Johnny McIntosh: The traditional route

WHILE Antrim have had some great moments in recent years, the reality is they’re still about tenth in the county on an All-Ireland scale.

If you were doing a ranking, we’d have been sixth or seventh in the country at our very peak in the late eighties, but generally we’ve been somewhere been nine and 11.

We’re probably too good for the second tier but a long way off the best in the business, but we’ve moved considerably ahead of Derry and Down and that’s probably why the Ulster Championship has become obsolete.

One thing I’d be concerned about is that the tradition is ebbing away from Antrim hurling.

If you look back at the Antrim footballers playing in the Ulster final in 2009, had a support base of about 15,000 supporters.

The Antrim hurlers don’t have that. Gaelfast is trying to develop things in Belfast but that’s a very long road as far as I’m concerned. If you look at where the hurling is, it’s the whole area of the Glens but the population isn’t particularly big.

If you look back to our heyday in 1989 in particular, Antrim hurlers could’ve filled Croke Park but a tradition is slowly being lost. If a parent loses interest in hurling it has a domino effect and invariably the children will as well and I think that’s what’s happening in the traditionally strong hurling counties in Ulster.

There’s a bit of a disconnect with the big hitters further down the country as well. I watched the All-Ireland with my two sons and they see it as almost a different sport to the game they’re playing. They look at the Limerick lads like it’s your Messi and Ronaldos.

If you clinically analyse the top players I could guarantee that about 80 or 90 per cent of them have a connection with the sport through a father or uncle or whoever.

The big worry I have in Ulster is that we’re losing that tradition and it’s only going to get watered down further.

The GAA need to do a lot more to promote the game. They have to create roles to try to encourage youngsters to play hurling or else they’ll become indifferent to it.

Schools are pivotal in all this as well. You should have lads like Sambo McNaughton and Neil McManus in schools helping out, not necessarily even to coach but just to encourage lads to come out and play. We talk about mental health awareness and that could be a big factor in encouraging kids to play the sport.

We need to think about how we can bring the tradition back where everyone in a small community talks about hurling and wants to be involved but nowadays there’s so much else going on and rural depopulation is only exacerbating the issue.

Even back in the eighties, there were few jobs in the Glens and I’ve brothers who emigrated. But the tradition was so strong that my brother who went to London would still come home to play hurling. That’s how strong the connection was but if you had a son now who went to London, the last thing they’d be thinking about is coming home and playing a hurling match.

That’s something the GAA needs to be doing a lot better. They promote the game in Dubai and America and places like that but the whole essence of the game is the community element in our own country and they seem to be forgetting about that.

If you look back at the last 30 years, the Antrim hurling teams largely consisted of Dunloy, Cushendall and Loughgiel players because of the tradition.

If you look at the present Dunloy team, most of their fathers won county titles back in the day.

If you’re looking at solutions to improving the situation right across the board, I think we need to think outside the box and look at things from a different angle.

I don’t think we do enough promotion of the game itself. Football doesn’t really need promoted anymore than it is already is, it’s in fantastic health in Ulster.

Money needs to be spent but the only way to create a tradition of hurling in Ulster is to create a love for it and get the old fellas involved too. Don’t shun them and their ideas.

An old fella might say ‘we used to lash the ball along the ground’ and people would respond ‘don’t listen to that oul nonsense’ but I don’t see any harm in it.

It’s a very different game these days and I think the grassroots are losing touch with what it ultimately boils down to and that is the enjoyment of playing the sport.

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