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Sunday 31 August 2014

Colm O'Rourke: Taking the game to a higher level

Stronger links between clubs and schools can help the GAA to thrive, writes Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Published 21/11/2010 | 05:00

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T HE issues surrounding Gaelic football in schools reflect the entire debate about sport in general and what role it plays in society.

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There is a view that Ireland is a sports-mad nation, at least in the percentage who are involved in some type of sporting activity. We all watch plenty of sports and most people are interested in a wide variety of sports, whereas in other countries there appears to be a clear demarcation between sporting interests.

Our games have traditionally been run by amateur bodies, at least until recently, but despite the obvious health benefits there is nothing like the same structures put in place to promote sport and sporting participation as in Australia for example. Even when finance was available, the money spent from central level was not what it should have been. Sports organisations like the GAA did benefit, but self-help is still the norm.

In many ways that is a good thing. There is no better sense of achievement than something created and financed from within the community.

In terms of second level schoolsl, the lack of government policy means that all sports are add-ons to the curriculum and run on goodwill, rather than being a central part of it. For many years I have advocated that sport is just as entitled to be a subject at Leaving Cert level as others where students can enjoy a natural talent, such as art or music.

Where a talent is rewarded in those subjects, the footballer who represents his school can actually be penalised by missing classes. If a government is serious about tackling ill health and obesity at a young age, then they must adopt the phrase mens sane in corpore sano: a healthy mind in a healthy body.

Central to sport as a school subject should be a section on Gaelic games. Students should be able to do most of their course in portfolio form, while concentrating on areas of their own special interest, but the national games must be protected within that. That should be the compulsory section.

Hopefully that will come soon as our language and our sports are the only things that make us a bit different. It has taken a long time to figure out that Irish should be taught as a spoken language in the same way we all learned English and put aside a lot of the dreary prose and poems. Maybe the IMF will teach us what is really important to preserve.

Into such a system, Gaelic football should fit. At present it is just about getting by on a wing and a prayer. Most schools put out teams at various grades but the big problem in many places is the same: teachers have to take charge of teams which has a detrimental effect on their teaching.

School principals get very nervous about this sort of thing and parents need to buy into a whole school philosophy of what education is about. Often the biggest achievements are by students who never get to third level.

These are not good for the sort of league tables which were published last week, but in hanging in to finish school, often because of their sport, these students learn discipline, motivation, respect, dietary considerations and the value of giving and not expecting anything in return.

Some of those who top the tables and who come from the right side of the tracks get things too easy. Those who fight hard for what they get cope better with adversity in every aspect of life.

So football in second-level schools is changing. It needs more local involvement so that it is not completely reliant on teachers. Clubs should be proactive in helping out with the coaching and organisation of teams as there is mutual benefit involved. Players in schools have an opportunity to play at a higher level than with their clubs. Exposure to a higher level of football means a player will quickly pass out those who just lie up for the winter. In this way schools and clubs complement each other.

The one concern I have from my experience in St Pat's Navan is that it is often only the very best players who get on school teams, so more competitions are needed for those who are not part of the top tier. This is especially true in the junior years and more games are desirable for those who do not get on a school's first team.

Neither are the late developers catered for. That creates its own problems with supervision of classes but a first year county competition is being started between Meath schools after Christmas and I believe this is the way forward -- more games within counties which run after the provincial competitions are over.

Senior colleges football is a serious game and there is a future for anyone able to hack it at this level.

It is hardly a coincidence that there is success at all types of schools levels in Tyrone and at minor county too. In fact, Hogan Cup and minor All-Ireland winning teams have a great deal in common.

The way forward for counties is very clear. Build strong links between schools and clubs, have more local competitions which involve big numbers and have a structure of coaching and games which suit the county.

This involves money too as running football in schools is a very expensive business. I was at a presentation recently from a supporters' club in another county who had raised €25,000 for coaching to try and restore football to its former glory in a traditional stronghold where the river had run dry. It is a bit like your mother: she is never missed until she's gone.

The money for the coaching was working too. So county boards need to involve themselves in this area rather than just leave it to provincial councils who set competitions and teachers who may have to work with management and who may not care about a football team.

The last link in the chain, or maybe it should be the first, is to try to ensure that teachers, especially county players who are keen on football, are employed within their own county where they can give maximum promotion.

Putting all these parts together may seem difficult. In fact, it is not like that at all. There is no reinvention of the wheel needed; it is merely a matter of borrowing or stealing all the best ideas from other counties. Flattery can get you anywhere.

Sunday Independent

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