“ONCE INSIDE, BEFORE making eye-contact with anyone, he runs a quick tally on the bodies, a reflex habit. Not bad. There are 16 or so. ‘Or so’ means there might be 16 but there will probably be the bare 15. Finding a sub and getting him togged out on such Baltic days in January can demand extreme powers of persuasion. Some of the more stubborn guys keep their jeans on and their arms folded; the body language says ‘Do not look in this direction’. The rest are either ‘injured’ or ‘not quite fit enough yet’.”
Those are the words of Damian Lawlor describing the Waterford football dressing-room through the eyes of one of their players, Mick Ahearne, in early 2009 but the imagination does not need to stretch far to exchange Déise jerseys for Kilkenny ones.
Not that they can fill out a bag of jerseys all the time time.
The Kilkenny county board have and will come in for a lot of criticism for the state of their football teams but there are so many hurdles in the way of progress.
Lawlor’s book on Waterford took a brief look across the pavilion hall to the Cats at that time and identifies a set of players that essentially seem like they do not want to be there. That they are embarrassed. Like a set of men playing snooker with a rope.
Crucially, there is no hotbed of football in the county, and that’s a massive stumbling block. Because Kilkenny are part of the established order in hurling, it is easy to measure them against another: Tipperary.
Both prosper in the small ball but it is clear that the Premier County are in a much better place in the other code right now. The Cats may not have won Leinster in a century nor have Tipp taken Munster in 77 years, but there is hope and respectability about John Evans’ side. Indeed there is a minor football All-Ireland title to boast.
Without the hotbed of South Tipperary football, Evans would have much less with which to work. Because while there are plenty of good footballers in Kilkenny and North Tipperary, it takes a back seat. Looking at north Tipp where the game was pretty much on its knees outside underage levels, a divisional side named Thomas McDonagh’s – which picks from nine clubs – was set up in 2007 and is the main beacon of hope.
Indeed they won the Tipperary county football title in 2011. But that papers over the reality, that so few bother with football in that part of the county. Indeed for those of us from there, it is not unusual to give a walkover so as to instead fulfil a soccer fixture – because you can get away with that on a hangover. That’s the reality in some villages; not all, of course.
An enduring hangover is the reality for Kilkenny senior and U-21 manager John McGrath. Fifty points (9-23) conceded against Fermanagh and the U-21s losing by 50 to Louth, McGrath is swimming upstream – and having sliotars blasted at him.
“If I sent out a message to every club in Kilkenny today asking them to nominate three players to come to county football training, I would be lucky if 10 turned up,” he said last week.
“If Brian Cody did the same he’d need the guards for crowd control. There wouldn’t be room for all the players who would want to try out for the hurlers. That’s just the reality.”
“Our problem is that if you have a fairly good hurler, who is also a good footballer, his club will actively discourage him from playing with us. They don’t want him playing football with us because they want him available for club hurling at all times.”
Which tallies with John Kiely’s frustrations as Waterford boss when Lawlor followed the Déise. The likes of Gary Hurney and Shane Walsh tried to juggle both codes but the lure of hurling pulled greatest. Even so, McGrath can only dream of having it as good as Kiely did – which is saying something. Much in the way that hurling managers in many football-dominated counties might too.
Tipperary director of football John Evans celebrates with Jason Lonergan after last year’s Munster minor football final. Pic: INPHO/James Crombie
“Hurling is hanging by a thread in many counties,” said President Elect of the GAA Liam O’Neill in February, as he launched the National Hurling Development Plan. “We looked at the nine developing counties [Longford, Louth, Leitrim, Sligo, Donegal, Tyrone, Cavan, Monaghan and Fermanagh].
“We looked at the clubs in those counties. We couldn’t believe how thin a thread hurling is hanging by in some of those counties. It was only after we did the work and investigated that we found out how weak hurling really is and we said that we have to develop the club hurling.”
Rather than isolating Kilkenny and embarrassing the players who do not go out on the pitch with the intention of being annihilated, remember that other teams have come from low ebbs. Maybe not quite this low but as low as the likes of those nine counties O’Neill mentioned would be if they played any established championship hurling side. A 50-point defeat would be something of a miracle.
So perhaps a little less finger-pointing and gasping at their results might help. One forum poster left this comment online this week: “Wonder how Kilkenny would fare in football against some of the top ladies teams?” It’s the sort of attitude that will only impede McGrath from improving his lot. From getting clubs to foster the game of football in the Marble County.
As much as Kilkenny football clearly needs a boost, the players must also be let feel comfortable enough to look people in the eye before they can dream of even matching Waterford circa 2009.