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OPINION: Lack of American juvenile development is a major concern

The decline of the United States as a handball superpower could have major implications for the sport in Ireland, writes Paul Fitzpatrick.

It was about 2am on a sultry Monday night in June, 2014. I was sitting in a hotel room in Minneapolis, staring at a blank screen and a flicking cursor.

My room-mates who, like me, had made the trip to the US Nationals, were snoring. I remember it well. It was a brilliant trip.

Sitting up that night, I wrote a column which I recalled when looking back through archive issues of our newspaper last week. It was about the experiences of the week in Minnesota and the things we saw.

The warm welcome we received from the tournament officials and the American players was one thing. The awesome standard in the Open was another.

And then, away from the handball, there were the sights and sounds of a major American city. The homeless people, shuffling round the streets, asking for a dollar. One man, African-American, stung me for five bucks, but it was well-earned. He showed me his thumb, deformed and resting in an ice pack, and explained that he had crushed it under a wheel while jacking up his car.

The man needed cash to get to the hospital, he said. In reality, he saw my sunburned Irish head and equated it with an ATM. It turned out that he had hit one of the other lads for $10 earlier on; fair dues to him. As the Americans like to say, good hustle!

Another day, I met a handball coach from Newfoundland, a born and bred Canadian with what sounded like an Irish accent (if you don't believe me, search for their dialect on YouTube). He came from Talamh an Éisc – the land of the fish, the only place in the world outside of Ireland with its own unique Irish name.

What struck me most from that trip, though, was that the handball authorities in the States could do with throwing a line out themselves and hooking some more players – the numbers competing over there seemed lower than in the past, and there didn't seem to be as many children entered in the juvenile grades. At last August's World Championships, almost all of the juvenile grades (see photo of the U13 Wallball final) featured all-Irish deciders.

Five years have passed; I haven't been to a tournament in America since that one but I've watched them from afar and studied the drawsheets and it seems to me that handball in that country is reaching a tipping point. Where are the next generation of players?

Either they are there, competing in local city and state events but eschewing travel to major tournaments, or they are just not.

The majority of entrants in that 2014 tournament were in the overage divisions, many of them in their 50s and 60s or already retired. Money made, family raised, time on their hands, they go along to this tournament every year and meet their buddies, watch the top guns shoot it out and go home happy. That trend has continued since but is not sustainable. Every sport needs fresh blood.

I remember being amazed that there were eight players in the Over-80 division on that occasion. That sounds great, and it really is, but the numbers of kids playing, in contrast to Ireland, was alarming. And that sense of alarm has grown.

Despite what I'm sure are the best efforts of those involved on the other side of the pond, if numbers and quality of entrants to the major events are to be taken as an indicator, the decline is getting very serious at this stage.

What can GAA Handball do about it? Absolutely nothing, really. The authorities in Croke Park have done their bit as have the Irish handball community in general in sending over strong juvenile teams and supporting American tournaments in large numbers.

Ireland sent a team to the US Junior Ntaionals for many years but eventually pulled the plug on it due, I presume, to the fact that the costs involved did not justify the lack of meaningful competition. That event takes place again this year between Christmas and New Year, as always, but the numbers are not strong.

Of course, it is in the interests of Irish handball for there to be a healthy international dimension. For one thing, it separates our game from other GAA sports which one hopes would help capture the imagination of kids who may be talented in football or hurling.

And, secondly, the international aspect still captures the attention of the national media. I know from talking to editors and reporters that they place more stock on the World Championships than on other handball events.

That makes perfect sense, of course, but if the numbers entering from other countries do not stack up, there will come a point where the media will smell a rat. An international title is devalued when, in reality, it is actually a national one.

I am talking here, I should point out, about 40x20 handball. One Wall seems to be the area in which international handball is growing, at least in Europe.

The World Championships, as we all know, are triennial and are due to be staged in Ireland in 2021. That will require significant investment by GAA Handball both in terms of finances and manpower. Could those precious resources be better used elsewhere?

If the current trends continue, it may be that we are throwing a four-wall party at which no-one shows up only ourselves. The time may have come, as we have written before, to focus our international efforts on One Wall handball and let the four-wall game revert back to being, for the most part, an Irish sport.

Whether that would mark a progressive or regressive step for the sport we all love, I don't know. But it's a conversation that we probably should be thinking about having in the not-too-distant future.