JOHNNY McINTOSH: Money matters

IT already seems inevitable that the Limerick hurlers will go on to complete a historic five in-a-row, and for me the elephant in the room is money.

JP McManus has pumped in serious money to Limerick, they’ve reaped the benefits, and it makes me think of the Saudis and Russians who have bought up Premiership teams and before you know it, Chelsea and Manchester City are winning the big titles.

Money doesn’t guarantee success, particularly in the short-term, but if done consistently and in an organised fashion, it’s certainly a major influencing factor. I guarantee you that if someone gave Antrim a million quid every year for the next decade, we’d certainly be a lot closer to the top end of things.

Limerick’s success hasn’t happened overnight. About seven or eight years ago, they recruited Gerry Wallace, a former manager of the Antrim hurling team, to take charge of the underage development squads in Limerick. That in itself shows that they’re willing to invest heavily in their development squads and Limerick’s u-17 hurling team apparently has about 14 or 15 people involved. It’s a bit frightening for the rest of us when you hear things like that.

Yes, they’ve had an incredible pool of talented players coming through the ranks, but they’ve been able to pick and choose as the whole system is engineered towards bringing in players with a level of physicality that is a cut above the rest.

I’m sure you’ve seen some of the statistics bandied about – that their half-back line is the same size as Ireland rugby team’s back row. They’re able to do that because of their successful production line at underage level. If they’ve two fantastic hurlers, and one is 6’3” and the other is 5’10”, they’re going to opt to prioritise the taller lad. It’s the old adage that ‘a good big one is better than a good wee one’.

It has got to the stage where it’s almost getting a bit depressing. Yes, Kilkenny won a mountain of All-Irelands for a generation but it didn’t have quite the same feel of total dominance as they lost a couple of finals and were pushed to the pin of their collars in a few others.

If you look at Limerick’s league win over Tipperary last Saturday night, Tipp were throwing absolutely everything at them, they were playing summer hurling really. You got the impression Limerick were playing at 70 per cent, they were missing a few fellas and playing within themselves, but then they just seemed to turn a screw and it was game over. At this stage it seems to be a recurring theme.

In one sense they’ve raised the bar for the whole country, but the reality is it’s exceptionally difficult for most to keep up. Administrators in other counties may feel that there’s essentially no point in even trying to catch up as they can’t afford the same investment, and inevitably the expectation levels drop across the board. Then it becomes a cycle where their dominance continues.

The hope for the rest of the county is that Limerick go through a lull period. In fairness they aren’t completely dominating at underage level, so that gives a bit of hope for the rest of us, but I worry more and more about the influence of finance on the game. Yes, it’s still technically an amateur sport and we aren’t paying the players, but it’s about the expense that goes into everything surrounding the inter-county set-ups, from coaching, training camps and strength and conditioning programmes and everything else.

If you look at my own county Antrim, we’d arguably need more money than the traditional hurling counties due to geography. We need to invest heavily so to compete at the highest levels, we’d need to be travelling constantly, heading down every second or third weekend and staying in hotels in the likes of Cork and Limerick to get to play regular matches against the best in the business.

Our senior team is on a training camp to Portugal this week, and they’ve done that for the last few years now. It’s great but we need to be funding our underage teams in the same way. A good example is our current minor team.

We have a strong u-17 team this year but they were forced to play in the Ulster Championship and I’m not sure it was any good for anyone. We beat Donegal by 45 points and had one-sided encounters against Derry and Down. Then we went down to Galway to play in the first round of the Leinster Championship. We gave a good account of ourselves and lost by 10 or 12 points. We’ll have a couple of more games and that will be that. It means that just as the team is getting accustomed to playing these hurling superpowers, our season is over and we can’t adjust to the learning curve.

That’s where money comes into the equation. If Antrim invested €100k into our minor teams, investing in bringing them down south, then we’ll start to get results. The problem is we’re just doing enough to cover our costs and that means we’re on the backfoot right away.

I’ve argued with people in Antrim about possible solutions and it obviously isn’t straightforward. Possibly, however, we could look to our schools. If each school in Antrim had a Director of Hurling, with someone at the top overseeing, it could reap rewards in the long run. But again the question is how do we pay for these directors? Again, it all comes down to money.

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