Electric Ireland Celtic Challenge proves its worth again
By John Harrington
Last weekend’s Electric Ireland Celtic Challenge Finals produced some cracking matches and underlined again just how positive a developmental competition it is for all the counties that take part.
Tipperary, East Cork, Antrim, Westmeath, and Wicklow were ultimately crowned champions of the five divisional cups.
Saffrons legend, Dominic ‘Wood’ McKinley managed the victorious Antrim team that won the Corn William Robinson, and is a big fan of how the competition develops young hurlers into players of substance.
“Everybody looks at it a different way, and we look at it as a developmental competition for our minor team for next year,” says McKinley.
“Our Celtic Challenge panel is made up entirely of U-16 players even though the competition is for U-17 players.
“The best U-16 players in the county will already be with this year's minor team, so the Celtic Challenge gives us an opportunity to look for other U-16 players for the following year's minor team and maybe some of them have never represented the county before and they take it as a great honour.
“Our management team has definitely found a number of players this year who are good enough to progress to minor next year who otherwise would have been lost in the system.
“That's why this Celtic Challenge is such a valuable developmental competition because it gives players an opportunity, that's what it's designed for.
“We're delighted with it. I was delighted for the young boys, all 16-year-olds playing 17-year-olds, and I thought they might struggle physically but instead they adapted to the challenge really well and enjoyed it.
“They liked the winning part as well at the end which is good for them. This year we ended up winning it but at no time did I ever enter it expecting to win it.
“There were a couple of years we were on the wrong end of getting beaten badly by 17-year-old teams because they were physically stronger and better.
“But we took that, kept our heads down, and this year it went our way.”
One of the positives of the Celtic Challenge is that it gives teams an opportunity to play against counties they normally wouldn’t cross paths with, and the experience often makes them realise they’re better than they thought they were.
“Without a shadow of a doubt,” says McKinley. “You imagine a lot of these kids would never get a chance to do something like that and then all of a sudden you're playing in Abbotstown on an unreal pitch against a team like Offaly, Tipperary, or Kilkenny.
“It gives them an opportunity to do that and irrespective what types of teams those counties have out, you're still beating teams from these counties and it gives a wee sense of belief to our boys. It's the sort of belief you can't just put in players, you have to earn it.
“It's only by getting close or even beating these teams in matches that you all of sudden start saying to yourself, 'aye, we can do this, we can do that'. And you find then as you go along your team gradually becomes better and you see the chests shooting out.
“And I know the other Ulster teams like Tyrone, Armagh, Monaghan and Fermanagh get great satisfaction from playing Antrim teams for the same reasons. They're trying to get to Antrim's level in the same way that Antrim are trying to some other county's level.
“Everyone is on a different pathway and the Celtic Challenge is helping them all along the way.
Many Celtic Challenge players might never wear their county’s jersey again, but McKinley believes they’ll still be better hurlers for the experience and that their club will benefit in the long run.
“There's no doubt,” he says. “They bring back what they've seen. I always say to players that the best coaches are the other players they're playing with.
“We have a wide spread of clubs and you might be the big star at home at your club but when you come to our training and all of a sudden you run with the ball and someone takes it off you and you sort of say to yourself that this here shouldn't happen.
“So you have to find a way and you have to improve. They learn with other players plus they get a bit of advice from the coaches as well which is very important.
“But the best coaches are the players and they're all in a great learning environment and will take back to their clubs what they've learned. They learn about S&C, nutrition, all of that. And they'll take that back with them and feed it into their club and that can then help other players become better.”
2023 Celtic Challenge Finals
Corn Michael Hogan
Tipperary 1-28 Galway 0-27 (AET)
Corn John Scott
East Cork 2-16 Dublin 1-11
Corn William Robinson
Antrim 2-20 Derry 2-11
Corn Jerome O’Leary
Westmeath 0-25 Roscommon 1-12
Corn Michael Feery
Wicklow Blue 2-17 Monaghan 0-8