independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Vincent Hogan: Unemployment a problem GAA can't afford to ignore

The GAA man who should be first in line to meet the queen next Wednesday is buried in your green bin. Pat Fitzgerald disappeared a while back and nobody cared for the idea of a search party. Why? Because he'd come up with a plan that, we can only assume, proved about as popular in Croke Park as a cockroach on a picnic rug.

Martin Breheny gave it air in these pages about two months back and then, almost instantaneously, it disappeared down a plug-hole. To the best of my knowledge, nobody uttered a single word in response. It was a kite that never flew.

Perhaps Pat had spoken out of turn and the panjandrums didn't like that. After all, in all the best co-operatives, it's frowned upon to run solo. Whatever, the story evaporated quicker than a dusting of hail in May and so, if you've forgotten, that's understandable.

Now we're not saying the Munster CEO is an Einstein of common sense, but his idea did -- at least -- address a rather large elephant in the room. The GAA isn't just about Croke Park and red carpets. It is an organisation made unique by the spirit of volunteerism and self-sufficiency that sustains it at its smallest point.

And, right now, that spirit is under pitiless attack from emigration.

Tommy Freeman's imminent departure to New York is just the latest headline act in a seemingly endless lament for a demoralised generation. A few months back, three members of Tipperary's All-Ireland-winning hurling team revealed their unemployed status to Ryan Tubridy on 'The Late Late Show'.

LOYALTIES

We truly live in extraordinary times when a man can score three goals in an All-Ireland final before 82,000 paying customers, then stand in a dole queue the following Thursday.

But it isn't out of kindness to the rest of us that the Lar Corbetts of this world refuse to settle for being ordinary. They do what they do because they've grown up immersed in the loyalties and intimacies of a GAA life, a life in which marching behind a band in September resides as the ultimate destination.

From the moment someone in Thurles Sarsfields, or maybe a teacher in the local schoolyard, showed Lar how to hold a hurley, he inherited something.

And, if at some point along the way, Lar decided that all the hard yards and sacrifice required to hurl for Tipperary just weren't worth it, he knew there was a rather long queue of young men behind him who would vehemently disagree.

So the boys of September aren't investing anything in terms of hours and lifestyle that most of the people who cheer them home wouldn't invest too, given the opportunity. And maybe that's the essential beauty of the GAA.

The jersey on your back represents a place, not a franchise.

That point, clearly, wasn't lost on Pat Fitzgerald. You see, his idea referenced an understanding that the club is the association's heartbeat. You can come up with all manner of initiatives to help the county man but, in doing so, you risk putting further distance between the elite and their own public just as brutally as that barrier on Hill 16.

So Pat proposed allocating €1.6m per annum over the next five years to a fund that would be used to encourage businesses to hire unemployed club players.

This would take the form of subsidising employers to the tune of €4,000 per person (€333 a month) for providing a job to any player currently on the dole. He suggested the scheme might be run by the provincial councils, the money diverted from grants for physical development in clubs.

As he put it, the GAA has a wonderful track record of investing in grounds but, right now, they need to invest in people.

Now it could be the dumbest plan since a stuffed turkey went to Eurovision, but did it not merit even the acknowledgement of a single-sentence official statement? A bland "The GAA shares this concern for our unemployed members blah-de-blah-de-blah..." even?

I like Christy Cooney and Paraic Duffy, by the way. They're both eminently decent men, albeit reading certain message boards you might easily mistake them for those nice Davids, Gold and Sullivan, parading about London's East End in matching Bentleys.

This is the problem with cyberspace. Character assassination has become the tool of choice. The world is full of opinion, the sourest of it delivered by faceless people.

I don't believe for a second that either Cooney or Duffy are anything but impeccably well-intentioned in how they fill their hours for the GAA. But their preoccupation with ridding the association of what Christy, rather unfortunately, termed recently "the cancer" of payments to managers, strikes me as odd in the extreme.

It is the equivalent of padlocking your garden shed, but leaving the hall door open.

Maybe this column leads a hopelessly sheltered existence, but we have yet to hear a player complain about payment to managers. On the contrary, there seems a general understanding that most team managers today take such an holistic approach to the chore, the wonder is they find a gap in their diaries to grab a wink of sleep.

This is a sparkling and glorious time of the GAA year. Hope is everywhere. In Dublin yesterday, the hurling Feile final drew a mighty crowd to Parnell Park where two teams of broomstick skinny kids went at it as if there was no tomorrow.

As the championship stirs to life, it is easy to believe that these 14-year-olds are like rhododendrons -- plant them and they'll thrive.

But the GAA is facing a monumental crisis if it doesn't realise that one lost generation begets another. Pat Fitzgerald had a plan and it may well have had more holes in it than a Swiss cheese. But it recognised that the strength of the association is, essentially, the strength of its smallest club. So whatever came of it?

Wednesday, incidentally, will be a remarkable day. I trust they'll tell her highness to keep off the lawn.

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