After the proposal had been outlined, there were no dissenters, only words of support and it was backed unanimously. “Football, rugby and soccer are first cousins,” he explains, “You can pick it up from the age of 12 or 13. I can promise you the same can’t be done with hurling. Nicky English is one of only a few who have been able to achieve it. The other 90% of us had to learn it from an early age.”
Next month’s Annual Congress was to be the next step but this past week Fitzgerald was informed that Croke Park had ruled the motion out of order by the rules advisory committee as it was deemed it was already in rule in the form of Rule 1.3: “The Association shall promote and control the National games of Hurling, Gaelic Football, Handball and Rounders, and such other games, as may be sanctioned and approved by Annual Congress.”
Twenty years a Congress delegate, Fitzgerald has been around long enough to know there was a chance it would be scuppered. In truth, his motion reads more like policy than rule and he admits he was vague in his wording of it but so strongly does he feel about hurling’s plight among the youth that he felt he had to take action.
“There is a serious problem with the development of hurling at under-age level. There is a fall-off in the number of children starting the game around the age of seven and the clubs are not able to do much about it on their own.
“What I wanted to do was for the GAA to ensure hurling was unique and given separate status so that it could be treated as such so that a structure could be created to promote and by that I don’t mean more summer camps. Rugby, soccer... everybody is doing them now. The club isn’t making a connection with the child that way. One week he might be hurling but the next he’s playing rugby and the following week soccer. You look at the thousands who attend them in Limerick city and very little of them connect to clubs.
“I don’t mean more GDAs (Games Development Administrators) either. I mean setting up a monitoring committee of six or seven people who go around and advise Bord na nÓgs and clubs how to attract children to play hurling and stay playing it.
Schools of excellence are fine and they’re picking one or two out of a club here and there to get the VIP treatment but I’m talking about the young club players.”
Fitzgerald senses disenchantment among hurling supporters that the GAA isn’t doing enough for the game.
“When the motion was put to one side, I genuinely felt is there anybody aware of what I’m aware of or am I all wrong. I don’t think I’m wrong. I’m not a crank. I like to think I’ve a fair handle on what’s going on in under-age hurling.
“Hurling people feel everything happening with Croke Park is football-orientated. They think when there is a good All-Ireland final between Tipperary and Kilkenny everything is brilliant. But what is happening on the ground is serious and if something isn’t done they will pay for it.
“Young fellas are not playing the game and if Croke Park think otherwise they’ve their heads in the sand. I don’t know if they have their finger on the pulse. Kilkenny and Tipperary are traditional, dyed-in-the-wool hurling counties but others find it harder.”
More than 20 years ago, a group in Kilmallock was established to put a shape to their under-age hurling structure. Their work would bear fruit with eight premier minor final titles and the development of inter-county players like Andrew O’Shaughnessy, Gavin O’Mahony, Paudie O’Brien and Graeme Mulcahy.
“Now there are 18 young fellas in sixth class and four of them are hurling. And this is Kilmallock and we’re seen as a powerhouse. Can you imagine if that’s what’s happening here what pressure smaller clubs down the line are under?”
“Hurling clubs in Limerick are holding EGMS, having to go back to members a second and third time to form clubs, because they can’t get officers.”
Fitzgerald noticed the presence of Liam Griffin on the newly-formed Club Players Association executive but he questions the dearth of hurling influence in the group.
“It’s a football-based organisation. I’m not against football – we’ve won football championships. It’s the Dublin football team that are keeping the GAA going, packing Croke Park. How many times is Croke Park filled for hurling games? It should be but it’s not and I think the GAA are completely taking their eye off the ball. Hurling is being left behind.”