The Ulster Senior Hurling Championship hasn’t been played since 2017, and we have asked three players whether it should be resurrected or not
By Niall McCoy
THE Ulster Senior Hurling Championship used to be one of the highlights of the summer.
Played in front of big crowds, Antrim, Derry and Down would generally be the three teams battling it out for Liam Harvey Cup – and a place in the All-Ireland semi-finals or quarter-finals. Other counties have had their days in the sun too.
Did you know that in 1906, Donegal’s reward for their provincial win was an All-Ireland quarter-final with Kilkenny 10 months later? Or that they played Limerick in the 1924 semi-final?
Monaghan have two titles to their name while Cavan and Armagh have appeared in eight finals between them.
Even New York have played their part. In 2006 they shocked Derry in the semi-final before losing to Antrim in the final in Boston.
In recent times though interest has waned considerably, no doubt accelerated by the lack of an All-Ireland championship spot for the victor.
The increased profile of the likes of the Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard saw teams turn their focus elsewhere and after Antrim won their 17th consecutive in 2017, the plug was pulled.
It’s not the first time the competition has been absent having been suspended from 1950 to 1988, but those who love it will be hoping that the current wait is nowhere near as long.
We asked three players to give their views on whether or not Ulster GAA should look to add it back to the calendar.
CONOR MCCANN (ANTRIM)
“You could play the final overseas”
ANTRIM captain Conor McCann has said that creativity would be key if the Ulster Senior Hurling Championship was ever to make a reappearance.
One option would be to play the final elsewhere, according to the player. In 2006 Canton Park in Boston hosted the final meeting of New York and Antrim, although that location change was mainly due to the American team being unable to travel.
McCann, however, feels that there may be something in it.
“I think it would be creative if they maybe took the teams away for it, some thinking like that outside the box is needed,” said McCann.
“They need to try something to promote the Ulster Championship as a whole. It would be something different that could bring a bit more interest to it.
“They have to be something different about it or it will just carry on the way it has been. That might give it a bit of an injection and maybe it could be carried on BBC Online and then bring the two teams in the final away for a long weekend.”
McCann said that the Saffron players were still enjoying the competition, even in the final few years, but did admit that its spot in the calendar was an issue.
“From our perspective it was at a strange time of the season because we would have been playing the Leinster Championship and then the Qualifiers. You would have finished that and then you would have had this Ulster Championship coming in after that and you were trying to get yourself back up for it a competition that did still mean a lot for the players.
“I know the Conor McGurk Cup has been beneficial for everyone and I think the teams have really taken to it as well.
“It’s just not the same as an Ulster Championship in the middle of June or July. Those games in the summer when everyone is going for it.”
The Creggan hurler said that it remains a tournament that deserves to be saved, and he hopes to add to his own medal haul before his career comes to an end.
“I always loved the Ulster Championship. There is something special when you play your own provincial competition.
“It’s where you’re from. Look at Derry, Down, even Armagh – the teams are progressing. It feels like the competition will be there. Even Donegal and Tyrone have been making big strides in recent seasons.
“Personally I would love to see it coming back but it has to be in the right time in the season.
“There used to be thousands coming out to watch the finals and semi-finals years ago. They used to be very tight and that entry into the All-Ireland semi-final was a real incentive for teams to be at a certain level.
“When that went away that did hurt it and before it was stopped it seemed to be almost a burden to play in it or to have it traced in with all this restructuring and the tiers.”
DARRAGH CARTIN (DERRY)
“Club grounds could
provide the atmosphere”
DARRAGH Cartin has been part of a Derry side that has toppled the best of Ulster at u-21 level, but he is frustrated that he, as it stands, will not get the chance to repeat the trick at senior level.
In 2017, the Oakleafers defeated Antrim 2-11 to 3-6 in the semi-final before Cartin’s seven points helped them to a 3-17 to 1-9 win over Down in the final. Even though Kilkenny proved much too strong in the All-Ireland semi-final, it was a brilliant few weeks for the young hurlers.
Cartin would like to see the Ulster Championship return so that they have the opportunity to enjoy similar glory days at senior level.
“I think it would be nice to play in it,” said the Banagher attacker.
“It must have been in 2014, we were with the minors up in Owenbeg and the senior final was on after between Derry and Antrim.
“It mightn’t have been a full-strength Antrim team but it was a very good game and Antrim only beat Derry by a point in the end up.
“It was the biggest following I had ever saw at a Derry hurling match, the stand was right and packed. So people will go to it.”
Cartin said that it wasn’t a coincidence that a great atmosphere helped produce a great game in Owenbeg that day, and he feels that one way to assist a possible return would be to host games in club grounds rather than county venues.
“We played a few National League games in Ballinascreen last year. It was double-headers with the footballers but there were was still a good enough crowd at the hurling matches.
“This year we played in Celtic Park and there were very few fans in and you can feel that as a player.
“I think club grounds, if there is not going to be a massive crowd, can still keep the atmosphere.”
Cartin is firm in his belief that his 2017 side could be a serious force in the Ulster Senior Championship, if they were given the opportunity.
“My age-group never got the chance to play in it,” he said.
“In 2017 we won the Ulster U-21 and it was the first time we really had the full team with the Sleacht Néill boys and the Dungiven boys all there.
“It would have been nice to get that team through to have a crack at it at senior.
“When we beat Antrim that year they were as strong as they could have been. We won it handy enough, they got a couple of goals at the end, but we still had a few points to spare.”
PAUL SHEEHAN (DOWN)
“Ulster had fallen down
the list of priorities”
DOWN hurler Paul Sheehan feels that the Ulster Championship fell down the list of priorities after the introduction of the tiered All-Ireland tournaments.
The Newry Shamrocks man said that he grew up on a diet of big Ulster hurling games, but the decision to introduce the Christy Ring Cup and Nicky Rackard Cup at Congress in 2004 ultimately led to the issues the provincial competition faces today.
“Having played in it, and having played in Ulster finals, I loved it,” said Sheehan.
“There was nothing better when I was a wee lad than going to Casement and watching the Ulster Championship.
“It’s a brilliant competition but the appeal has to be there.
“For example, Down and Antrim and Armagh and Derry are obviously trying to compete in their respective All-Ireland Championships, the Joe McDonagh, the Christy Ring, the Nicky Rackard.
“That’s their stepping stone for progression. If we’re playing in the Christy Ring we are going all guns to win that to play Joe McDonagh hurling.
“Once everything was restructured and the Ulster Championship had nothing for the winners, bar the cup and the pride, it probably changed things.”
Sheehan said that the removal of the All-Ireland spot was another major blow to the tournament.
“When I went to watch matches at Casement when I was in primary school the place used to be wedged. There would have been massive crowds.
“There are a lot of old GAA videos floating around at the minute when people need something to watch and you’d see Down against Antrim in the early 90s and there were huge crowds.
“You do have to remember though that the winner was into an All-Ireland semi-final so obviously there was going to be more of an appeal.
“I’d say what the Ulster Championship meant to those players then, the Christy Ring means that to us now. Things have moved on.
“I genuinely don’t think that any hurler playing Christy Ring or Nicky Rackard or Joe McDonagh would sacrifice that to go back to the Ulster Championship.
“They are fantastic tournaments. I watched the last year’s Joe McDonagh final the other day and the standard of hurling was brilliant. That’s where Down are aspiring to get to.”
Still though, if he was pushed on it Sheehan said that he would rather see an Ulster Championship played than not played.
“If they could work it in some way, it would be brilliant.”