Thursday 30 March 2017

Shape Up: For a love of the game

Damien Maher

The GAA season has come to a close and there are new football, hurling and camogie champions. Tipperary hurlers claimed their first All-Ireland title for a number of years, while Cork's footballers also emerged victorious. Wexford's camogie players are this year's champions and the Dubs won the ladies' football title.

These successes are just rewards for the hard work and commitments made by team players, mentors and management but the foundations for this success were laid on a muddy pitch back in December, where these amateur players shed blood, sweat and tears in an effort to be rewarded by playing in front of a packed stadium for 70 minutes.

Honourable

The word amateur is defined as an athlete who has never accepted money, or who accepts money under restrictions specified by a regulatory body, to participate in a competition.

These honourable amateur sportspeople who compete for pride and a pat on the back are a rare breed in the modern world but the question remains, how long can top players continue to work day jobs and represent their county or their country at the same time?

It is the amateur footballers and hurlers who put the bulge into the GAA's pocket by filling Croke Park to its capacity of 82,000 in September months.

One of the country's greatest hurlers now has the lonely journey of recuperating from a cruciate ligament injury.

King Henry Shefflin's body broke down as the season reached its climax. Now he's facing into at least six months of rehabilitation to rebuild himself The question remains, how will it affect his earning potential in his role as a bank official and his ability to support his children?

King Henry has thousands of people in his community and at his club Ballyhale who will support him, but would that be the case if he played for a smaller county like Leitrim or Roscommon?

The reality is King Henry left Croke Park on All-Ireland final day in tears and on crutches, while the hot-dog seller left Croke Park with a pay cheque.

It is hard to compare the efforts but it is the players who put bums on costly seats -- of up to €70 per ticket -- to see the sporting spectacle so the GAA can make money.

As the International Rules series against Australia is set to get under way the question of the GAA player's amateur status raises its head again. Ireland's part-time athletes, full-time bank officials and postmen will compete in a packed Croke Park while their Australian opponents are living the professional dream.

It is this desire to fulfil a sporting dream that enticed Kerry's Tadhg Kennelly and Down's Martin Clarke down under to play Aussie Rules football. Both returned to Ireland, and the lessons they learnt and the training they undertook helped their teams reach the All-Ireland Final.

Exceptional

Kennelly has since returned to Sydney to play again, but as Irish footballers meet their Australian counterparts the GAA can have no complaints if players are tempted overseas.

Our athletes need to be supported better so that they can make a mark on the international stage. One of Ireland's greatest sportspeople, Katie Taylor, recently won her third AIBA lightweight title in the World Championship in Barbados.

Katie is an exceptional athlete with a tremendous attitude and determination towards her training. She joins hurdler Derval O'Rourke in restoring the country's sporting pride. They have overcome massive challenges to achieve such acclaim, despite limited support and training and financial resources.

It would be no surprise if, with the success of Irish professional players in rugby and soccer, the conveyor belt of young players, who want to play inter-county sports while working a job, starts to dwindle.

The standards and expectations of amateur athletes have changed. Professional demands are now placed on GAA players, with constant scrutiny from the media into their lives.

The athletes' love of the game will not be diminished once they receive a reward for their efforts but it will give them the tools to aid their recovery, increase their ability to purchase organic foods and recruit quality coaches to realise their potential.

The GAA needs to move out of the dark ages if they are to continue to recruit the best players. Players must be recognised for their efforts and supported when they are injured if they want the best possible athletes to remain.

The games' administrators must take their heads out of the sand if they want to keep future players of King Henry's calibre performing at Croke Park, rather than following the route of Niall Quinn, Shane Horgan and Tomas O'Leary, who all opted for life as a professional athlete in a different code.

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Irish Independent

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