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Why I believe that the GAA as an organisation has failed hurling

Laois manager Séamas Plunkett during the Walsh Cup round 1 match between Laois and Wexford in Rathdowney, Co Laois. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Sean McGoldrick

In his 2020 St Patrick’s Day Covid-19 address from Washington, the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar reminded the nation that ‘not all heroes wear capes’.

Likewise, in the GAA world not all the heroes win All-Ireland medals, collect Manager of the Year awards or are invited to be an analyst on the Sunday Game.

Take Séamas Plunkett, for example.

Better known in the GAA world as ‘Cheddar’, he is manager of the Laois hurling team.

The odds are that outside of his native county and the tightly-knit hurling community elsewhere few ever heard of him. It is unlikely he was ever asked to pose for a selfie while walking down O’Connell Street.

Yet there are few more passionate advocates of hurling than Cheddar. It’s straightforward to be enthusiastic about the so-called greatest field game in the world when you from the likes of Kilkenny, Tipperary or Cork or more lately Limerick.

Being manager of Laois, however, is a story of unrequited love.

Last Sunday Laois played their ‘All-Ireland’ final in 2022.

Pointless after three rounds of the Allianz league, they faced Antrim, who had performed better this spring but were also pointless.

Essentially, this was a straight knock-out game, with the winners guaranteed a place in the top-flight of the League next season, whereas the losers faced a relegation play-off probably against Offaly.

In a hectic finish Laois prevailed despite being down to 14 men and a point behind with two minutes of normal time remaining.

PJ Scully hit a free and the winning point came after the outstanding Cha Dwyer forced a turnover.

Plunkett would be forgiven for feeling jubilant afterwards. Instead his thoughts were focussed on the plight of Antrim.

“I have great grá for Antrim. They’re in a similar position to ourselves. To be honest with you, nobody in the GAA gives a fiddlers about our counties.

“It’s up to ourselves to do something about us because nobody else is going to do it for us.

“I have great regard for the Carlows and Westmeaths and Antrims. We know for the last 20 or 30 years, we’re in that middle tier.

“All of us, including ourselves and Antrim, think we have the ability to step up. We need support to do that. It’s not forthcoming. That’s why I have massive regard for Antrim hurling and their club hurling.

“Clearly, I’m Laois manager and I have responsibility to win matches. But it would give me the greatest of pleasure to see Antrim bursting through this bloody ceiling.”

Plunket touched on an undeniable reality – as an organisation the GAA has failed hurling.

The situation is so bad that the league cannot be organised on the hierarchical football model of four divisions each containing eight teams.

Division 1 would not be an issue, but a football style Division 2 would be unworkable because of the chasm between the best and the worst teams in it.

As a result, the top-12 rated counties are divided into two sections each containing six teams which effectively means that the top sides (Limerick, Cork, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford, Galway, Wexford, Dublin and Clare) saunter through the spring without a care in the world.

They know the chances of being relegated are remote so they can focus on their preparations for the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

For example, All-Ireland hurling champions Limerick have taken one point out of a possible eight in the competition so far and nobody has batted an eyelid.

Meanwhile, acres of newsprint have been devoted to Dublin footballers who are stuck at the bottom of Division 1 – and they’re not even the All-Ireland champions.

By the way it is not only Croke Park’s fault that hurling remains the preserve of the few. In the football strongholds the majority of GAA members are simply not interested in promoting the game.

In the last 70 years Offaly (1981) are the only new county to make the breakthrough and win the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

And the Faithful County are no longer eligible to compete directly in the All-Ireland series. This year they will have to reach the Joe McDonagh Cup final to gain entry.

Meanwhile, in football, despite extended periods of dominance by the big two: Kerry – who won eight Sam Maguire titles between 1975 and 1986 and Dublin, who achieved an unpreceded six-in-a-row between 2015 and 2020 and eight titles in ten season, six counties have still managed to break football’s glass ceilings.

Down (1960), Offaly (1971), Donegal (1992), Derry (1993), Armagh (2002) and Tyrone (2003) were first-time winners. Better still, with the exception of Armagh, the others have won more than one title.

Cheddar Plunkett knows that the chances of Laois winning a Leinster title - never mind an All-Ireland title - during his term of office are practically non-existent.

But he still fights the good fight against impossible odds. That’s why he’s a real hurling hero.

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