Sambo' McNaughton: Team Ulster would do more harm than good for hurling

It's almost seven years to the day since Dónal Óg Cusack first floated the Team Ulster idea on The Sunday Game, claiming a combined hurling team from the north could enhance the All-Ireland championship.
Sambo' McNaughton: Team Ulster would do more harm than good for hurling

It's almost seven years to the day since Dónal Óg Cusack first floated the Team Ulster idea on The Sunday Game, claiming a combined hurling team from the north could enhance the All-Ireland championship. A contentious idea that has simmered and cooled over the years received fresh traction last weekend when journalist Jerome Quinn released a video containing interviews with numerous high profile Ulster hurling figures supporting the proposal.

Terence 'Sambo' McNaughton, a former All-Star, All-Ireland finalist and manager with Antrim, has held his counsel until now to give a detailed response and to outline exactly why he's vehemently against the proposal.

I'm really worried that someone will think this is a good idea, says Terence 'Sambo' McNaughton, that the Ulster Council or the GAA will push this thing through as something shiny and glossy and come back to a county structure in 10 years that's even worse off. Photo: INPHO/Presseye/John McIlwaine
I'm really worried that someone will think this is a good idea, says Terence 'Sambo' McNaughton, that the Ulster Council or the GAA will push this thing through as something shiny and glossy and come back to a county structure in 10 years that's even worse off. Photo: INPHO/Presseye/John McIlwaine

I've always said I'll happily walk the right road alone than go down the wrong road with a crowd. So if people want to label me a dinosaur for being opposed to the Team Ulster idea, so be it. I saw something on Twitter that 'The usual Antrim dinosaurs will be against this'.

I know they're talking about me and 'Woody' (Dominic McKinley) and people like us. I know that's who they mean. They're calling me a dinosaur because I don't agree. But as I said, I'll walk the right road all day long on this until somebody answers the questions I've been asking for years.

I asked Dónal Óg those questions whenever he first raised this, and I never got an answer.

What happens to those that are left behind? If you take 10 guys out of Antrim, five guys out of Derry, five guys out of Down, a couple from Armagh and Tyrone, what happens to everyone else?

Are those players going to give what's required now in the modern era to play in a diluted Joe McDonagh Cup, or a diluted Christy Ring or Nicky Rackard, without their best players? As an ex-Antrm manager, I wouldn't be happy with that scenario and as an ex-Antrim player I'd certainly want Neil McManus and Conor McCann beside me in the team.

Chrissy McKaigue is promoting the idea and I agree with Chrissy and everyone else who has said there are problems in Ulster. But let's deal with the issues first.

Chrissy is from Derry and he's a very good football player. That's always been the way in Derry. Seamus Downey, Henry Downey, Liam Hinphey, Geoffrey McGonigle, right up to Chrissy and Brendan Rogers now, they all played football but they were Derry's best hurlers.

So when these guys are playing for Team Ulster, do they go back and play club football too, maybe county football? It just won't be possible, you won't be physically able. If you expect to compete for an Ulster team in the All-Ireland championship, and if you expect to compete with the Seamus Callanans and the TJ Reids and the Pat Horgans, you're going to have to be all in on this.

That means training four or five times a week, for years, hurling exclusively, because that's what Callanan is doing. Don't tell me you're going to mark him or Noel McGrath after training maybe two nights a week, splitting it maybe 50 per cent hurling, 50 per cent club football.

That's the elephant in the room in Ulster - Gaelic football. The biggest threat to hurling is not soccer or rugby, it's Gaelic football. The number one game in Ulster for 99 per cent of the region is football.

Logistics-wise, I heard Cookstown mentioned for training, mid-Ulster. That's a two-hour drive for me, maybe a three-hour drive from Portaferry. To compete with Tipperary and Kilkenny, you're going to have to make that journey three times a week, and I'm being generous at three.

People are taking the romantic view that the best players in Ulster will be able to compete at a high level. I don't doubt the quality of a team like that.

We reached an All-Ireland final when I played for Antrim and if you threw in a Noel Sands or a Paddy Braniff, a Kieran McKeever or a Henry Downey, we'd definitely have been so much better. In my lifetime Paddy Braniff was as good a corner-back as I've seen in Ireland.

But what you're going to be asking of 25 or 30 players would be huge. If training starts in Cookstown at 7 o'clock, you can forget about finishing work at 5 to get there, make it 2 or 3 o'clock. If I'm living on the Ards Peninsula then I'm not getting home until midnight, maybe later.

I'm really worried that someone will think this is a good idea, that the Ulster Council or the GAA will push this thing through as something shiny and glossy and come back to a county structure in 10 years that's even worse off.

One of the statements I heard was that an Ulster team mightn't compete against Tipperary but they would against Carlow - in case they hadn't noticed Antrim is competing against Carlow. The last time I managed Antrim (in 2018) we beat Carlow, Laois only beat us by a point. It's the next level we need to get to.

The only way to do that is to get teams competing on a regular basis at the highest level and to try to work within that and to improve the club structure within Antrim.

There was only the puck of a ball between Slaughtneil and Ballyhale Shamrocks in January. I walked out of Páirc Esler that day a proud man. I'm a Cushendall man but I was a proud Ulster man.

So this isn't Antrim arrogance, it's totally the opposite. It's about what's good for Ulster hurling. I was in charge of St Enda's when we came up against Dungannon of Tyrone in the Ulster intermediate club final last November. I saw myself there's fellas in Tyrone that would walk onto an Ulster team. But what's that going to do for Tyrone hurling when you strip out their best players? Do the lads left behind want to play in a diluted team in diluted competitions? Nobody has answered those questions.

Sambo McNaughton was speaking to Paul Keane

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