Antrim hurling continues its rapid decline towards extinction, who cares?

Antrim hurling continues its rapid decline towards extinction, who cares?

I had to turn off TG4 at half time, I couldn’t take any more punishment. But it was a familiar scene, another humiliating hammering for an Antrim team in the U21 All-Ireland Hurling Semi-Final. Waterford 5-25, Antrim 1.5.  ‘We knew how bad our preparation was, this team was only pulled together in five weeks’, manager Ollie Bellew said afterwards. This remains one of the great mysteries of Antrim hurling for me, a proud hurling county. Why was the team pulled together in five weeks? It seems like every county in Ireland are aware that the All-Ireland hurling semi finals are held in August except for Antrim, where they are annually taken by surprise and pulling teams together after one training session.

Last year before Antrim faced Wexford in the same fixture, manager Kevin Ryan disclosed that his team were in for a ‘massive hiding’ after they couldn’t get a panel together to even train in the weeks leading up to the game. Back in 2008, I sat on the bench as Derry beat us in the Ulster U21 Hurling Championship Semi-Final. We trained twice leading up to that game. So Antrim are continuing their tradition of hoping to defy the basic first principle of sports performance in their quest for All-Ireland glory: Preparation.


Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail

You would think that they would make the most of the incredible opportunity to compete against one of the big teams in an All-Ireland semi-final by training really, really hard. But that would make too much sense. And for years we’ve had a County Board who for some bewildering reason thought that the U21’s were best served by appointing the Senior hurling manager to also manage the U21’s. This season, what I gather from reports is that the manager this year was appointed in June.


It is heart-wrenching to witness the catastrophic collapse of Antrim hurling in recent years. Growing up dreaming off wearing the Saffron jersey and representing the senior hurling team, surrounded by stories of ’89. Sitting in the Nally Stand in 2002 as a 14 year old, watching Antrim rattle the All-Ireland Champions Tipperary. I can still see Liam Richmond blasting the ball past Brendan Cummins. Then returning with confidence the following year, as Ciaran Herron, Brian McFall, Winker and co. hurled Wexford off the park for 60 minute. We lost by three measly points but we were proud walking through the streets of Dublin afterwards.

In 2005, when Sambo and Woody brought Seán Óg Ó hAilpín to speak to our minor team, he had the hairs standing on the back of our neck with his speech. ‘I wish I could bottle the passion ye have for hurling in Antrim and bring it back to Cork’, he said. ‘Antrim men have two arms and two legs just like in Kilkenny and Tipp’. And he was right, we did love Antrim, and we could hurl. Then we trained like dogs for 8 months and low and behold competed with the best of them. There was no magic formula. Just a management team who believed in us, and 25 hurlers who cared and committed themselves to the cause.


Ciaran Herron and Kieran Kelly closing down on Wexford’s Larry Murphy in 2003

Lessons from Limerick

Studying and living in Limerick after that, I winced at every patronizing comment I heard about Antrim doing a great job ‘keeping the game alive up there’, and I would get angry and defensive when someone would belittle my ability as an Antrim man. But there is nothing more offensive to Antrim hurling than the indifference shown to the sport by officialdom in Antrim itself. I don’t even know who is to blame. But having been involved with the Limerick Hurling Academy in recent years I have seen what it takes to breed talented young hurlers. It takes a plan and the proper structures, committed coaches who care about hurling in the county, support from the county board and the clubs. Then you will get hurlers who are also committed and who care. Then you prepare diligently. It’s not easy but it is relatively simple. I watched the Limerick U21’s last year en route to their fantastic All-Ireland Championship win in September, training ferociously from the previous November. While in Antrim, someone decided that preparations for the same competition should begin the following summer. I’d love to know who makes that decision.

The Limerick minor hurlers will step out in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day next weekend, a group of hard-working and honest hurlers who have come all the way through the Academy structure from U14, guided by mentors who live for Limerick hurling. They have put in over 100 training sessions this season on their way to Croke Park. Last year they put in the same amount of training, and the year before that again when they also reached the All-Ireland final. They have prepared. As Seán Óg said, Antrim men have two arms and two legs just like everyone else. We know Antrim have good hurlers, we see them in the Club Championship every year. The scoreline in last weekends All-Ireland semi-final is not due to a genetic variance between Ulster men and Munster men, it is a lack of preparation.

The Long Road Ahead

Unfortunately, although I don’t know much about what is going on behind the scenes in Antrim hurling these days, the biggest obstacle to progress in the county is also the most frightening because you can’t fight it; apathy. People don’t seem to care. Of course, there are coaches and volunteers in every club in the county who are dedicated to hurling in Antrim. But their efforts are not being honored by those who are charged with leading and directing hurling in the county, and it seems that this has taken the wind out of the sails of those who do care.

Saffron Vision gave us a glimmer of hope for the future when they ambitiously announced their intention to make drastic changes at the County Board level last December. And in recent days the County Board have announced that there is to be a strategic review of hurling in Antrim. It remains to be seen whether or not real change comes about in the coming years.

When the proper structures are put in place with the support and backing of all stakeholders of Antrim hurling, we will have young hurlers inspired and committed to prepare just as diligently as their Munster counterparts. Until then they will continue to be sent out like lambs to the slaughter against the likes of Waterford. The rot will continue beyond the Christy Ring Cup for the seniors, beyond thrashings in the U21 and Minor Championship, right down to the grass roots where once strong clubs like my own Naomh Pól are plummeting through the divisions.

It will be a long road back to health for hurling in Antrim, it will require a huge culture change, and a huge commitment and effort from everyone who cares about Antrim hurling. When that day comes, if it ever comes, and Antrim earn their place in All-Ireland Semi Final’s and Quarter Finals, that pride will return and the next generation of young saffron hurlers will have something to dream about once again.


Author: Cairbre

Cairbre is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Tipperary Hurling Team, having previously coached Arsenal Women FC and at the Arsenal Youth Academy. Blog posts inspired by a curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind, and the pursuit of athletic performance.

UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.


  1. Very well said Anla and so, so true. Hurling in Antrim and Ulster will only progress if the proper structures are in place and proper under age development. If the right people are not in place to take this forward then put them in place. It was demoralising to watch that Waterford/Antrim U-21 game but the writing was on the wall long before the game. Sad to say,but I had a wager on Waterford -25 at evs. I wished that I didn’t have to do this and that young hurlers didn’t have to be totally demoralised like this. I was U-21 a long time ago! But playing an All Ireland semi-final against Cork we were well beaten but not by this margin. Come on Antrim and Ulster hurling, pride and passion and let’s get our act together and show the Cork’s,Kilkenny’s, Tipperary’s, Waterford’s, Limerick’s,Clare’s etc that Antrim and Ulster can compete with you all.

  2. Great article. I have watched and supported Antrim hurling for many years. Your right. It was heart wrenching to see our U-21 team slaughtered in such a fashion. Our senior team is banished to what is the “B” championship. Back to where in the 1970s’ to the early ’80s. And it would seem they will be there for a while. There is no quick fix, any solution will need multiple organizations pulling together and working as a team. The Antrim council, Ulster council, the schools
    and the Gaa itself. In my opinion need mor games in the ‘hurling belt’ U-18/21 should play in the Leinster always. The GAA should split into 2 organizations. The football should commence in February, end ind with Sam Maguire being contested on the June Bank holiday weekend. The hurling should start soon after with Liam McCarthy decider on the October bank holiday. Combine this change with a resolute educational and training structure. And of course proper training facilities for the senior squad. That is just a few changes I have in mind.

    • Great ideas Mairtín. It’s easy to point the finger at players for poor performances, and no doubt individual responsibility is important. But as you say, hurling needs to be promoted in the schools, the councils and clubs need to commit to change, not just pay lip service to it. Other counties have proved that it is possible, no better example at the minute than Tipperary football. Their strategic development plan has so far yielded a Minor All-Ireland, U21 All-Ireland final appearance, and this year a Senior AI semi-final; people would have laughed if you predicted that ten years ago in Tipp, same way they would laugh if you predicted it could happen in Antrim hurling.

  3. Antrim seniors play and the whole county shuts down Antrim under21 play and players play for there club in the same week no 7 day rule for them and the rule that stops minors playing needs changed too much money in the county scene look at the intensity in club hurling up in the north and then look at the county scene

  4. Proud hurling men up there in the Glen’s, they will be back.

  5. Dea-scríofa Agus dearcadh a léiríonn go glé glan mar a mhothaíonn muid fán iomáin in Aontroim. Bull as fir a Chairbre!
    Raymie Herron

    • Go raibh maith agat Raymie. Agus nach luachmhar iad na tréithe a chothaíonn Scoil Mhuire in iomanaí óga na cathrach? Íobairt ar son na cúise, meas don gheansaí, féin-mhuinín srl. Luachanna a bhíonn in easnamh na laetha seo is cosúil. Sin ráite, tá fíor ceannasaíocht de dhíth ón bharr chun an spreagadh sin a scaipeadh.

  6. It also doesn’t help when Antrim pulled out late from the Tony Forristal/Sonny Walsh tournament this weekend and this gave previous experience to the kids to get them used to playing against players outside of Ulster

    • That’s a huge shame, especially considering in recent years Antrim teams seem to have been performing well in the Tony Forristal. How could they struggle for numbers? Like you say, nothing more important than showing young Antrim hurlers that they are no different than those from Munster, Leinster, and Galway. Two years ago, Antrim brought squads from u14 to u16 to play against teams from the Limerick Academy and it was a great experience. I don’t think we can use the excuse of being geographically isolated anymore when a bus to Dublin takes two hours!

  7. Super article Cairbre.

    • Thanks Davey, on the other hand, a good weekend for the Rebel Óg u14’s and u16’s!

  8. Antrim pulled out of the Tony Forristal this year and sent two teams to the “B” competition at the National Centre of Excellence in Dublin instead. Carlow won the competition, beating one the Antrim teams in the semi final and the other in the final. I understand that the Antrim teams were “mixed” ie there wasn’t a “stronger” and a “weaker” team – arguably a “single” Antrim team might well have won the competition.

    Meanwhile, Antrim teams got beat out the gate in the “A” competitions at under 15 and under 16, including one absolute demolition by over 40 points.

    We had one “good” crop of under 14s several years ago who reached and were unlucky to be beaten by Clare in a Forristal semi final. Other than that, there has been nothing coming through. Unfortunately, that group doesn’t appear to have kicked on.

    In my view, one of the many issues to be tackled in Antrim hurling is our grossly over-inflated view of our position in the hurling world. We are and remain a Christy Ring team, having previously struggled above it for several years. Our last major scalp at senior level was beating Dublin in 2010 (I think). Our last serious “performance” before that was when we should have beaten Wexford in a quarter final (2003, I think).

    In the entire history of the Under 21 competition, we have won one game outside of Ulster. We haven’t won a game at minor outside of Ulster since we competed in Leinster in the 1970s.

    This is where we are at and where we have been for a very long time. For a long time, the senior championship structure allowed for us to come in at a late stage and (very occasionally) to shine. With the re-jigging of that championship we fell away.

    We have only recently got on to the development squad programme and are many miles behind counties that we once considered to be (possibly) our peers and, even more worryingly, counties that we once considered ourselves superior to.

    A very small band of dedicated people appear to be trying to do something about it, but it is going to be a very long hard road for us to get where we think we ought to be.

  9. Tá an ceart agat anseo Cairbre. Tá barraiocht obair le deanamh ag an scaifte beag iomaint ag obair go crua ar son na cúise in Aontroim. Tá cuidiú de dhith orainn….Sin an céad céim.

    • Fíor sin Andy, súil agam go bhfuil dóchas ann don todchaí.


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