Saturday 27 December 2014

Existential crisis for GAA sees overseas clubs thrivingwhile those at home grapple with harsh new realities

Published 25/11/2012 | 17:00

Debt troubles and a lack of players have become huge threats, writes Colm O'Rourke

The All Star trip to New York last week was more than just an exhibition game. It was an expression of confidence.

In the past, emigration was lamented in terms of loss of players and social decay in many parts of Ireland and, while that still exists, the GAA has spread its tentacles to become a force for good wherever Irish people find themselves abroad. In this way clubs have sprung up in the most unlikely of places from Brussels to Bejing and Dubai to Darwin.

In many ways it is the new Irish taking over the new world. Better education and confidence means emigrants proclaiming a fondness for those things which best advertise their nationality. Along with that comes a valuable network for new emigrants. Something as basic as a place to stay for a few nights, a job, or a move up the food chain as the Irish make contacts wherever they settle. And this new game is often appealing to the locals who admire balance, athleticism and ball control with a bit of aggression thrown in.

So rapid growth is taking place for the GAA abroad and who knows how far it may go. Especially if big championship matches were transmitted live in the United States on some of the big sports channels where many first- and second-generation Irish would make for a potential audience which would be a multiple of what is available in Ireland. It would be a very lucrative market too.

Maybe the biggest concentration should be on China. At present there are lots of active clubs and with a friendly face taking over the Communist Party in Xi Jinping there could be room for rapid expansion.

It was Xi Jinping who visited Ireland last year and hurled in Croke Park which is more than a lot of the weaker hurling counties have managed. Obviously Xi has a soft spot for Ireland and the GAA so now is the time to make hay while the sun shines. The big advantage of expansion in China is that it is a Communist country and therefore there would be no issues with money – everything could flow into central coffers and the players in the Far East would not be like here; a pair of boots and the occasional meal after training would make them feel very important.

The GAA could also have their rules in a little red book in honour of the great Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung who put his main quotations in a little red book. Some could easily be adapted to suit the GAA. He once said, "Some classes struggle, some classes triumph, others are eliminated". This could apply to the Cavan senior championship.

He is also quoted as saying, "We should rid the ranks of all impotent thinking. All views that overestimate the strength of the enemy and underestimate the strength of the people are wrong". I was sure it must have been Jimmy McGuinness who said that but it is clear that Mao had a lot in common with the GAA.

Anyway, when the GAA have finished their world conquest there are a few issues which warrant a little bit of attention closer to home. Like why young players are still being abused in the fixture chaos which takes place in January, February and March in particular.

The GPA needs to take a position on this and come up with proposals to limit the training and matches our top young players are enduring during the winter months. After the damage is done with a lot of overuse injuries there is the lament about the amount of games under 21s in particular are subjected to. Better to protect the biggest assets and have fewer crocodile tears.

Then there is the thorny issue of county championship programming which I wrote about last week. Games all over the world can be played when it suits players but it cannot happen in Ireland. Of course there are no spectators to be taken into account but the same principle applies. A bit of lateral thinking is needed.

Then there's the issue of the clubs at home. They still exist even if rigor mortis is not far away for some, but the problems are largely ignored. The official line is that clubs must be protected at all costs but the reality for many clubs facing into next year is that they are financially crippled and are going to find it difficult to field the same number of teams as this year.

In fact, I have been talking to a lot of club officials recently who are worried already about not having enough money to affiliate their teams next year. Spreading the gospel of the GAA to New York or anywhere else in the civilised or uncivilised world is of no significance compared to that.

Then there is the whole question of clubs that are burdened by massive debts. A couple of years ago I wrote that some central deal must be done by the GAA to get a write-down on the total debt of clubs and counties. In some cases clubs may have been a bit macho in their borrowings in the good times but it was done for the best of reasons, with the best of intentions: people wanting to pass on something better to the next generation.

It is indeed ironic that the organisation which has contributed most to sporting infra-

structure is penalised heaviest by the banks which hundreds of thousands of GAA members have helped to bail out. So while massive write-downs are taking place all over the country, the GAA clubs are running lotteries and all sorts of fundraisers in an attempt to keep the wolf from the door. Seems a bit perverse to me. Mao Tse-tsung would just shoot the wolf. The people came first in his little red book.

This looming financial crisis and lack of players in many counties is the real elephant in the room facing the GAA. A contradiction is arising – the GAA community is flourishing abroad while under pressure at home.

I would prefer a much greater concentration on clubs next year than the GAA in the Olympics. Chairman Mao said that the Chinese would come to the aid of the GAA. No, I only made that up but Xi Jinping could divert some of his sovereign funds in this direction and get banks off the backs of the clubs. It is all about power to the people no matter whether you believe in communism or social democracy. As of now clubs are being hung out to dry.

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