Micky McCullough: ‘Will we allow Ulster hurling regress to the point it’s extinct?’

Micky McCullough, from the Falls Road, coaches Joe Fortune’s Ballyboden St Enda’s in tomorrow’s Leinster SHC semi-final meeting with Coolderry. But it’s the state of hurling in his own province that’s a huge concern to a man who had to overcome adversity all his life. And he fears Ulster hurling will soon be extinct unless drastic action is taken.

Micky McCullough: ‘Will we allow Ulster hurling regress to the point it’s extinct?’

Micky McCullough, from the Falls Road, coaches Joe Fortune’s Ballyboden St Enda’s in tomorrow’s Leinster SHC semi-final meeting with Coolderry. But it’s the state of hurling in his own province that’s a huge concern to a man who had to overcome adversity all his life. And he fears Ulster hurling will soon be extinct unless drastic action is taken.

He too is hurling.

Meeting Micky McCullough can be as arresting as Denzel Washington in The Great Debaters writing ‘Revolution’ on the chalkboard and hopping onto the table of a black college classroom in the deep south of 1930s America to recite a Langston Hughes poem.

Just as Hughes declares that he is the other, ‘darker’ brother who also sings America, McCullough reminds you that he likewise is Ireland and sings All-Irelands. Ulster hurling folk like him may be sent to the kitchen whenever Liam MacCarthy company comes but he continues to laugh and eat well and grow strong and dreams of a tomorrow when he and his kind will be at the top table and no one will dare tell them to eat in the cellar that’s the Christy Ring or Nicky Rackard or Lory Meagher then.

That the sport’s aristocracy will see how beautiful he and his kind can be, and that those aristocrats will be ashamed.

He too is hurling.

This brother isn’t the subservient, Uncle-Tom type. He’s a Dre, a Cube, brimming with attitude, straight outta West Belfast and the Falls Road. Although he’s spread his coaching wings in recent years, playing his part in Meath’s Christy Ring success in 2016 and Ballyboden St Enda’s county title win in Dublin last month, he hasn’t forgotten where he’s come from and how Ulster hurling appears to be going nowhere.

When the idea of a Team Ulster was floated five years ago by southern commentators like Dónal Óg Cusack and even by the GPA, he couldn’t publicly speak up because he was still an employee of Ulster Council. Now, having long since quit that job and seen how the health of the sport in the province has only worsened, he’s more than ready to step up to the mic and rap about it on the record. Because it needs to be said. The idea needs to be revived so that hurling in his beloved province can be revived.

“Unless Antrim win the McDonagh Cup or win in the boardroom again, there’s never going to be an Ulster person who can play in the Liam MacCarthy Cup,” says McCullough.

“That’s a fact. And that’s a scandal. That in our national association, founded by our forefathers to keep our Irish tradition alive, and in the province where nobody has suffered more to keep that Irish tradition alive, we can’t f***ing play or aspire to play at the top level in our national sport?”

He has a problem with that word: Can’t. His whole story and outlook is all about Can.

He was born with a right arm only half the length of his left, going just a wee bit past his elbow. That right hand is bent in, with no thumb. To form a hurling grip he had to use his baby right finger as a substitute thumb. And yet he played Fitzgibbon with his college, minor and U21 hurling and football for his county and won a senior championship with his club, being marked by Jackie Tyrrell in the subsequent All-Ireland semi-final.

When he first met Tyrrell’s former county teammate David Herity ahead of the goalkeeper taking McCullough’s own netminders for a session they had arranged over the phone, it was a freezing cold morning, forcing McCullough to keep both hands snuggled in his pockets. Herity recognised the crest on McCullough’s jacket.

Is that a St Mary’s [Grammar School] top?

It is, aye.

God, I remember with Callan CBS we played them and they had this fella with one arm who was class!

McCullough produced his right arm. Micky ‘Wing’ in the flesh, nice to meet you too.

“People would say to me, ‘Imagine what you’d be like if you had two arms.’ But I always think if I had two arms the temptation would have been to take what I had for granted. They say if you want to be number one, train like you’re number two. I trained like I was number two.”

Where he grew up wasn’t the easiest either. His grandfather Charlie had a brother murdered by the Shankill Butchers. Even after the 1994 ceasefire there was the occasional flashpoint.

The night the British soldier Lee Clegg was released under licence having shot dead two joyriders at a checkpoint, a teenaged McCullough was awoken by his parents to find the street right outside his window ablaze.

“My dad decided my aunt’s place would be a safer place for me to be so I remember us crawling through bushes on our way there. At one stage Dad pinned me against a wall to cover me after some shots were fired. We took this detour down an alleyway where we saw a petrol-bomb factory had been set up.

“I don’t even have a recollection of being worried about how my dad got back down to my ma again. It wasn’t unusual. I remember another time the joiner living across the road begging them [the local youths] not to take his van but they did and put it across the road and set it on fire. For the next few days going to school all you saw were burned buses everywhere.”

Amidst the mayhem, the clubfield was a sanctuary. His teacher in P4 was Mark Barr, brother of All-Star Ciaran, and a county hurler in his own right who saw to it that a bus at the top of the Donegal Road would collect any kid interested in playing for O’Donovan Rossa. Within four years McCullough was in Croke Park watching the two Barrs play in both the club and inter-county All-Ireland finals. By the time Rossa next won a county 16 years later McCullough himself was on the team and at the medal presentation made sure he got a picture taken with Mark Barr.

It was another hero of ’89 that roped him into coaching his first team. Former county manager Jim Nelson was aware McCullough was studying sports studies in Jordanstown so asked if he would give a hand training the senior Rossa camogie team. Together they’d win three consecutive Ulsters and contest the All-Ireland senior final. When Nelson stepped aside, McCullough led the girls to win the All-Ireland outright, the first team from Ulster to do so.

By then the day job was coaching as well, working as a hurling development officer for Tyrone GAA. After five years the role was assimilated into the Ulster Council machine. At first McCullough was all for it.

“You went in thinking you were going to make a difference. But I soon found out that wasn’t the case. We did nothing. And I’m saying ‘we’. I was part of it. Eventually I walked away, as did a lot of the other boys. I decided, ‘I’m not going to be part of the problem in ruining the sport that I love and has given me so much.’”

Early into the job he and some colleagues met up and started discussing the merits and format of an U16 hurling league. There were all these kids coming out of U14 with nothing really for them after Féile. What if you got the two or three clubs in Fermanagh and gave them games against the few clubs in Armagh? And Tyrone? And… Then a prick was inserted into the balloon.

“Our boss said, ‘Lads, lads, relax! As long as we don’t interfere with football, we’ll still get our wages.’”

Instead they were told to just stick to their basic function: go around the primary schools of the province and coach some kids. Keep shovelling shit, don’t worry about strategy. The worst part about it, it’s still Ulster Council’s sole hurling policy.

“My heart goes out to the lads on the ground. They’re troopers, out there every day in the rain, hail, shit and snow. But are they making any inroads? No. The only people it’s helping are the teachers who think it’s great because they get an hour to mark some copybooks and get a coffee. And the lads know they’re not making any inroads, going from school to school, grabbing a sandwich in the car and going without talking to an adult all day.

“It’s the people above them that are the problem. I’ve never seen a strategy for Ulster hurling. If you’re the development manager of a sport, is the best usage of your time really to be driving to a primary school and see if your coaches are slacking? Would your people not be better being told, ‘Link up with clubs near those schools and get them to put coaches into those schools. Coach coaches instead of coaching kids you won’t see for months.’”

McCullough was fortunate that Down’s secretary Seán Óg McAteer was progressive enough to identify his time would be better spent working with secondary schools who already played hurling. Only one Down school was playing Mageean Cup (Ulster A colleges) hurling but what if the rest formed a combined team? McAteer put his money where his mouth was, laying on three buses for every training session. Kids from schools where there might only be two hurlers suddenly had an avenue to playing at a good level.

The impact was immediate. The Down combined colleges contested the next two Mageean finals. And the legacy continues even since McCullough’s departure. This past week Down won the Mageean final by 15 points.

In 2012, McCullough rolled out a similar model for all of Ulster. Trials and training sessions were held in Queen’s University with 12 Antrim boys, 11 from Down, two apiece from Derry and Armagh and one from Tyrone making the cut. They played a series of challenge games down south, clipping St Peter’s, Wexford by 16 points and running the Kilkenny minors to within a point.

It had been over a decade since the province last had a team enter the Hogan Cup, having lost every match in the 1990s by an average scoreline of 2-18 to 0-5. The combined team lost to Mercy College, Galway, 2-12 to 1-14 after an injury-time Jason Flynn penalty.

It was clearly the way forward but almost instantly the GAA condemned it to the past; after a combined Waterford colleges team won the competition outright backboned by a Dungarvan school that had won the B All Ireland, the authorities decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater and ban any further combined sides competing in the All-Ireland series.

But what probably galls McCullough more is that his own province itself hasn’t even debated replicating the Team Ulster at inter-county level.

“I often think we’d have been better off if we didn’t do it [the combined colleges]. All we did was tease boys. It was like showing a child on Christmas morning a PlayStation and letting them have one go at it, then putting it back into the box and taking it back to the shop.”

Jason Flynn has since played in three All-Ireland finals. Meanwhile our boys have been stuck in Christy Rings.

“The people who came out and were rolled out to say a Team Ulster wouldn’t work. I’d say to them: Have you any experience of it? No. Have you tried it? No. So what are you basing your conclusion that it wouldn’t work on? All they can say is, ‘I just don’t think it’d work.’ But the combined colleges showed it can.

“And what I’d say to anyone who is against the idea of a Team Ulster is, well, is it going to make things any worse than it is?

“People argued a Team Ulster would take the best five or six players in Derry or Antrim away from their county. But in those counties there’s five or six of their best players not hurling anyway. We have to give them something to get the juices going.

“What would improve Fermanagh hurling more? A Lory Meagher final in front of 200 people or two Fermanagh lads making a Team Ulster panel and Fermanagh people going to watch two of their own play at the highest level?

“Unless we do something to address the problem, we’re only going to allow hurling regress to the point it’s f***ing extinct and it’ll be up here they’ll be sending Kilkenny and Galway to instead of Australia.”

All he sees is rampant apathy and zero accountability. Every year over €250,000 is spent on the salary of Ulster’s hurling development officers and a development manager. Do Croke Park ever ask are they getting value for that money? Any involvement from HQ tends to be merely of the orthodox and unimaginative variety, bordering on mere tokenism. So far McCullough has been underwhelmed by the approach of national development manager Martin Fogarty.

“I’ve challenged Martin on this. He goes up and tells lads they aren’t doing too bad. Really? You think things aren’t too bad? Down couldn’t beat Mayo last year to win the [Div 2B] league. Armagh were relegated [to Div 3]. Derry won no game in that league until they beat Armagh in the [relegation] playoff. Antrim were relegated [from 1B]. Tell me, is there anything our underage teams are doing? Nothing. Our schools teams? Very little. Can you tell me numbers are up? No, they’re going down. Yet you’re telling me we’re doing grand? Bullshit!

“One of the first coaching workshops that Martin ran up here he brought up Tommy Walsh, Michael Rice, Jackie Tyrrell and Brian Hogan. Now, let me make it clear: for kids to meet those players is absolutely phenomenal. But this was a coaching event. I’m a coach. And I’m being told how to coach by people who don’t coach?

“So it’s one of two things — either you’re bluffing or you think that it doesn’t really matter, they don’t have a clue up in Ulster anyway. I found that derogatory and I know a lot of other coaches who didn’t go to it for the same reason.

“I want to learn about how to break out of defence or ways how to play against a sweeper. The other night I met [Davy Fitzgerald’s long-time assistant] Seoirse Bulfin because I wanted to run a few things like that past him. I didn’t call Matthew O’Hanlon. Because Matthew’s a player, he’s not a coach!”

He’s seen Fogarty has changed tack. More recently Eamon O’Shea has been up rather than a Lar Corbett. But again McCullough feels that subliminally sends the wrong message to the native population.

“There’s never any of our own asked to present at these things. I look at Shane Elliott and Gregory O’Kane with Dunloy. Top coaches. Cormac ‘Hippy’ Donnelly from Ballycastle was involved with Slaughtneil when they won those Ulsters. Gabriel O’Kane who has done great work in Donegal. Mattie Lennon who has done great work in Tyrone and now Armagh. Mickey Glover who won back-to-back All Irelands with the Slaughtneil camógs. Why can’t Martin use some of these people? Because if you keep bringing just Tipp people or Kilkenny people all the time, all it’s saying after a while is ‘Look what you can’t do.’”

If a Team Ulster was established — operating out of the highly-accessible Queen’s University, just like the 2012 combined colleges — McCullough accepts it would have to initially be run by Croke Park, not existing Ulster Council personnel, and that there would need to be a heavy-hitter, like a Derek McGrath figure, at the helm. But crucially that outside manager should then be surrounded by native coaches.

And whatever about Antrim being involved, it’s a no-brainer for him that there should be a Team Ulster for the other eight counties. And that it should be rolled out at minor and U21 level as well. If you had some Antrim players involved, he thinks you’d be bound to see Ulster win an All Ireland quarter-final at least once every three years.

“Every year up here you have clubs who decide, ‘Let’s get a bus and bring the kids down to an All Ireland semi-final so they can see some hurling.’ But imagine what would that would be like if they were going to see not just Joe Canning but players from their own county, maybe their own club, playing on the same day?”

As a kid in 1989 he watched his club and county both play in the All-Ireland final, as if he were a lad from Galway or Kilkenny.

“It doesn’t occur to anyone here to think like that again.

“It’s not a logical aspiration.”

What keeps him sane is that he’s a coach, not a player. He’s free to team up with people from other counties. He’s become a familiar figure on the Dublin scene, having done some coaching with UCD when Walter Walsh and Cillian Buckley were there, and been involved with a Kilmacud Crokes side that contested a county final.

At the start of this season then he got a call from Joe Fortune, manager of Ballyboden St Enda’s, asking if he would make the commute from Coalisland where he lives with his wife and teaches in a local primary school.

“I had two options. Either I could travel and test myself or I could go around the corner and take a handy team and spend my Tuesday and Thursday nights ringing lads, ‘Where are you?’”

In Ballyboden attending training is not an issue. It’s just a matter of application there. This season Fortune and McCullough have stressed workrate, which has resulted in a county star like Paul Ryan having the highest tackle count of his career.

Ballyboden St Enda’s county star Paul Ryan is a having the highest tackle count of his career under Micky McCullough’s tutelage. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach
Ballyboden St Enda’s county star Paul Ryan is a having the highest tackle count of his career under Micky McCullough’s tutelage. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach

And yet fun is as big for them as hard work. During the summer after a gruelling physical session with the club’s footballers down in the Curragh, the footballers’ manager, Anthony Rainbow, being so familiar with that part of the world, had a barbeque brought in for them all.

“I hate seeing teams getting off the bus with their earphones and their big sad faces. Sixteen teams enter the Dublin championship. Fifteen of them aren’t going to win it so they might as well as say you’ve enjoyed it.”

No one is sacred when it comes to slagging. Not even Conal Keaney. And not even Micky ‘Wing’. That’s fine with him. That arm has been good to him. He’s still been able to fly with it. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

He copped that a long time ago. And some day, he hopes, so will Ulster hurling.

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