Standing on the sideline with the Kilkenny senior team gave Martin Fogarty a close-up view of the bright lights and the biggest days. Now he’s national hurling development manager, he sees what’s happening off Broadway.
Or even off-off Broadway.
“The big problem for hurling in marginalised counties is the small number of clubs. Within that then you have to get people involved to coach hurling, and the game is not that easy to pick up, the people involved feel they need to know something about the game — which they don’t, but that’s not the point — and the result is that it’s difficult to bring up little units.
“In about 14 counties there are very few clubs, and because of that games programmes are very limited. The knock-on effect is that young kids don’t see a challenging sports career, particularly if their championship could be run off over two weekends in October.”
There are “two levels” in hurling, he adds: “At intercounty level last year the season was mind-blowing, let’s be honest. But there’s another level, and what we’re trying to do is to acknowledge the work being done by people at that level of hurling and, as an Association, trying to do more for them.
“That’s difficult. But instead of just being negative, we’re trying to work with them. There are Cul Camps and schools competitions in these counties but we also need to be constantly aware of their challenges.
“It’s like a club enjoying success at senior level but neglecting its underage. Giving exposure to these people for the work they’re doing is important, because I’ve asked myself the question — if I were living in one of these counties would I be involved in hurling? I don’t know if I would be.”
Accordingly, Fogarty is pushing the Tain Leagues in the north of the country as a means of increasing participation, reiterating the club analogy when it comes to developing the sport: “If you just deal with the older lads then you’re missing out on the foundation, like a senior club that has success but doesn’t work on its underage structures. And if you don’t work on the younger lads then you won’t have the players coming through.
“Fermanagh has one adult club, Lisbellaw, with seven units that have grown up to the U14/15 level. That’s astounding and it’s the kind of growth you’re looking for. Otherwise it’s very frustrating.
“That’s what where we’re at with the Tain leagues. We have 13s, 15s, to go on to 17s and, hopefully, to set up adult competition next year. You’re taking an area — regardless of counties — which has a certain number of clubs, and setting up a competition for those clubs. Travel is an issue but you can’t do anything about that. We have five- and six-team areas and we organise regional games building towards semi-finals and finals in those areas.
“Last year we were hoping to get 12 to 16 clubs in at U13 level, and we got 29 teams in. We ended up with finals in Clones and the feedback was tremendous — clubs told us it was exactly what they were crying out for, despite the obstacles. This year we’re going with 15s as well, and it’s going well — we have 33, 34 teams at both levels. It’s scary in one way, because it’s an organisational minefield, but the buy-in is fantastic.”
The leagues cut across county boundaries and can even sidestep regulations on playing numbers if necessary
to facilitate participation.
“We have about 45, 46 clubs all told and there are still another few clubs, maybe half a dozen, which couldn’t participate for various reasons — lack of manpower, just being too far away. But we’re hoping this is the way forward, that it’ll help these clubs to drive on. We have other elements built into the competition — for instance, just because of the nature of the competition there are going to be uneven matches, but the spirit is right so the buy-in is there.
“That shows in smaller ways. If it looks like one team is going to be too strong for its opponent, then that team’s management will take steps to balance things out. Take something else, as simple as the numbers per side. Because some clubs are just starting off a hurling team numbers can be a challenge, so rather than writing it off we built in permission to play eleven a side if necessary.
“That means a team arriving for a game with 11, 12, 14 players — grand, then the game goes ahead with those numbers. If a team arrives with fewer players then a couple of players can play across with them to make sure we have a game, which is the reason for the whole thing.
“To get fellas who want to play hurling a game, that’s the basic spirit behind it. While there are quarter-finals, and finals, and medals, the overriding spirit is to get youngsters on the field and to get them playing. That’s working very well so far.
“Even if a team can’t travel for a particular game for some reason, their opponents generally don’t want the points given for a walkover — it’s more important to them to get a game, so usually they’re far happier to re-fix the match.”
To play the game — that’s always been the goal.