John Martin

John Martin: No fairytales to come in hurling

HEADING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION...Dublin are a rare success story

HEADING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION…Dublin are a rare success story

I’VE often said that results from any given day shouldn’t be taken as a ‘state of the nation’ reflection of the hurling landscape. Hurling, like any other sport, is unpredictable.

If it wasn’t, it would be fairly boring. Form doesn’t follow straight lines. A poor Championship performance or double figures defeat doesn’t condemn a team to the hurling graveyard for the following decade.


But neither are there too many real surprises. Hurling has never had, and never will produce, a Leicester City-type underdog fairytale. It won’t even have a Fermanagh who come from Division Three to contest an All-Ireland senior quarter- or semi-final.

The hurling landscape hasn’t changed significantly in the past 100 years. There’s been the odd result that has raised eyebrows, there’s been peaks and troughs during which we’ve seen dominance by one or two teams followed by the odd period when the spread of silverware has been more varied, but you’d have to check the records back to 1938 before there’s an All-Ireland winner that really stands out, when Dublin last won the MacCarthy Cup.

Limerick, Clare, Galway and Offaly have all won the Championship since then of course but they hardly came from nowhere to lift hurling’s top prize.

So while Cork’s lacklustre defeat to Tipp’ on Sunday, or Wexford’s surrender to Dublin on Saturday night could strengthen a case that hurling isn’t in a particularly healthy state, recent records will tell us that examining results in isolation can throw us way off the scent in terms of what will follow in the coming years.

During a certain few weeks in 2010 for example, Antrim drew with Offaly, knocked Dublin out of the Championship to reach an All-Ireland quarter-final, and Offaly then took Galway to a replay in the All-Ireland semi-final. What do those results tell us about the hurling landscape a few years later? Nothing.

So while I’m reticent to join the prophets of doom based on the weekend’s results, there does seem to be a slight shifting of the sands. I’m not going to cherry-pick a few results to try and make a point but in general over the past couple of years, there are signs that a number of counties are further away that winning the MacCarthy Cup than at any time since the back door was brought in in 1996.

Starting close to home, obviously there’s no Ulster involvement in the top tier this year. Antrim and Down may have served up a nail-biter in terms of excitement on Saturday and by most accounts Down more than matched Antrim for hurling (I missed the game due to my beautiful daughter Fionnuala making her first communion on Saturday) but big days out against top tier sides are metaphorically and literally miles away.

Down haven’t played in the top flight since 2004 when Galway visited Ballycran for a Qualifier and when they had the chance to step up after winning the Christy Ring in 2014, they didn’t take it. Which was the correct decision.

Antrim, if they win the Ring final on June 4 v Meath, will move back into the top flight but will face a tough task to get out of the Leinster round robin group against Kerry, Westmeath, Laois or Offaly.

At the minute, Antrim would be favourites to come bottom of that group, based on league and Ring Cup performances this year. While Antrim’s stock has undoubtedly dropped, the impact has been hardened by the rise in standards in Kerry, Carlow and Westmeath.

Add in Derry’s winless run in Division 2A of the League and their Rackard Cup status hanging by a thread, Ulster hurling has rarely been so low in modern times. For Offaly, it’s not much better. While Wexford have recent underage success to build on, Offaly are relying on tradition and skill to make them competitive in the Leinster round-robin (where would they be with Shane Dooley and Joe Bergin?)

In the past generation, Dublin are the only success story. Coming from a similar starting point to the likes of Antrim and Laois in the mid-noughties, they are now genuine All-Ireland contenders.

It’s 14 years since Peter Quinn chaired the Strategic Review Committee which set down the aspiration that 16 teams should be competitive in the MacCarthy Cup within 10 years. Since then we’ve had the National Hurling Development Plan, the Hurling Development Action Plan, Hurling 2020 and numerous other plans, reports and initiatives, and while there’s been some major areas of improvement, we still come back to the statistic that Dublin are the only side to have made genuine progress on the senior inter-county stage.

Far from Peter Quinn’s aspiration of 2002, hurling has developed realistically into five-tiers. There may be 15 teams playing in the MacCarthy Cup but a growing chasm exists between the top half and bottom half within that group. It may be that the prophets of doom are waring me down and I genuinely hope to be proved wrong over the next couple of years, but that chasm looks like staying there for a few years to come.

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