Wicklow face Derry in the Allianz Division 2B League final tomorrow afternoon, a game you may associate with simmering dissatisfaction about its location (Inniskeen, which is not Croke Park).
Both managers have a match to prepare for, however. Former Wexford star Eamonn Scallan is on the sideline for Wicklow, but before talking league finals he broadens the discussion to hurling standards in the Garden County - and realistic models for Wicklow to follow.
“To raise standards at club level requires a lot of work at underage level. If Wicklow want to progress then that has to be done, because it’s what was done in Carlow and the effects of that are beginning to be seen there in the county senior team. It’s possible for the likes of Wicklow to get up there, but it takes time and it takes money — it’ll probably mean money from Croke Park, finance, and whether Croke Park want to do that or not I don’t know.
“There’s a willingness in Wicklow to feed into this if there’s a structure put in place to help them. There is a level of interest there, and the Wicklow minor team are getting good attendance at training, they’re paying attention to strength and conditioning... it’ll take time but it’ll have to be done if they’re to progress.”
That reference to Carlow isn’t accidental. Having coached at club level in the county, Scanlan knows the scene there and says the county side have “come on a ton,” crediting manager Colm Bonnar and his team, adding that what Carlow have done is “achievable” for Wicklow.
“What does Wicklow need to do? It needs a coaching structure to develop the skills, conditioning and lifestyle of intercounty hurlers, starting at the age of 13, 14, 15 — it might be a focus on skills at that age and then, around 16, introduce the basics of strength and conditioning and nutrition. If that’s done then by the time they’re 19, and hopefully breaking through to the senior grade, they have the basics.
“It’s a running start, and what’s needed isn’t a big shock to them. It isn’t the first time they’re introduced to the gym, or statistics and analysis. Carlow worked well to link in to the coaching courses in Carlow IT, Limerick linked to UL, Cork with CIT and UCC — Wicklow doesn’t have a third-level institution in the county itself but there are players who are students in UCD, DIT, DCU — they’re getting exposed to freshers and Fitzgibbon hurling.
What you don’t have is the conveyor belt there is in Cork or Limerick or other counties. But don’t forget that that conveyor belt exists because of the work that was put in, and in a lot of the big counties it was recognised that that work needed to be put in.
“That needs work and money and time — and coaching. It’s great to have people coaching, but you can’t develop bad habits either, so sometimes you need to do some coaching of the coaches.”
Laois native John McEvoy, a former Dublin U21 hurling manager, is in charge of Derry. He agreed with Scallan’s identification of Carlow as a realistic model: “That’d be a fair assessment. They’re a good bit ahead of us at the moment, but it’s a good assessment of what could be done in five to ten years. Derry County Board has been hugely supportive of us, of the entire backroom team, and they’re working hard.”
McEvoy sees promising signs in Derry. “There are more teams involved generally, that’s a positive. At schools level St Patrick’s, Maghera is the equivalent of a schools hurling nursery, though football is very strong there as well. They’re in the Paddy Buggy Cup (All-Ireland Post Primary SBHC) this weekend — they lost the final last year in extra-time — and while there are a few other schools involved they mightn’t be at quite the same level.
“The academy has a pretty good record in the Celtic Challenge in their division, and Kevin Kelly is involved with them. Kevin Hinphey is the regional development officer and he’s done massive work; he had another guy with him as a full-time coach as well. You’d like more coaches and there’s talk of getting a coach for Derry city, which would be great. It’s also about getting lads playing. We only pick from six clubs playing at senior level, so it’s a challenge. It’s also an advantage in that you get to know them quickly.”
Both men point to green shoots in their counties’ club activities also.
“Slaughtneil have broken the mould in terms of winning an Ulster club,” says McEvoy. “And there’s club co-operation at cross-county level. At minor a lot of Ulster counties play in a league - Derry do - and it’s helped. It might not be perfect but it’s certainly developing the game. Going back to Carlow, there aren’t a lot of senior clubs competing for the senior championship there,” says Scallan. In Wicklow there’s also a small number of clubs competing, but there’s no particular reason Wicklow couldn’t emulate what Carlow have done.
“Now it’s taken Carlow a couple of years, and they have the advantage of having Mount Leinster Rangers in the county, getting to provincial finals and so on. You have Myshall, St Mullin’s, Ballinkillen... in Wicklow you have Glenealy, Carnew, St Pat’s as well as teams in Greystones and Avondale.” And tomorrow? The teams met very recently in the league and Wicklow came away winners, 2-16 to 0-16.
“We were well beaten last weekend,” says McEvoy. “We were disappointed in the way we hurled. We had a strong team out but Wicklow were superior. Our hurling needs to be faster this weekend - I know it’s a cliche but hopefully there’ll only be a score between us.”
His counterpart isn’t paying too much attention to that victory either.
“Finals take on a life of their own,” says Scallan. “We could walk away after the game and say ‘we’ve regressed a little’ or ‘we’ve progressed a little’.
“We’ve played Derry in the league, this is the league final and we’ll also be playing them in the Christy Ring Cup. Neither team will change hugely in terms of personnel over the course of those games. I don’t think there’s more than a goal or four points between us. We’re even enough. Though we won last week I’d say Derry are marginally ahead of us in terms of their development, but we’re happy enough where we are.”