Martin Fogarty: 'Hurling should be on the curriculum of every school'
By John Harrington
Martin Fogarty strides across the UCD playing fields resplendent in a sky-blue Dublin jersey, carrying a hurley in one hand and a gear bag in the other.
The hurley and gear-bag are familiar companions, the Dublin jersey not so much. Fogarty made his name as a selector and coach with Kilkenny from 2005-2013 when the Cats won six All-Ireland titles, so to see him in county colours other than black and amber jars the senses.
"When in Rome...", he explains with a smile. Fogarty had just taken a session with the Kilmacud Crokes minor hurling team along with Dublin county hurler Niall Corcoran, Kilmacud's Gaelic Games Promotion Officer.
Making connections with every hurling tribe in the country will soon be his full-time job as the GAA's newly appointed National Hurling Development Manager, so that sort of mindset should help.
His coaching acumen will earn him respect wherever he goes and add weight to whatever recommendations he makes, and his history as a long-serving Primary School in Firoda National School outside Castlecomer suggests he has the drive to tackle what will be a busy and wide-reaching role.
When he was appointed in 1981, Firoda NS was a single-teacher school under threat of closure because of falling numbers. Under Fogarty's watch, the school blossomed and now has three mainstream teachers, one special need's assistant, one resource teacher, one learning support teacher and almost 100 pupils.
So, what sort of impact can he have in his new role? Will the game of hurling also be in much ruder health by the time he is finished his work?
GAA.ie sat down with National Hurling Development Manager to find out his goals and how he plans to achieve them.
Q: Martin, you’ve been immersed in the game all your life, so is the position of National Hurling Development Manager your dream job?
A: It's a great opportunity to do something I'm passionate about. To get this chance is having butter on the two sides of the bread.
Q: Why did you see yourself as a good fit for the position?
A: When you go for interview you have to see yourself that way. I've been fortunate my whole career as a teacher, as a club person and then being involved in Kilkenny I've been fortunate to see the game at all levels from four years of age right up to top level senior inter-county. I think that's a great advantage and seeing players, seeing teams perform, the best in the country, and at the same time as a club person seeing the pain of not being able to win matches, having the sad days so I can empathise with people who don't win. What happens in Kilkenny doesn't fit for every county. In fact, very few counties.
My job is not about All-Irelands. It's about trying to get more people hurling and get more people enjoying it. I would have a belief that hurling should actually be on the curriculum in every secondary school. I was involved in a Comenius project a few year ago where Irish schools link up with European schools. We linked up with German, Polish, Spanish, Swedish. You share culture, you share practice, and visit with each other. We had these people over with us and we brought them to a hurling match and a lady teacher from Sweden said to me - "If we had this game it would be on our curriculum." Up to that I looked at hurling as hurling. But she was dead right.
They were blown away with the game of hurling. We had them up in our school for a start. And then we brought them to an inter-county game. At that stage they would have said it, but I would only have realised it after that the game of hurling is up there with the language, with the Book of Kells. You look at 1916 and all that was done with this year. The thing about hurling is that it's alive. I think everyone should have the opportunity to play it at some level.
Q: Why should hurling be a more obvious fit to be on the curriculum of a school than any other sport?
A: If you think about it, it's our native game and something that no other country has. And it's our heritage. If you ask yourself 'why do we study history?', for example. Why do we study wars and battles and people killing each other? Why don't we study something that's alive? It's like our Irish dancing or our Irish music. You take art, why do we paint pictures in schools? Why do we play a tin whistle? Why not hurling?
I would love to see a situation where it's a Leaving Cert subject where you could get points in your Leaving Cert for playing the game, coaching the game, or maybe just knowing the whole history of the game.
Unfortunately like a lot of countries with things that they have, sometimes they don't appreciate them until they are gone. The time to keep something strong is when it's strong. If you were to imagine down the line hurling failing and then people trying to retrieve it and revive it. If you go to America and you take the Native Americans, everyone wants to go over and see how they used to live years ago but they're gone, they're wiped out. The time to keep something alive is when it's alive.
Q: The links between schools and clubs in Kilkenny seems to be one of the reasons why hurling is so healthy there. Are strong club-school links the most obvious thing every county should get right?
A: The numbers are in the schools, everybody is passing through the schools. I would say that to promote it more through schools is one of the ways. Then obviously through clubs. But you may have children in schools that don't have access to clubs, the school is your opportunity if people are open to it. It doesn't have to be a team. It can be just playing the game for the fun of it.
I believe that if enough people play the game for the fun of it you are going to grow more clubs, you are going to get more people involved.
But the game is very strong. I was amazed, I was invited up to a little club in Roscommon, St Dominic's, to do a little bit of coaching and I was blown away with the level of interest, the level of skill. I was on the way home and found myself outside Hyde Park. I had a bit of time and in I went thinking it was a football match with the amount of cars there were. It turned out to be a hurling match.
The same club were playing there. So that little pocket up there would just blow you away with the level of interest they have and the standard. There are pockets like that everywhere.
Q: How strong is hurling now compared to 10 years ago? Is the game on the right curve?
A: I think it is. I heard the figure that there will be 120,000 at Cul Camps this summer. Someone said to me that's only the first week or two, that could lead to 150,000. that's a huge amount. I heard another figure then that the coaching courses have started out, foundation and level one, and something like 10,000 people have trained as GAA hurling coaches. That's phenomenal.
I just think that, going back years ago, if you look at clubs that maybe had one pitch, they now have two or three pitches. Look at clubs even in my own area, you might have seen a bit of training going on a Tuesday or a Thursday and you might have seen youngsters and they might have one match in a competition and they got knocked out and that was it.
You drive through the country now and there are scores of children in them, scores of adults. I think it's growing strongly. I know sometimes people criticise the level at the top, and if every match doesn't end in a draw there's a problem. I think the level of inter-county play is phenomenal.
If a player backs off a metre from an opponent, it's generally a score. You spill a ball it ends up in a goal. The amount of fitness levels, the accuracy levels have gone through the sky. It's very difficult to compare now with 20 years ago. You just can't do it.
Q: How easy or difficult will it be to have more counties genuinely competing in the top tier of the inter-county game?
A: You see they talk about promoting people up to the top level but the people at the top are rising as well and it's very difficult. I looked at the Ring, Rackard and Meagher matches this year and, to be honest about it, there would be plenty of players in Kilkenny that are hurling all their lives and they wouldn't make those teams. The standard is pretty good. You go up a level and it's higher again and then you take the top level.
You're looking at fine margins then as you go up the grades. Unfortunately if a team finds themselves out of their depth in a game of hurling you can get a fairly serious beating. Take last week with Tipperary and Waterford. Waterford are an outstanding team. Their skill level is something else, their fitness levels too but a couple of balls go wrong in a game and suddenly you are wiped out the door. That's sport. It's like boxing, step in with Ali years ago and drop your guard and you're on the floor.
Q: Offaly are an example of a once successful county now fallen on relatively harder times. How possible is to get Offaly back winning Provincial titles in the short to medium term?
A: To win, so many things have to go right for you. You have to have the talent, exceptional talent. And when Offaly were winning they had a bunch of exceptionally talented players. When Kilkenny and Tipperary are winning they have them. You can be doing a very good job, you can have very good ordinary players, but a team that comes against them have a few exceptional players, you're not going to beat them. If you look at the golf when Tiger Woods was dominant. Was there a problem in golf? All the other players, sure they were very good. It's just Tiger was that bit better.
It's not a matter of saying, right, there's 10 counties we'll do this, this and this and win your All-Ireland. My end of it, I won't say I'm not interested in All-Irelands, but if you were to take the next 10 years if a different team were to win every year that's 260 All-Ireland medals over 10 years. That's only a small amount of players. There's not going to be 10 All-Ireland champions for the next 10 years. How many players are you looking at over the next 10 years are going to have an All-Ireland medal. If you were to say 100, whereas I'm looking at thousands enjoying the game.
Q: Would you see yourself as having any role in revitalising hurling in Cork?
A: I'll put it this way, I will go wherever I can help out. You know, the likes of Cork, a huge hurling county. Haven't been winning titles. And that's the upper end of the scale. Now, I know for certain because I've been down there, there's a huge amount of work going on at club level. A huge amount of coaches working.
And, without a doubt, if there's anything I can do for any county like that then I certainly will do it. Cork people are not happy obviously because they're not where they were at inter-county level and that is a problem for them. But compare it to other counties, they're still way ahead. So it's a double-edged thing.
I think the way forward in a county like Cork, and I would be very, very slow to tell them what they should be doing, but the way forward, I suppose, is to have a look at their games programs for a start. I think every county has to start off and look at their Games Programme and see are we providing a meaningful amount of games at a proper level for every player. That has to be the start of it. And if we're not, can we look to a county that is providing it and then can we build towards that?
Tied into that then, once you have your Games structure in place, obviously then you need the people at the coal-face in the clubs to look after those and they need to be up-skilled. The structures are there in the GAA, I think, the advice is there and the people are on the ground to build it. And then, you know, to do what Cork wants to do and every county wants to do, to actually go and win. If you get all of those things in place, then you're still looking for the players with that little bit of extra talent.
Like, if you take Galway as a prime example. Haven't won a senior All-Ireland since 1988, but look at the hurlers and look at the underage. Look what they have. Year after year after year something happens to keep them from winning (an All-Ireland senior title).
It doesn't mean their structures are wrong, it doesn't mean anything is wrong. There's a huge amount of hurling going on there and the standard is unbelievable. The fact that you don't win, so many things have to fall in place for you to win.
Luckily enough in Kilkenny they have fallen into place. But I could see over the years the smallest little thing in certain years and you wouldn't even be in an All-Ireland. I think sometimes people get a bit nervous about the game. And they judge. I wouldn't judge hurling in a county by the progress of the senior team. Because for the senior team to progress so many things have to come right.
Q: You said the Kilkenny model isn’t a one size fits all one. But what elements of it are easily transferable to other counties?
A: You see we're spoiled in Kilkenny in that we've had success and success breeds success. If I was to say it's easy for a Kilkenny player to really become dedicated, now, I say 'easy' in inverted commas because they know if they put in the work and the graft and get things right and they know they have a very, very good chance of a big day for a start. And they have a reasonable chance of a bit of silverware.
Now, you take a player from a county that hasn't had success, they can put in the same work and in the back of their mind they're saying, "What's ahead of me only a 20-point beating at the end of the season?" And, unfortunately, that little bit of doubt can be what holds them back the fraction that tips the scales in their matches.
Sometimes you get teams I believe that in trying to achieve they actually maybe work too hard. And if you work too hard and train too often then you become stale. I have sympathy for teams and players that do that in order to try to rise to the level of the Kilkennys and maybe actually overdo it.
Now, what can be learned of the likes of Kilkenny, I suppose, is a couple of things. And that being the first thing. That freshness. Not over-training. Burn-out has been bandied about in the GAA for years. Looking after players where there's an overlap of players in age-groups, looking after them so that they're not burned out. That's huge.
Especially up around College level. Youngsters coming out there 18, 19, 20 years of age and they're involved in minor, U-21 teams, club, county, college teams. There's a huge area there where there can be serious burn-out. I won't say we have the balance right in Kilkenny, but we're very, very mindful of trying to get it right.
Then, what we have in Kilkenny, and we're lucky to have it in that almost every school, almost every parish, has the culture. It's hard to compete with that, the culture. What we have in Kilkenny, and they have it in other places too, is that as well as the competitive hurling you have recreational hurling and that's huge. It doesn't have to be just the training nights that players go to the field.
You can take the current Kilkenny players, all of those players, it's not just the training nights. Recreationally they're going down on the off nights and pucking a ball and they're working on their skill and that's huge. It's very hard to buy that.
Q: What would have hoped to have achieved by the time you’ve finished as National Hurling Development Manager?
A: To start off with I have a lot of talking to do or more so a lot of listening to do because there are several initiatives in place already in the GAA. My job will be to support them as best I can, help out if I'm needed and if I'm not needed which will be in many cases, my job will be just to support. I will need to talk to the various committees that have done research, a huge amount of work and what they're suggesting and what their vision is.
Hurling 2020 have a huge amount done and while I'm pretty familiar with what has gone on and what their recommendations are I'd need to sit down with the people involved and really tease them out.
There are a handful of counties there that have been designated as needing a bit of extra attention. I would be hoping to have a good ear and listen to people in various counties and see what can be done to improve where they are at.
It's so broad because if you take for example a county like Offaly and Westmeath. What are their needs? They have a pocket of very serious hurlers, a pocket of great clubs and it might be to support those and keep them strong. Take a county team, minor, senior or U-21, and it might be a bit of advice. It might be getting some people to speak with them and letting them see that they're on the right lines.
There may be clubs in these areas needing help. The help might come from me directly or it could be help that I can get for them. If it's down to club structures, if it's down to games programmes. Personally I mightn't have the answers but I might say, listen, here's a games programme that's happening in such a county. Maybe we'll set you up and have a chat with them and see does it fit.
Then we go down to schools. If you have a development school or a school that is maybe gone off the boil a bit and they want a little boost again. Maybe we can get some coaches in and get them on track again. Maybe in other counties they want to raise the level of coaching.
It's as broad as they want it to be but at the end of the day to answer your question what would I like to see, I would certainly like to see some hurling happening where it hasn't happened. I would like to see it growing in places where it is reasonably strong.
Of course I'd like to see more teams competing at the very top but if that happens, it won't be down to me it will down to the people working at the coal face who have been working for years doing that job. One of the main things I can do is to enthuse the people who are at the coalface and have been working for years doing that job.
I've been lucky enough to be invited to several counties to give coaching seminars, et cetera. I would be quite envious of some of the clubs that I have gone to that think they're not doing things right but are absolutely wonderful.
If you take the four main teams above in Antrim in Loughiel, Cushendall, Dunloy and Ballycastle. The structures they have up there, the amount of hurling going on up there, the culture, it's enviable. It's unbelievable. You could say Antrim hurling is not where it was, because when Antrim hurling was strong they had a nucleus of very, very talented players.
Now, at the moment you have four very, very strong club that need no help from anyone other than people to say, look, you're doing as well, in fact you're probably doing better than clubs in Kilkenny. But to get it happening at county level we need to reinvigorate the other clubs that are maybe gone a little stale and see if we can lift them up a little bit again and build the whole thing.
That's, broadly speaking, what would be in my head.