JOHNNY McINTOSH: What’s the future plan?

SUNDAY’S beating at the hands of Limerick was disappointing but I think the squad depth was the biggest concern for Antrim.

There’s a lot of work going into the senior hurling team and I appreciate that, but ultimately as a county we aren’t putting enough effort into developing our underage teams and it all stems from there.

We’ve had a few retirements and lads stepping away and my fear is that it’s going to become worse before it gets better over the coming years.

I personally think something drastic needs to be done in Ulster generally to develop players and I think effort needs to be put into developing second-string squads.

If you look at Tyrone and Derry, they’re dominating at underage level in football and you know rightly that in three or four years time a lot of those young lads will be competing in All-Ireland semi-finals and finals.

Then if you look at Antrim, our u-20 hurlers are competing in tier two and it’s going to be a real shock to the system down the line. They’re playing the Meaths and Kildares of this world in Leinster and it’s unlikely they’ll progress further and that’s the competition over for the year.

In five years time, Antrim can’t be surprised if our senior team is playing Division Two hurling and struggling to beat those teams. That’s the standard we’re setting ourselves now.

There’s good work being done in development squads but it’s not nearly enough and they’re reliant to be totally honest on clubs driving the matter. I always feel we need to be looking at elite programme schemes.

Development squads have almost become an additional place for kids to go and play a bit of hurling, they’re not geared towards taking them onto the big stage. I think we’re lacking very badly in terms of leadership.

We need coaches going directly into schools, we need four or five directors of hurling in Antrim going into schools multiple times a week and I know it sounds ambitious but that’s what it’s going to take.

We want hurling to be the main sport in our traditional hurling schools and not just in Antrim but in the likes of St Pat’s, Maghera where it seems to have been sidelined.

I go to Antrim convention meetings and I see how difficult it is to raise money, that’s the challenge we have but other counties seem to be able to bring in investment. I would much rather see an Antrim minor team go down and challenge Limerick whatever about the result, as at least it would allow us to address the problem. We’d know where we stand and recognise it needs to be fixed. Instead we have a situation where our seniors are being beaten by 30 points by an under-strength Limerick side and it’s too late at that stage.

Look at what they’re down in the South in terms of intervarsity hurling, a lot of those Limerick players have been playing Fitzgibbon hurling for their universities and our young boys are having to pick one or another, they can’t play university and county hurling at the same time.

It feels like we just pay lip service where we aren’t making an all-out commitment to improve matters. The other thing is that in Antrim at development level, as soon as you’re u-14 or u-15 you have to decide whether it’s football or hurling, you can’t be in the two development squads.

If you’re good at both, you still have to opt for one squad. To me, that says that we’re potentially missing out on 50 per cent of our really good athletes. A lot of the tall, physical fellas aren’t playing hurling as they aren’t allowed to. The hurling equivalent tends to be smaller and slightly less physical and I’m not sure it’s benefitting us in the long run as we’re ruling out so many players.

I know the rationale is that no-one could ever play inter-county football and hurling at senior level, but at least give them another few years, say up to minor level, to make their decision. I think we’re only harming ourselves as we’re cutting down what is already a small pool.

The Creggans, the Ahoghills, traditional football teams have some brilliant hurlers and I just don’t see the wisdom in telling young lads you make your decision now and that’s it. That to me isn’t a good thing for Antrim’s development.

I know this is all quite negative but it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the future. Things aren’t set in stone but the county needs to do something and fast as otherwise we’ll be left behind.

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