I NOTED that more than 12,000 paying spectators attended the recent National Football League encounter between Armagh and Donegal, crowds that their hurling counterparts unfortunately can only dream of.

Antrim will always get a core following of 500 or a thousand people, but on the whole crowds at hurling games involving Ulster teams are very low and it’s something that needs to be addressed.

President Jarlath Burns came to my club a while back and he was really nice and outlined his proposals for what he wants to achieve with hurling. He places a big emphasis on participation and that’s spot on, but it’s certainly easier said than done.

There’s a number of problems at play here to be considered. A big reason why fans aren’t getting to matches is the cost. I heard recently that a National League match in Antrim was £18 with and £5 for juveniles. I’m not saying that’s the end of the world but it is expensive.

Another factor, and I know it’s a good thing in one sense, is that games are covered really well in terms of social media and all the different outlets.

I saw some brilliant pictures of Antrim playing Down from the late eighties and there must’ve been 20 thousand people in attendance. Now people think they can keep up with the game on Twitter and quite a lot of games are live on the telly, so they think ‘why bother?’, especially given the cost of games.

Then there’s the quality of games itself. The skill level of the players is through the roof at the highest level of our game, but I think some of the character and passion has gone out of hurling.

Take a look at Tyrone’s game against Kerry at the weekend – there’s a brilliant rivalry between the two teams, there was a bit of edge,a scuffle and people want to see that whether they want to admit to it or not.

Hurling by contrast has almost become santised. Nobody pulls on the ground anymore, nobody pulls on the air whereas back in the nineties, sticks were flying everywhere.

I know there’s health and safety considerations and you have to move with the times but I don’t think it’s helping the game as a spectacle. Galway played Antrim last weekend, Galway scored 2-35 and Antrim scored 1-13 so there was no shortage of scores but the most of it was uncontested and the game was abysmal. I know that sounds a bit cruel and I appreciate Antrim have a lot of lads unavailable, but the game in general has changed so much and you notice there’s regularly a hubbub of conversation going on around the grounds at these county matches.

Jarlath Burns has put in place a body to review football but I definitely think we need one for hurling as well and that doesn’t mean wholesale changes need to be made. I do worry about where the whole thing is going, and I’m not sure how to go about improving attendances. Possibly at games involving the likes of Tyrone and Armagh, admission should be free or there should be a cursory charge to encourage families to go out and watch the lads play. Otherwise people just won’t turn up because it’s too much money.

The GAA needs to do more at national level to promote the game and try to find a bit of edge to it. As I said, participation is also key but that requires time and coaching and ultimately money. It’d make a massive difference but lip service alone isn’t going to cut the mustard.

I just think it’s a shame. There doesn’t seem to be any characters in the game anymore. You had the likes of ‘Sambo’ and in more recent times, Liam Watson. People came from everywhere to see Liam, no-one had a clue what he was going to do. He could’ve taken on five men and scored a goal, he could’ve scored 15 points, he could’ve got sent off.

Football doesn’t really have the same problem – David Clifford must bring a few extra thousand spectators to every game he plays because people want to go and see him. It’s a conundrum and I really hope that Jarlath Burns can help bring about change in his tenure but it won’t be easy.

Receive quality journalism wherever you are, on any device. Keep up to date from the comfort of your own home with a digital subscription.
Any time | Any place | Anywhere


Gaelic Life is published by North West of Ireland Printing & Publishing Company Limited, trading as North-West News Group.
Registered in Northern Ireland, No. R0000576. 10-14 John Street, Omagh, Co. Tyrone, N. Ireland, BT781DW