A CAREER regret of mine was coming to the Ulster Senior Hurling Championship party a bit too late. By the time I walked through The Irish News offices on Donegall Street and posted to Casement Park in the summer, the Antrim versus Down rivalry had lost some of its oomph.
Indeed, before Ulster hurling tripped into the ‘Noughties’, Antrim were almost being tripped up by the London hurlers – such was their fall from grace.
I remember standing on the velvet surface of the Casement Park pitch at the end of an Ulster final waiting on Geoffrey McGonigle finishing off his celebratory cigarette.
He looked as though he was enjoying it too much to interrupt the moment. The post-match interview could wait.
This was long before nutrition expenses and ice baths.
But it didn’t stop players like McGonigle, the brilliant Ollie Collins and Kieran McKeever lighting up Casement on gorgeous July days – not to mention firing the imagination of youngsters running around the fields of Dungiven and Lavey, so they could understand what it felt like when ash and stitched leather meet.
Although I’d missed the best parts of Noel Sands, Marty Mallon, Gary Savage, Graham Clarke and Gerard McGrattan’s hurling careers with Down, Derry’s back-to-back provincial crowns – in 2000 and 2001 – were still memorable days.
Before the halcyon days of the 1990s, the Down hurlers had claimed just one Ulster title, in 1942. So, imagine what it must have felt like for folk on the Ards peninsula to come up to the big smoke and watch Sands and co slay the bluebloods of Antrim in ’92, 95 and ’97 and be carried shoulder high around Casement.
“We always had to fight with the stewards to get in which made your blood boil a bit more,” Sands said last week.
“These guys had made it hard for you to get into the ground and you were ready for anything in the changing room.
“But it was a terrific place. We got to know the stewards and had a bit of a laugh with them when they got to know us. It was just brilliant to be there. We won the Ulster Championship one year on the 12th of July – a glorious 12th for Down.
“Any time you played there, it was a bit like Croke Park, whether empty or full it was a great place to be.”
A raucous Antrim-Down rivalry was born.
But with each retirement of Down’s hurling warriors their challenge weakened.
In a life-and-times feature on one of the best hurlers to come out of the peninsula, Sands acknowledged that Antrim probably always had better hurlers but they could rarely match Down’s desire for the fight.
Speaking to this paper in 2020, the Portaferry native said: “We could never play Antrim’s style of hurling because we never had the guys to do it but we did have guys who would run through a brick wall to get to these guys, and that’s what we had over Antrim.
“I’m convinced if Antrim had Down’s spirit they would’ve won an All-Ireland. They had the players to win it – it was just the spirit, the will and the desire to do it and die for that jersey – you can’t bottle that.”
Whether or not this is true is beside the point. What it does encapsulate, however, is the healthy tension between two rivals.
After the Ulster Championship’s heyday, Down settled in Division Two hurling while Derry also bobbed around the middle tier.
Rarely did either county make a sincere push to break into Division One. The Ulster Championship became woefully uncompetitive too, as Antrim racked up the titles, while counties appeared happier to target an All-Ireland at their own grade, be it the Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard or Lory Meagher.
And since 2018, another All-Ireland tier was added – the Joe McDonagh Cup. A year earlier the curtain was brought down on the ailing provincial series.
While the emergence of the tiered national championships played a role in hastening the demise of the Ulster Championship, by ending it, the Ulster Council was also admitting defeat in failing to grow the small-ball game.
Once you bin something it’s very hard to get it back. That God-awful phrase – Team Ulster – found its way into the hurling vernacular.
Donal Og Cusack lobbed it into The Sunday Game conversation a few years ago; it was picked up by the GAA’s Director-General at the time Paraic Duffy and Team Ulster was among his Congress musings.
Team Ulster might have worked at college level but to try and replicate it on the inter-county stage would have been just plain wrong and foolhardy and would only have served the whims of the south’s chattering classes who wanted one decent game from the ‘Nordies’ every summer.
Had Team Ulster grown legs, the Down hurling team as an entity would have disappeared. And we probably would never have encountered a nutter like Ronan Sheehan, the current Down hurling manager.
Make no mistake, Sheehan is a nutter. Ulster hurling can’t have enough nutters in their midst.
Because nutters start revolutions. They build things. And they don’t stop. They don’t accept the status quo.
Derry have one in Dominic McKinley. Armagh now have one in Terence McNaughton.
Under Sheehan’s charismatic leadership, Down hurling is a force again. They were one game away from breaking into Division One only a few weeks ago.
And they’ll be back for another crack next year.
Last Saturday, they beat Kerry down in Kerry while up at Corrigan Park Antrim edged out Offaly. Both were Joe McDonagh Cup games.
This Sunday in Ballycran, Down and Antrim renew acquaintances.
After their one-point win over Offaly, the historic nature of the Ulster derby fixture wasn’t lost on Darren Gleeson.
“It’s great for Ulster hurling because it’s not too long ago they were talking about everybody join together and make the one team,” said the Antrim manager.
“There are two [Ulster] teams with a win each in the Joe McDonagh. I’ll look forward to going to Ballycran.”
When the traffic backs up in Kircubbin on Sunday afternoon and an old rivalry is dusted down, maybe the Ulster Senior Hurling Championship should be at least talked about again.