That Cavan hasn't fielded a senior hurling team for almost two years is an indictment of the sport's status in the county, but to regard it as the only barometer for the health of hurling would be to deny the great strides made at juvenile level writes the Celt's DAMIAN MCCARNEY.
In April 2011 the decision to call time on the Cavan senior hurling team was the talk of the country. A disastrous Allianz League campaign saw Cavan beaten off the pitch by, on average, 46 points. Dwindling numbers bothered to endure training ahead of a Lory Meagher Cup match, and an extensive injury list undermined, not so much a pool, as a puddle of players.
Hurlers had enlisted "to be members of the GPA just to get their grant and their All-Ireland tickets", grumbled defiant county board chairman Tom Reilly explaining his decision to the press. Within the county, reaction ranged from embarrassment to ambivalence. That Cavan hurling was a joke was indisputable. One of the Independent's columnists reminded us that it was a long-standing joke too as he recalled the ignominious day in 1993 when Cavan were walloped 8-27 by Louth. In what reads like the script of Carry On Hurling a carload of players became lost on the way to a remote ground, and they were forced to coax the team's bus driver into nets.
In taking the decision to dissolve the senior team, the county board wasn't calling an end to hurling in the county, they were starting over - that's the way Tom Reilly sees it. Abandoning senior inter-county hurling, hadn't amounted to an abdication of responsibility for the sport. Tom Reilly was under pressure to reconsider, but he held firm and told the Croke Park hierarchy of a low-key revolution underway at juvenile level.
Outside of those active in nurturing the game; the hurling evangelists and the newly converted, the revolution had gone largely unnoticed, but even in 2011 it had begun to gain momentum.
From the time of Willie Gaughan's tenure as chairman of the old Cavan Hurling Board (2008-09), hurling enthusiasts had been plotting ways to build a sustainable flow of young players to invigorate the sport.
A "root and branch review" of hurling was conducted and they signalled the seriousness of their intent by hosting a hurling forum in the Hotel Kilmore, that included members of the Ulster Council, and that has set the agenda.
"We generated new ideas of how we could go forward with clubs," recalls Willie Gaughan. "And the main one that came from it was the move to a regional version of a hurling club."
The idea was that County Cavan would be broken down into 10 regions; each would have the allegiance of the GAA clubs within it. This saw the formation of new clubs like South Cavan, which draws its players from Munterconnaught, Maghera and Virginia. Other hurling teams, such as Cootehill Celtic, may not display their regional credentials in their name, but nevertheless they welcome hurlers from Drumgoon, Kill and Drung.
Willie can't overstate the significance of the regional club. His team of East Cavan Gaels, which embraces Bailieborough, Killinkere, Kingscourt, Shercock, was the very first of the new breed of regional outfits created.
"There's no problem getting kids to play hurling," says Willie, who is ECG's PRO. "It's generating the amount of adults to take them on and to mentor and manage and coach teams.
"Someone from Bailieborough won't come over and help me manage a Kingscourt team; the way the nature of people is, it just doesn't work that way."
He later expands: "We do all of our coaching in Bailieborough but I live in Kingscourt so I have to travel eight miles to go training, but it doesn't matter to me because it's my club. It's a hurling club belonging to hurling people and driving on. If I was to drop out or wasn't available we've more people there that can pick up the slack. Whereas the standalone club just doesn't generate enough for you in that sense."
A team with genuine allegiance from each of the five feeder clubs is much easier to attract adult volunteers from those towns and villages, he convincingly argues - after all the club only have to buy into 20% of it.
"We have juveniles from every one of those clubs feeding in," says Willie.
The alternative is, Willie believes, a tougher route: "Mullagh tried to stand alone for the last two years and one or two of their coaches have emigrated and now they are back to square one."
For East Cavan the rewards for their endeavours have been swiftly reaped.
"The expansion out to an East Cavan model has worked very well," he says with unabashed enthusiasm. "Our first breakthrough came this year when our U12s won the U12 League, and our U13s won the U13 League in December."
Gaughan - who has Reilly's admiration for doing "savage work on the ground" - is further bolstering the club's stock of hurlers by promoting the sport in Kingscourt National School, targeting U7s to U9s as future Easterners. It's all in a bid to fulfil an ambitious target for a club still in its infancy.
"When we started out in 2009 we said we needed a target to work to, to measure success - our plan was to be the number one U14 team in Cavan by 2013. We hope that we are on schedule.
"2013 is a huge year for us - now whether we're going to make the breakthrough at U14, I'm not going to say but we hope that we can…
"I'll put my head on the block and say: in the next two years we will win an U14 Championship!"
East Cavan Gaels' next phase of development brings them up to adult level in 2020. With their coaching staff including the likes of Maurice O'Shaughnessey, Catherine O'Flynn, Kirk Sweeney, Cyril McGuinness - all from hurling strongholds such as Galway, Kilkenny and Cork, it may not come as a surprise if they do reproduce their underage success at adult level in the coming decade.
Talk to anyone involved with Cavan hurling for long enough and the conversation will inevitably settle on one name: Eoin Morrissey. Talk to Tom Reilly and it's Eoin's work-rate; talk to Willie and it's Eoin's willingness to bring hurling to schools:
"Eoin Morrissey went to Shercock National School for six weeks as a trial run, just to see," says Willie admiringly. "He's breaking new ground, going into a football dominated place and we've picked up about 12 or 13 hurlers."
One reason he's so talked about is because a lot of the county's hurling hopes hinge on him. Appointing a hurling development administrator was one of the assurances that Cavan County Board gave to Croke Park, and possibly to themselves, that the game genuinely would be nurtured while the seniors hibernated. Without the burden of expenses involved in running a senior team, they had freed up some funds to reinvest in hurling development. Eoin applied and got the job. A "mini-crisis" is how he viewed the situation in Cavan on arrival.
"Ulster in general would be regarded as a weak province when it comes to hurling, and I didn't know much about Cavan when I applied for the job," recalls Eoin.
"Cavan wouldn't be regarded as a hurling stronghold, but I did see a lot of potential when I came up in the first one or two weeks. Talking to the likes of Willie Gaughan and a number of people who were working with clubs in the area; there was a lot of work done in the one or two years prior to me coming up, with underage teams - there was an uprising of younger juvenile teams."
For those who suspect 'uprising', when applied to juvenile hurling, may be mere hyperbole, consider this: at senior level there are just two proper hurling teams - Ballymachugh and Mullahoran; with a third Woodford Gaels "in a kind of limbo", according to Eoin, and Cootehill are continuing to find their feet with a nine-aside team. In stark contrast, there are 10 teams playing county-wide at U8 to U10 level, and eight teams at U12 level. Since 2010 there has been an effective 100% increase in the number of hurlers aged from six to 12-years old, from 330 to 659. Among teenagers it's even better percentage wise: from 250 in 2010 up to 550 now. Although there are just 110 hurlers aged over 18, these numbers will inevitably be bolstered in the coming years.
Of course it's only natural for a county-wide project to experience varying degrees of success. Despite being a more established club, Woodford Gaels in west Cavan have not shared in the recent hurling boom to the same extent as their counterparts in the east.
"There's one area in West Cavan which we need to patch up next year - Woodford Gaels," says Eoin. "They had a difficult year last year. They didn't field at minor level which is very disappointing, and they didn't at underage level that much, except for U12. So it's an area of concern, but it's an area which can be vastly developed. In every other area of Cavan, a player doesn't have to go very far if he wants to play for a hurling team - that's one positive thing."
In terms of fixtures, hurling has traditionally been overshadowed by football.
"Usually hurling fixtures would try to be squeezed in around football games and more often than not they would never happen," said Willie, explaining how unsatisfactory it was before.
These days, administratively, hurling has finally been afforded space amongst the fixture undergrowth in which to flourish.
"This year is the first time ever in the master fixtures plan, both at youth board and at adult level we have included the hurling fixtures," explains Tom Reilly.
Willie agrees that having football and hurling matches fixed for alternate weeks is a significant move.
"Believe me," urges Willie, "that's huge. The lads are playing football one week and hurling the next, but they are not clashing with each other. They [hurling and football teams] are not fighting over players, and players are not
getting burnt out by playing, maybe a hurling match on a Saturday evening, and football on a Sunday morning. There's nice symmetry there, and there's room for lads to play hurling now.
"We had an U12 League in the spring and an U13 League in the autumn with an U14s in the middle of it. There's a good crop of hurling for lads of those ages."
There's not just room in the calendar to play; there's room to train too.
"We've asked clubs to observe that we want Wednesday nights for hurling," says Tom Reilly.
One repercussion from the senior hurling hiatus is that the minor team is now the county's flagship team. It is widely accepted that they acquitted themselves well against Fermanagh, Tyrone and Monaghan in 2012, but minor manager John Hunt still laments on what could have been.
"We only got pipped by a point or two playing against some of them in the league," John states. "And we won one match - we beat Monaghan - but we probably should have won all our games. We should actually have won the league. We slipped up in some games, and we probably made mistakes on the sidelines that didn't go for us on the days that we lost; but we were a puck of the ball away all of the time.
"This is a team where some of the young lads wouldn't have been playing hurling for four or five years previous to that because there were no competitions - so can you imagine what these young fellas would be like if they were playing hurling on a regular basis?"
Highlight of 2012 was reaching the Minor C Championship final against Fingal. That they were well beaten in the final was no disgrace. Tom Reilly rated Fingal as "a development squad for Dublin hurling" while John Hunt and Eoin Morrissey concurred that the team from the capital could have won the Minor B championship let alone Minor C.
"I always knew, and I think that the players always knew that Fingal were a step too far for us," accepted John. "But I would say, if we were playing any of the teams we'd played in the League - Fermanagh, Monaghan or Tyrone -that day, I'd say we probably would have won that competition."
Overall though, the Minors' campaign has to be regarded in a positive light.
"We put a lot of effort into the minor team last year to drive on the profile of hurling within the county," said Eoin. "In hurling terms, not many Cavan people stood up and applauded it, but nationally we got a lot of credit for doing well with the minors."
John Hunt fears that some of the effort that went into last year's minor team may go to waste for those now over 18, if they don't have a hurling option at county level. John had expected that a Cavan U21 team would be formed in 2013 to provide an outlet for those graduating from the 2012 minors.
"I am disappointed. We spoke about this last year with the county board and I assumed from my conversation there was going to be an U21 team," said John. "I know the county board was apprehensive because they thought we wouldn't have a strong enough team, but I think that putting an U21 team together this year we would be very competitive and very strong, and all would boil down to the preparations we would get in.
Speaking to the Celt 10 days ago, at that stage he thought Cavan might yet enter a team.
"This year we have lost eight-10 players from the minor panel of 2012 because they are over age. If the U21 team is up and running, I'm sure they will be happy to have that, but I'd hate to see them being left in a vacuum for the next two or three years and not being able to play the game at some level."
Tom accepted that the possibility of a vacuum was considered, but after weighing it up decided that putting a very young U21 team out could have caused bigger problems.
"We identified that as a problem and we looked at it. But there's no point putting in an U21 team that's going to get flogged by players of 21, when they [Cavan] are only 19. That's the kind of road we went down before. This is going to be a painful process."
He also noted the creation of a development squad, and contended that the greater availability of club hurling would be some compensation for those who don't have the option to play county level.
While the Minors are trying their best on the pitch, they aren't drawing many supporters through the turnstiles, much to the frustration of those involved. John, who hails from Clare, but is based in Dublin, says that a Munster Minor Hurling Championship might expect to pull 4,000-5,000 supporters.
"You'd be lucky to get 100," he says when asked what a Cavan Minor match will attract.
"I can't understand why these young lads' fathers, mothers, girlfriends, sisters, aunts, uncles - why don't they see them playing? What's the problem? Why doesn't the local club football guy take an interest?"
Eoin says that the lack of support is "disappointing" and claims they couldn't publicise the games anymore than they are at present. However he accepts the sparsely populated stands reflect the lack of hurling culture in the county.
"Maybe people are not interested which is fair, I totally accept that because Cavan is always going to be predominantly a football county, and people are always going to be interested in Gaelic football."
Tom O'Reilly agrees, but says that the passion of those promoting hurling will trickle through, first with those playing the sport, and then their families, who will attend games.
"I see it really as an on-going process," he said when asked about changing the public's mindset. "There's a lot of barriers in his [Eoin's] way in the sense that football is established; other codes have also established themselves. "We're going to have to be realistic here, hurling is going to be the poor relation in the weaker counties of Ireland always, and we're one of the weaker counties."
Could it achieve the same status as football, even in 15-20 years time?
"In the weaker counties, it will be very difficult. It would be the very same for me to say that football in Kilkenny will never be the number one sport in that county," explains Tom.
The chairman agrees that the dominance of football may even occasionally result in some involved in football management trying to dissuade players from playing hurling. He suspects it happens to those players involved with soccer teams too.
"There is the feeling there - what do you want to play hurling for in Cavan? I recognise that and I've empathy for them [the hurling community] in that, because I know that's the way it is on the ground," he said, adding that he is determined to continue to develop the sport.
Eoin wants to instil the culture he's grown up with in his native Waterford where both sports happily coexist in every GAA club.
"If a kid is better at Gaelic football than he is in hurling, or is in the county football team, you have to be realistic and say look, that is the number one sport in Cavan at the moment and you are not going to tell him not to play Gaelic football for his county, to play hurling, because that's not going to happen. We have to show a bit of respect, and they have to show a bit of respect in return. It's not the hurling against Gaelic football, that's the last thing I want to happen."
Willie even suggests that since training and matches for hurling and football no longer overlap, footballers should be encouraged to take up hurling: "If you are in a local GFC, join your hurling club as it will make you a better footballer as well as hurler."
A key factor in raising the profile and credibility of hurling would be to have a senior team once again, and most importantly, that it's not a butt of a joke. If not winning cups, at least competing at a reasonably high standard. When does Eoin see the progress at youth level translate into a senior team?
"It is in the pipeline that we will have a senior team," he says. "Now issues could come up, and you never know what could happen, but we are hoping for the year 2015 to have a senior hurling team properly back.
"This year we are concentrating on having a minor team again and we are also looking at having an U23 development panel so lads who haven't played a lot of hurling in the last year will have the chance to play U23 development panel and then in the year after we will look at being in the U21 championship proper, and then the senior proper in 2015 with all the players that are coming up from 16, 17 and 18 now."
"It's a long process," he cautions, when speaking of developing hurling. "To get Cavan to a healthy stage in Ulster terms may only take three or four years, but in national terms could be 10-15 years."
Tom Reilly says he has sought the advice of numerous hurling experts in Kilkenny and elsewhere on Cavan hurling: "They'll all say the same - what we have in Cavan is a club set-up for the county."
He asserts that until Cavan has enough teams playing at a respectable level, then the county team will be destined to continue as a club team wearing a county shirt. For Tom, the presence of sufficient Cavan teams in the Tain League (an adult cross county league that includes all of Ulster and teams from Counties Louth, Longford, Sligo and Leitrim) will indicate when the time will be right to resume fielding a senior hurling team.
"We have to be realistic here, if we cannot field two club teams in the Tain League, how can we put a hurling county team out?
"If you can't get 30 fellas to play in the Tain League, how can you get 15 fellas to play for the county team?"
However Tom agrees with Eoin that there is scope for a senior team once the numbers justify it.
"I think that 2015, 2016, and 2017 are critical years for Cavan," he says, explaining that by then the young crop coming through now will be 21-23 years old, supported some players in the 24-25 range.
"That's the time the county team should maybe be up there again," he said. "But until we get numbers up to 90-120 bracket competing at a fairly senior level, and I watch the other counties that has a reasonable hurling set-up - take Mayo for example, they have six adult teams - you have to have four to six adult teams to have a county team. It's common sense."
Willie agrees that senior hurling is "probably a distance away" for Cavan and a significant presence in the Tain League is the first step, saying they need "about five teams" and "150-200 players".
Although there are currently 10 teams at the youngest range of underage level in Cavan, Tom is not pinning his hopes on this being sustained long-term to ultimately produce 10 senior teams.
"I feel 10 teams would be our ambition," he said. "I feel that 10 teams by 2018 would be great; you'd be flying. But I think when we consolidate with our numbers coming through for the next six years, six teams will be the max we'd hope for from U16-18."
John was the Cavan senior manager for a season, a few years before the collapse. He had bolstered the Cavan ranks with some outside players and claims that the team did relatively well. John feels that the senior team should never have been allowed to fall into disarray and further argues that pulling out the team only stored up trouble for future.
"The days of Cavan being thrashed and skinned by other counties, you'd nearly say at this stage is going to be in the distant past. What happened in 2011, if we go back to that - that was embarrassing. I can understand to a point why they pulled the team out, but pulling the team out doesn't solve a problem, it creates a problem.
"What are these guys [the new players coming through] going to aspire to when playing hurling? Are they going to play up until they're 18 and then they're gone away? You can't have a vacuum, you can't have stagnation there."
However John notes that the vacuum also exists to some extent for hurlers in all of the football orientated counties due to lack of fixtures. After the lower level knock-out competitions, such as the Christy Ring Cup which finishes in May, there's no inter-county hurling until the following February. John believes that there should be greater opportunities to play inter-county hurling at all age-groups in order to help develop the game.
"We finish hurling now in March again this year, and what's there for the rest of the season - from the month of March right through to September?
"…there's no point in not having competitions for these players in the months of April, May, June, July, August, September - these are the important months in playing hurling."
A similar problem exists for club hurlers: "We would have been pushing for more cross-county club competitions," said Willie, "because if you only have four or five teams you aren't getting enough games, and if you are, it's against the same old same olds all of the time."
Tom O'Reilly sits on the Ulster Council Hurling Committee, and he has a degree of sympathy for those seeking more competitions.
"While I agree totally that [we should be] putting on, and getting, competitions for teams - you just can't get competitions for the sake of competitions, like you can't have a competition for everyone to win something, and we're not ready…
"We push it as much as we can [at Ulster Council] but I'm going to be realistic, and I don't care what criticism I get from them [the hurling fraternity]. I just don't care because I've seen it all before and I know people are passionate but commonsense is not going to go out the window - we're going to come from the bottom up, not from the top down."
Looking back on his decision in 2011, Tom remains steadfast that he took the right course.
"If I have to suffer from criticism from national level back to local level, I'm prepared to take it on the chin, because time will tell that this decision is the right one - and I believe it is the right one."
He said that having a county team was like "putting a roof on a house with no foundations nor no walls".
John however wonders why it took so long to lay foundations and build walls?
"There's no question about what's taking place at the moment has been phenomenal; but what's annoying me, and probably other people, is why it didn't happen 10 years previously? Why did it not happen five years previously? Now it's happening, and now let's get on with it and forget about the past.
"But the reality is there's major progress in development for these lads now."
Now Cavan's underage scheme is being seen to bear fruit, Tom believes the decision to remove the seniors is now possibly even seen by the Croke Park authorities as "a brave courageous move".
"The state of hurling at this moment in time would be at a level far above what it would have been in the past in Cavan. The reason being there's hope for hurling now.
"The system we had in place before was - we had a county team that was made up of one or two clubs with no structures underneath whatsoever. That was the way I found the county team that was costing us a lot of money, with players from outside of the county, that was being used to get a county jersey. I have no problem saying that without contradiction, now the hurling people might disagree with me - I have no problem with that either. I put a structure in place. I thought that the only way hurling was going to survive in Cavan was if we were going to start at the very bottom."
They may not all agree with ceasing senior hurling, but everyone agrees that having started at the bottom, the future is bright. The target for 2013 is to encourage more youths to enter the regional clubs, for those competing in the Tain League to do well and at Minor level, despite losing a chunk of last year's panel to age, Eoin hopes they can win "a trophy of some sort".
"It would really help raise the profile within Cavan - heads would turn a small bit if they saw a Cavan team bring a hurling trophy back to Cavan."
Longer term John is optimistic for the health of the sport too.
"I'd safely say in the next couple of years," said John, "if we do things right in Cavan I'd say we probably will be top of the pile we're in at the moment, and that would probably put us in fifth or sixth place in Ulster - that's a big statement."
Eoin agrees that if we continue on this trajectory, things are looking good.
"In 10 years time I would be hopeful that we will be at least a Division 2B/2A league team and aiming for Christy Ring status, which would be Division 3 championship hurling.
"That's our projected aim, and it's a long road, and I'd say that's a high estimate, so if we fall a little bit short of that, it will still be a success in some ways."