Griffin believes teams will be forced to amalgamate or face extinction
LESS than a month ago, GAA president Liam O'Neill issued a rallying cry to clubs around the country.
His message was to 'hold firm' in the face of continuing emigration that was draining the life out of clubs, particularly rural ones.
"We should not have a knee-jerk reaction," O'Neill urged. "If you give away your club identity, you do it only once – you don't get it back. Clubs should bear that in mind before going down the amalgamation route."
Try as they might, though, clubs are struggling. St Mary's in Rosslare, the home of county football captain David Murphy, is the latest club to admit they're in trouble. The 2010 Wexford IFC champions were said to be on the brink of extinction and last Friday they met with members of the neighbouring Our Lady's Island club with a view to extending their recent amalgamation at underage level to the adult grades.
Our Lady's opted against the move, but, despite this development, St Mary's club member and 1996 All- Ireland winning manager Liam Griffin is confident they'll field teams in both the intermediate hurling and football championships next year.
Still, it brings the plight of clubs throughout the country into sharp focus. And, with its urban base, clubs like St Mary's were thought to be less at risk that their smaller, rural counterparts.
It's not all that long since St Mary's moved to a modern multi-million euro development just outside the town, with the then Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism John O'Donoghue turning the first sod in 2005.
But retirements, emigration, players seeking transfers and even the League of Ireland pursuits, have all taken their toll on the club. One of their best players, Danny Furlong, has opted to pursue a soccer career with Cork City.
"We're probably the same as many clubs around the country," Griffin explained. "Of the team that won the 2010 championship, we've lost six lads to Australia, another two to London. Another couple of lads have retired, so we've been hit hard. And a lot of those lads are dual players, so you are pulling from a very small pool of players.
"People might think of Rosslare as a town, but it's actually quite a rural parish. And the town itself has been hit hard. There isn't the work on the boats that there used to be. There were four hotels in the town at one stage, but there's only one open now. There's also two car import companies, but we all know what the car trade is like now. So, it's a difficult time for the club."
The future of the club's young players has, at least, been secured with the Our Lady's amalgamation, but at adult level, the club will meet on Friday to discuss their next step.
"I suppose the senior players need to take a bit of ownership here," Griffin added. "The schools are growing and there's something to work with there. At underage level, thanks to the amalgamation, they are playing at a higher grade, so that will help."
And Griffin insists the club has come through rougher times. After work and college took him away from Rosslare, he returned to find a club struggling.
"The players had to take control then. I was playing and managing," he said. "There was a time when we had no hurling team and just a junior football team. We had the same problems back then with emigration and lack of work. Now we're intermediate in both, so while it's tough, we are still miles ahead of where we were back then."
And while GAA president O'Neill has urged against amalgamations, they are likely to become more prevalent. In his own county of Laois, Castletown and Slieve Bloom came together to form one club.
O'Neill's biggest concern was that clubs would merge simply to win silverware. "If you're talking about a smaller club that would never aspire to winning a county title, amalgamating for the sake of it and doing away with their identity is too high a price to pay," he said.
And he has been proactive in tackling this problem. He has established a workgroup, chaired by former GAA president Joe McDonagh, to detail the issues facing clubs in a climate of depopulation, recession and tumbling funding levels.
"It's the way it's going," Griffin said. "You are going to see more and more of it, because clubs just won't be able to cope on their own."