News Colm O'Rourke

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Colm O'Rourke: Recession doesn't have to mean depression for clubs

Many of our best and brightest will leave the country, but they will come back, writes Colm O'Rourke

Published 05/12/2010 | 05:00

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Amidst all the carnage in the economy, the term 'bailout' has become very common and people in general are familiar now with institutions like the IMF and the ECB. However, of far bigger concern for the GAA is the bailout of players that is taking place in every single club in the country.

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On these pages last week, Eamonn Sweeney gave examples from clubs of how the wreckage at national level was filtering down to the smallest clubs, in some cases threatening their existence.

The last thing I want is to be a prophet of doom, but in my view this problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. Most club players will be tempted to stick around while their club are still in the championship -- that often keeps people at home until the autumn and they are happy enough then to wait till after Christmas if they can pick up a bit of casual work. So the worst is yet to come and the results of a recent survey in Kerry probably underestimate the outflow.

In many cases, players who struggle to get on junior club teams don't bother getting a transfer when they decide to emigrate. On top of that, a lot of young men are heading to places where even the widespread tentacles of the GAA don't reach, so there is no point in getting a transfer anyway.

Some are getting jobs in the outback in Australia and in remote parts of Canada. This is entirely different than being based in Melbourne, Sydney or Toronto where there are GAA clubs and where contacts are very useful in fixing up young people with work. The older established haunts of New York and London will see a surge in numbers and standards again and all over Europe and the Far East thousands of young Irish men and women will set their clocks by Croke Park time come next summer as they find the bars or clubs that relay the big games.

It is also going to be very interesting over the next few weeks to see what type of numbers turn up at club AGMs and whether there is any sort of enthusiasm to take up positions on executive committees.

A lot of clubs have stored up problems which are now coming down the line. In the boom years clubs had confidence; they bought land, developed extra pitches, built stands and in some cases even spent big money on artificial surfaces with floodlights. There was no difficulty in getting money either, and indeed these were much less risky than some of the others the banks were handing out. Clubs pay their loans, they always have done.

That was then and this is now. The builder or local businessman who was going well put money back into the club. It was called sponsorship, but in many cases these were men who loved their clubs, had a strong sense of community and were very happy to support their own. They are a disappearing breed.

Every time I read a rant in the paper or hear on TV about the builders who broke the country, I think of these men. They worked hard, mostly in a small quiet way, and created employment in rural areas where traditionally the main export was people.

Now they are being treated in some way as an enemy of the state. Of course there were reckless builders and daft lending policies. But a few dozen rogues should not blacken the good names of thousands of successful business people who made GAA clubs a central and vibrant part of their communities by pumping in money and creating employment in traditional blackspots. They kept the local school open, helping the shop, pub and post office survive as well as enabling young people to live in their own area.

Perhaps that is being a bit old-fashioned and does not suit the present consensus of putting the boot into everyone who borrowed during the boom to try to improve themselves and by extension created jobs. Yet if you lined up all the negative commentators end to end you would not get one job out of the whole lot of them.

For now, however, there are GAA clubs facing very grave problems. Many are in serious financial difficulties, sponsorship has folded, local lottos are down, bar takings have crashed and even getting members to come up with the annual sub is proving problematical.

Hindsight is always 20/20 vision and while some may have bitten off more than they could chew, the issues have to be confronted now and solved. That can only be through negotiation and it certainly is a time for clubs, county boards, provincial and central authorities to combine their best ideas to ensure that debts don't smother clubs and take the whole emphasis off promoting games.

So all is certainly not doom and gloom. At annual meetings there will still be upbeat reports from secretaries. Problems will be fully documented, but most will feel that the championship is a real possibility if all the players put in a massive effort. And this is also the age of opportunity. People with less to do might be coaxed into helping out: ground maintenance, finance committee, collecting at the gate for home games, stewarding or helping out with an underage team. Those who did

not have time to stop and smell the roses when the economy was on fire might learn that a better quality of life can be had from simple things.

Clubs that are in a healthy state could also improve things locally by deciding that this would be a good time to build new dressing rooms, drain the pitch, put up a terrace or some other development that would create a few jobs.

This is the traditional self-help policy which has made the GAA. Now is a good time to do things as prices have fallen. In the 1980s, things were a lot worse and clubs never gave in -- it was a symbol of unbending determination to preserve something important.

This is not to underestimate the devastation and sadness in families where young men and women feel they have little option but to seek employment elsewhere. For the most part too they are very well educated and ambitious and are a lost resource to the state. Unfortunately, many of the wrong type stay.

On the positive side, travel does broaden the mind and when things pick up, as they will, they will return with greater expertise in business and be an even greater influence on their clubs either as players or administrators.

So while they are away the rest need to turn out in bigger numbers than ever before to the club's annual general meeting. And when someone asks you to put up your hand to do a job, however unimportant it may seem, don't be afraid to say, "yes I will".

Sunday Independent

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