 22.
There are very few sports where a team which wins its biggest and most important competition doesn’t have the opportunity to properly celebrate it. Leinster have had to play a Guinness PRO14 final a week after winning a Champions Cup, but the PRO14 is small fry compared to the Champions Cup, while Leinster are going to be favourites all day long to win that game. Leinster are professionals whereas Laois are now expected to take on a team operating at a level above them.
It’s all wrong, especially when all this stuff has been so well flagged for so long, but Laois and Westmeath have to try and forget about that sense of injustice now and just go at Dublin and Cork.
Westmeath, who were also runners-up last year, performed better against Wexford than Carlow did against Limerick. That had as much to do with the comparative qualities of both Liam MacCarthy sides last year, but it is probably easier for the Joe McDonagh runners-up to play like a team pissed off and looking to vent.
Westmeath will rattle into Cork in Cusack Park. I’m sure the great hurling people up there will come out in force, not just to support their own, but to see Patrick Horgan, Seamus Harnedy and co up close. It’s a novel experience having Cork in town, but that’s as good as it will get for Westmeath.
Laois, on the other hand, have a decent chance against Dublin. They have serious firepower, but they’ll struggle to hold out against Dublin’s attack.
When I was Dublin manager, I always had great respect for Matthew Whelan. I worried whether Ryan O’Dwyer would be good enough to handle him at centre-forward, but now that the years have caught up with Matthew, he’ll have his hands full with Oisín O’Rourke or Eamonn Dillon.
Going to Portlaoise too will put the Dubs on edge because it forces them out of their comfort zone of Parnell Park. They should win by five or six points tomorrow, but the results are almost irrelevant in any debate or talk about these two fixtures.
Because the bigger picture for hurling, and expanding the hurling landscape, should be the only picture that really counts.