Tuesday 25 April 2017

Joe Brolly: The drop-out rate in Gaelic games is, in my opinion, a national disgrace

There is a high drop-out rate in our games. Pat Gilroy (inset top) was too radical for Pauric Duffy (inset bottom)
There is a high drop-out rate in our games. Pat Gilroy (inset top) was too radical for Pauric Duffy (inset bottom)
Pat Gilroy had some superb plans for the game’s future, but the GAA hierarchy didn’t see that. Picture credit: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

We will look back some day and say that the current era was the most depressing in the history of the GAA. We're making money, but the rest is dysfunctional. The fun has evaporated. The quality of the game has nosedived. Attendances have collapsed.

The recently released attendance figures for the 2016 championship show another sharp fall. The average attendance for the 2016 championship was 13,416. In 2007, it was 20,172. County players are no longer club players. As Johnny Cooper said last week at the launch of the National League: "I feel bad about it. I only played four games for the club last year. I was only with them six weeks."

From the age of 13 onwards, the best young players are being creamed off by the counties and spend their precious time in places called centres of excellence or academies. It is reminiscent of young soccer talent being hoovered up by Manchester United or Chelsea.

The clubs are in open revolt. Things are so bad that a club players' association has been formed. It is a howl of rage. In the space of eight weeks, the CPA already has almost 20,000 members. The GPA, a private, commercial association had to be formed to represent county players. The GAA - as they do - hoped initially they would just go away. As their power increased, the GAA continued to hope it would go away.

This is not a widely used tactic in the real world, and there's a good reason for that. The upshot is that we're now paying the GPA €6.5 per annum and we have a highly commercial, self-interested body at the heart of the organisation, modelled on entirely professional lines.

A fortnight after the deal, when I asked Paraic Duffy in a Belfast hotel if we could even afford that, he shook his head and said "just about". The majority of counties are in serious debt. Large numbers of clubs are in debt, particularly in rural areas where they are struggling to survive. The championship is a farce, pitting Leitrim against Mayo and Carlow against the Dubs.

The drop-out rate in Gaelic games is, in my opinion, a national disgrace. In almost every sport, if a player continues to play until he is 20, then he is highly likely to play on until he is in his 30s. Not in our games. In hurling and camogie, the drop-out rate is 60 per cent. In Gaelic football, it is almost 75 per cent (ESRI 2013). Think about that. In an association supposedly based on participation and social cohesion, 75 per cent of our young women and men quit in their prime, because it's so bloody dysfunctional. All of the above have been caused by the GAA not doing its job. If they were a corporation, the board would have been sacked years ago.

What is Paraic Duffy's solution? The creation of a 'champions league' for the eight elite counties. Which means that clubs in those counties will see even less of their club players. Which means that elitism will be entrenched indefinitely. Which shows you how lost the hierarchy is, how stuck they are on this commercial conveyor belt.

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Brian Cody - passionately backing the CPA request for the elite round robin to be taken off the agenda to allow for a proper review of fixtures - said in the Irish Independent last week: "There has to be a real coming-together of county and club; it's pointless saying just draw up your inter-county calendar and then having a look at the club.

"You have to look at both together and see how you can marry both. The county season needs to be heavily condensed. Players are club players and it's just viciously dangerous to have county players losing the sense of who they are and where they come from."

It is a statement of the obvious but Paraic and the hierarchy just cannot see it. They are seemingly out of their depth, trapped in a weird parallel reality.

The nub of the problem can be traced back to 2008. Pat Gilroy was keen on becoming the next Director General. When I became aware of it, I could barely conceal my excitement. I had been in Trinity with Pat and he was already an obvious high-flyer. A first-class man with a first-class mind. He soared, on and off the field. Club and county All-Irelands followed. All the while, he was immersed in his club and community. He once famously said: "I don't mind what sports my kids play, as long as it's hurling and football for St Vincent's and Dublin."

Ruthless, strategic, a communitarian interested in social cohesion and a lover of the games, he was perfect. At a time when we were being buffeted by the forces of commerce and self-interest, he had the capacity and drive to bring us into the 21st century and secure our place as a vibrant, happy organisation at the heart of community life.

Gilroy's blueprint started with a master fixtures list. He always cites the example of New Zealand rugby league. Faced with a chaotic schedule and the inevitable tug of war between clubs and provinces, they solved the problem with a master fixtures list that laid down set fixtures for every level of the game.

He proposed to put in place a master fixtures list throughout the GAA that would have every age group, club and county playing at the same times. Burn-out would be eradicated in that 18-22 age group which is currently being murdered, and players at every level would have a set, unchanging fixture list, imposed from the top.

His blueprint was to make county football representational again. Players would be released by their clubs, not the other way around. The system would be modelled on international soccer, where in June and July every year we would have a county championship that would be "a festival of football". Like the World Cup, only every year, and running for two months.

The thinking behind this was to restore the central importance of the clubs and prevent the unchecked elitism that was already threatening us. And to have a hugely attractive county tournament run off in a sensible time frame.

Under his plan, the subsidiary competitions would be abolished (FBD, O'Byrne Cup, McKenna Cup, etc). Players would be exclusively with their clubs in January and February. From March onwards, they would be released to the county team only on the week of National League games (like international soccer) which would be played-off by the end of May, with no semi-finals or finals.

Those leagues would determine which tier your county would participate in come championship time. The championship would be played-off in a few months and, by the end of July, the county season was over. The clubs would have August and September to themselves to play their championship. Then there would be a proper three-month off season.

His other plans were to revolutionise the way clubs and counties were run by using a centralised, registration, fund-raising, franchising model like, say, McDonalds - where everyone could tap into the same resources and help. He favoured club amalgamation systems like in Kerry to allow players to compete at the highest level.

He wanted to modernise the GAA by introducing a fit-for-purpose executive that had the power to make decisions. All straightforward, entirely logical stuff. The GAA was terrified. He was too radical. He wanted to do things the way they do them in the real world.

The GAA hierarchy is mediocrity. It is bewildered. It is rhetorical. In the press release of September 24, 2013, announcing Aogán Ó Fearghaíl's bid for the presidency, it said: "I will continue to work to ensure that the fabric of the club, uniquely defined by its local community, remains at the heart of the GAA. The most important aspect of the GAA is the actual playing of the games, and the proper planning of fixtures is most essential."

In February 2014, in an interview with Martin Breheny on the eve of his unprecedented landslide victory, Aoghán stressed the plight of the club players and said he would "establish a small work group to devise a template and bring clarity to our fixtures schedule . . . to ensure a sufficient games programme is laid out for club players throughout the summer and insist the schedules as published and agreed are adhered to."

His slogan was, "The presidency of the clubs". Two years on, in February 2016, he told RTE Sport: "We need to create more space for our clubs and our club players, particularly that they have a clear and defined season and a clear and defined playing programme. I never made any apologies for saying that the club is the most important part of the Association and it is now time to be true to our words. It isn't enough to just say that the club is the cornerstone, let's act upon it."

When exactly?

Before he became president, I discussed with him on several occasions a serious blueprint to make the GAA fit for purpose and offered to be on a steering committee that would carry out a root-and-branch review and reform, with a view to putting us on the right path for the next 25 years. After his election, we met at an event in Queens where I was delivering the eulogy for a friend who had been made a professor.

We shook hands. I said: "I'm very keen to be part of that committee . . . Not necessarily as chair." " You must be joking, Joe. You're far too radical."

Because GAA governance is so stagnant and cosy and mediocre, the key is to make sure no one is brought on board who will upset the applecart. It is why the best people, the business leaders and lawyers and doctors and entrepreneurs, the people with the first-class honours degrees and the like, stay with their clubs. It is why Gilroy urged a Board of Directors-style governance where people could be voted out for non performance.

The only part of the GAA that is working the way it should is the underage, up until around the age of 15/16. Fantastic participation. Vibrant coaching. Great involvement. After that it becomes a nightmare. What a shame.

By 2008, Pat Gilroy was in his mid-thirties. He was already the Managing Director of Dalkia (Ireland), a vast multi-national energy management corporation with a turnover of over €3 billion. He went on to became CEO of Veolia Energy (UK and Ireland), and in due course their Chief Operating Officer, where he had over 4,000 employees.

But he was never getting the Director General's job. He was far too radical.

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