Brian Flannery Reports
A few weeks ago at Croke Park, Laois won the Joe McDonagh Cup. This is essentially the inter-county hurling competition for the ‘weaker’ counties or at least for some of them. Laois beat Westmeath in the final having topped a group of teams that also included Antrim, Kerry and Offaly.The Joe McDonagh final preceded the Leinster hurling final between Wexford and Kilkenny. Unfortunately it clashed with the Munster hurling final meaning that it wasn’t televised with a large number of the Cork Park crowd inside glued to available TV’s rather than watching the live action.
Out of sight; out of mind. The biggest failure of the GAA is its’ inability to create more than nine counties that are currently capable of playing the game at a high level. Limerick, Cork, Tipperary, Wexford, Kilkenny, Dublin, Galway, Clare and Waterford are the nine I’d regard as top tier hurling counties currently.I’ve used the word “currently” quite deliberately. There was a time when Offaly, Antrim, Laois, Westmeath and Kerry were also all considered competitive hurling counties at some stage or another.
In fact I played Division 1 hurling against Derry once upon a long ago with Down another county with a strong tradition in parts. Carlow have climbed the greasy pole in recent years only to slip back into the Joe McDonagh Cup for 2020 having failed to win a game in this years’ Leinster championship.
Laois will replace Carlow to compete for the Bob O’Keeffe Cup but are already odds on to also last just the one season in the top flight.
Currently Waterford is part of hurling’s elite counties. In the last twenty-one years’ Waterford, despite not winning the senior All-Ireland, have been genuine contenders.Four Munster championships and a couple of league titles were garnered but its Waterford regular appearance at All-Ireland semi-final stage that shows a level of consistency.Men like Ken McGrath, Paul Flynn, Tony Brown and John Mullane thrilled the nation with a stunning brand of hurling and as part of a team that was universally admired.
In recent years players like Kevin Moran, Jamie Barron and Austin Gleeson have taken up this mantle with Michael Walsh the player that bridged both great sides. But honestly where does Waterford now stand?
A second successive season without a single victory in the new group format of the Munster championship leaves more questions than answers. Indeed many questioned as to why Waterford attained the ‘special’ position of not being relegated from the Liam McCarthy Cup having finished no better than Carlow who were dumped back into the Joe McDonagh competition.
A similar record in 2020 and there is no doubt that such calls would become even louder.
The ‘current’ plight of Offaly should so sound a cautionary tone for all GAA administrators, both local and national. In 1998, twenty-one years ago Offaly beat Kilkenny in the All-Ireland. Next year the men from the ‘Faithful’ county will occupy hurling’s third tier in both league and championship. Such a fall from grace doesn’t happen overnight, its’ gradual. You become less competitive but still capable of the occasional good result. Your underage teams struggle and suffer heavy defeats. Eventually it’s no longer a surprise when you lose. This year Offaly lost all their championship games to Westmeath, Laois, Antrim and Kerry. There was no surprise this season; it was eminently predictable to those close to the scene.
A couple of years ago when Waterford scored 0-33 at O’Connor Park Tullamore against the hosts in a qualifier, I was talking a local journalist before the game. He described how Offaly losing at underage to Carlow, Kildare and Westmeath was no longer a surprise but the norm. The signs of diminished competitiveness for Offaly were everywhere to be seen if you chose to look. Offaly falling to the third tier was no surprise to those close to the scene.
However it’s a bit like when you hear someone is ‘on the way out’ and then you hear they have died but are nonetheless surprised and even shocked despite your prior knowledge of its immanency.
I believe there are players of sufficient quality and experience for the current Waterford senior team to recover from the disappointments of the last two seasons and mount a further serious attempt at winning in Munster again. But this can’t be taken for granted. Waterford has not won a senior All-Ireland in sixty years and there are plenty of reasons for this. A smaller player base means that Waterford must do more with less. This fact is as pertinent now as it was in 1959.The biggest worry is not just that the Waterford senior team is struggling at the moment but that many of Waterford’s underage hurling teams too are finding the going tough.The statistics at minor level is a worry. Two wins from the last eleven minor championship games, three wins from the last fourteen. Take your pick, neither is good.
Down the line at the various other underage teams there is at least cause for concern. I usually manage to get to watch Waterford’s Tony Forrestal U-14 each year and again the trend is that which might indicate a diminution in competitiveness. Losing by double digits in a twenty minute aside game is not a sign of rude health. Callum Lyons, Jack Prendergast and Conor Prunty have all successfully bridged the considerable gap from underage hurling to senior level this year. The interesting question is where are the next generation of inter-county players going to come from? Michael Kiely from Abbeyside is one player that readily comes to mind but I struggle to think of many other exceptional players from recent minor teams. I was in early to the Gaelic Grounds recently to see the minor game. There are easily half a dozen or so players from the teams on show that look good bets to go on and have successful inter-county careers. Cathal O’Neill, Patrick Kirby and Aidan O’Connor were exceptional for the winners with Conner Hegarty and Shane Meehan excelling for the Banner.
These kids are all stand out performers at their own age. They are exceptional individuals that contribute to good teams.Yes I know underage talent is no guarantee of future success but these are names worth noting all the same. Wexford and Limerick have been noticeably making both huge efforts and huge strides in the past decade at underage level. Initial competitiveness at underage led to silverware at Minor and U-21 level for both. Joe McKenna headed up the Limerick Hurling academy with the high-profile Anthony Daly holding a full-time position with Limerick GAA for a couple of years. A cursory look at Wexford GAA on social media will confirm extensive games development programmes.
There is much good work currently being undertaken at underage level in Waterford. But the question is whether it is enough and if it is on a similar level to other top-tier hurling counties. To succeed Waterford do need to do more with less.
I think it is beyond time to conduct a complete review of everything hurling related in Waterford. What we do, how we do it and why we do it.A coordinated plan that every club, school and interested party can be involved with both its development and implementation is now required. This would act as a bell weather gauge as to where Waterford “currently” is and what is required to keep Waterford at hurling’s top table.
Let’s christen it “Waterford 2025”.Anyway here’s my 10 point plan (discussion document).
1. Strategy Review Committee
Our Lord had twelve apostles’ so that would seem like a good number for any committee. It should include representatives from Déise Óg, Primary Schools, Secondary Schools, Coaching Officer and County Board. Having some outside expertise would be a must as well. Perhaps getting an experienced facilitator like former GAA President Nicky Brennan or Christy Cooney to act as Chairperson would work well. If you could recruit professional assistance from those involved in ‘Elite Sport’ for example Gary Keegan, would add strength to any recommendations.
It is important to know all the facts and have as much information as possible before diagnosing the problems and establishing workable solutions. How many kids attend each school in the county? How many of them are members of GAA clubs? How many players at each age group do clubs currently have? Where are the pressure points likely to come in the future years? What does the City and County Development tell us about likely population trends?
Is there a requirement for an additional Juvenile GAA Club in the city?
These are just some examples, I’m sure there is plenty of relevant information both required and available.
3. Unity/Organisational Structures
It must be over 15 years’ since current City and County Manager Michael Walsh carried out a strategic review of Waterford GAA and recommended the abolition of both the divisional boards.
They do say turkeys don’t vote for Christmas and both the East and West Waterford divisional boards have always strongly resisted any attempt to see their removal or a diminution of their powers.
Waterford is too small for an East/West divide and honestly has far bigger fish to fry when it comes to GAA, namely trying to beat our neighbours, Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary.
The majority and best competitions are all played on an all-county basis. It is long past time for getting rid of divisional boards. Their existence does nothing to end the GAA political divide between East and West.
4. Consult with clubs
Opinions from each club should be sought and recorded. Club engagement is important to help identify the real problems and to make sure clubs are at the heart of any proposed review but also central to implementation of recommendations and action plans.
Questionnaires could be used but also ‘open forum’ meetings with each club could be organised with each member of the ‘Review Committee’ volunteering to chair these Club Engagement meetings.
5. Coaching and Games Development
This should form a central part of any review and subsequent report. What structures currently exist? Are we maximising the contribution of the existing GDA’s? Do we need more GDA’s? Does county board support the work of the GDA’s adequately. How best to integrate the GDA’s with schools and clubs and if we can get more voluntary support from clubs. The key to development in hurling in particular should centre on primary schools. If a kid hasn’t got the basics of hurling by the age of 12 he is unlikely to continue playing the game. Development of hurling through our schools is vital to provide the kind of player numbers we need to fill subsequent underage county teams. Close alignment of Déise Óg with the schools if vital for overall development.
6. Development Squads
Are we happy with how we use development squads? Can we do better? Can we cast the net wider to involve a greater number of players at each age group? Can we improve the level of coaches involved with development squads? Minimum Award 1 qualification for all volunteers involved with development squads? Can we attract the best available coaches? Can we increase funding to provide expenses for coaches? Can we recruit former players to help and get involved? How can we make it more attractive for players and coaches to opt in to become involved in Development squads? Can we avoid appointing parents as mentors to a squad in which their son is involved? Is the training and supports at a sufficient high level to produce elite players? Is there sufficient professional support available? How do we compare with how other counties operate their programmes? Can we employ fulltime strength and conditioning coach to oversee and implement programmes to all teams? How can we develop players further in a holistic manner? Some counties are providing ‘Grinds’ for young players in exam years.
7. Infrastructure and Facilities
The fact that WIT has an international quality Fitness and Training Arena at our door step is a major advantage. Situated close to the motorway and new bridge WIT is a convenient and top-class option for Waterford GAA teams to train. If/When the redevelopment of Walsh Park is complete the training and playing facilities will be almost side by side. Plans to also redevelop Fraher Field as proposed by the county board would be crazy. One county ground is what is needed with any further available funds better spent on training facilities and games development.
Croke Park is under the cosh with regard the level of funding provided to Dublin for games development in recent years. I imagine if a county like Waterford could develop a plan to improve the counties fortunes which might involve the use of more professional coach’s and expertise they would be reticent to deny a well-constructed plan the necessary funding. The last thing the GAA world need is another top hurling county falling over a cliff. A stitch in time ….
Of course coming up with more dosh ourselves should also be considered. Wexford have appointed a Commercial Manager in the recent past to increase revenues and is a move also worthy of consideration. Maximising Sponsorship and implementing adequate financial controls at all levels of the game and for all teams is important.
In 2018 Waterford spent roughly €100,000 on games development which is low in comparison to our neighbours in Munster. We must speculate to accumulate when it comes to games development. Spending on games development is an investment in our future success.
Any good plan should have achievable targets. Achievable but challenging. When Tipperary football produced a document over a decade ago titled ‘Tipperary Football 2020’ it included many targets to be achieved. This included winning an All-Ireland Minor Football Title (won 2011), winning an All-Ireland U-21 Football Title (runners up 2015) and an All-Ireland Football Title (semi-finalists 2016).
Many scoffed at these lofty ambitions for a then Division 4 football county.
Contesting senior, minor and U20 Munster finals wouldn’t be a bad start on the road to success.
10. Hurling Development Manager/ Coaching and Games Manager
A single person responsible for the day to day management of hurling Games development in Waterford. This should be an ‘ideas’ person. Co-ordinating the activities of the counties Coaching and Games development. This person could be a touch point for clubs to interact with games development and make sure that programmes delivered are appropriate and relevant to their individual needs. Each club should also have a ‘Coaching Officer’ which would receive support from the Hurling Development Manager again ensuring uniformity in the quality of coaching throughout the county. This new appointee could complete a review of all competitions in hurling and assess if they are sufficient at each age group and suggest changes if deemed necessary. This role could also be involved in the recruitment of coach’s for development squads and various teams up to and including county minor team. Funding for this position could be a combination of county board, Munster council and funding from Central Council.
Not an exhaustive list but perhaps a starting point for a conversation.
The health of Waterford hurling is all our responsibilities and we (board, clubs and supporters) all can play a part.