Saturday 25 March 2017

GAA's club players are losing patience

John Greene

John Greene

A lot of the focus after the publication of GAA director-general Páraic Duffy's annual report last week was on the issue of payment to managers. It warrants only a passing mention in a commentary which spans 37 pages but at a briefing in Croke Park on Tuesday he could barely hide his frustration that there has been no real progress on this issue since he presented a paper on it to the Association's management committee several months ago.

Sitting alongside Duffy, president Christy Cooney said: "We're not going to be rushed into getting a situation resolved that has gone on for 50 years. When we're ready, we'll bring forward our recommendations to our counties and Central Council at the appropriate time. Whatever we do, we'll do it right."

Cooney is right. The hypocrisy in the Association surrounding payment to managers has continued for long enough but even though there may be a growing appetite to tackle it, primarily it has to be said in the media, there is hardly an overwhelming drive for change either. If we are to take Cooney's words at face value -- and there is no reason not to -- then it is right up there on the GAA's agenda and a policy on dealing with it will be formulated in the coming months.

In the meantime, it may be less of a headline-maker but there is a more pressing matter facing the Association on the floor of next month's Congress in Mullingar which has been glossed over. Duffy, in fairness, referenced it in his presentation last week but some seemingly innocuous motions will need careful studying in advance by delegates.

This is because, if voted in, they will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the staging of club games in counties. More than payments to managers, and the closed season, and umpiring, this is a real burning issue for the GAA because the thousands of players who do not play inter-county football and hurling are losing patience with the Association.

The bottom line is that club players in a huge number of counties are deeply frustrated. They cannot understand a system which only seems to be able to function on an ad hoc basis, with little apparent planning, and which expects that club players will just turn up at short notice to fulfil hurriedly arranged games. It is a massive headache for clubs, who are crying out for some sort of calendar of games so that they can make sure to have their players available when needed. It is a cornerstone of local soccer and rugby leagues to have their fixtures programme for the season set out in advance, but there is still huge resistance to this in the GAA and this inability to plan games properly will cause players to defect.

In his report, Duffy has this to say: "Having addressed concerns with the manner in which many counties arrange their club fixtures programme in my reports to Congress in 2009 and 2010, I am reluctant to return to the issue at any length again. However, I feel obliged to present the persistent criticisms expressed by clubs in 'Ag éisteacht' visits on the impact of the inter-county fixtures programme on the implementation of counties' internal fixtures programmes."

Of course, Congress delegates have an unhappy knack of approving motions without appearing to fully grasp the consequences. One of the most high-profile examples of this came in 2007 when a motion which excluded Division 4 teams from the football qualifiers was passed and then reversed a year later such was the outcry.

Congress is an unwieldy beast in many respects, weighed down as it is by some archaic ideals and practices and by the sheer weight of numbers in attendance, but that does not mean that it is, in principle, a bad thing. In fact, the opposite is the case. The problem with the annual gathering as it stands right now, however, is the many layers of disconnect which effectively work against its core aim: governing by democracy.

The delegates on the floor are there as representatives of their county boards, who are representatives of their clubs, who are representatives of their members. And then there is the top table, with the heads of the provinces, the president and, effectively, the chief executive. In order for Congress to properly fulfil its purpose, greater synergy is needed between the various layers. Next month in Mullingar would be a good starting point.

Over the last couple of years a committee has been working on resolving the problem of fixtures in counties and its recommendations, although practical and sensible, will probably take time to penetrate into the areas of greatest resistance. For example, two fixtures planners have been designated and trained in each county (how many club committees know that their county has two designated planners, let alone know who they are?) and the core recommendation is that from April to September club games must be scheduled with gaps of no more than 21 days between them.

Which brings us back to some of the motions on the agenda of the upcoming Congress which, if passed, will diminish the time available to play club games, undoing some of the progress which has been made.

Among these are proposals to introduce a back-door system in the under 21 championships, to bring back semi-finals in the Allianz Leagues, and to revert to having replays instead of extra-time in the provincial championships and All-Ireland quarter-finals. The effect of these, if passed, would be to add to the number of weekends required to complete inter-county fixtures and so reduce the amount of available time to play club games.

Ultimately, delegates owe it to their clubs to be fully aware of the consequences of their actions next month. By opposing those motions, which will undoubtedly impact on club players in every county, they can send a message back to the grassroots that times are, at last, changing.

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