Sunday 20 August 2017

Latest repeat of history may offer Limerick hope for future

Will they ever learn? The current Limerick impasse is following a familiar pattern, writes Dermot Crowe

I T spoke volumes when Limerick County Board effectively ignored a 1,700-word player statement at their meeting in Claughaun last Tuesday night.

The official line was that the matter had already been dealt with at a previous meeting, where Justin McCarthy received a vote of approval to continue as manager, but to let it pass without comment was effectively showing scant regard for the sentiments expressed by the 24 signatories. To the players involved, this was their Proclamation and the board treated it as if it were the work of a crank best avoided. GAA administration often works in mysterious ways.

In Limerick we can't be all that surprised. The years have shown that they are masters of the dark and deceptive art of GAA politics. Internal conflict has become a kind of substitute addiction to winning trophies, and the next generation simply repeats the mistakes of the one before. The county board executive's inability to learn from past mistakes has culminated, inevitably, in the current mess. It was coming down the tracks. While they are not alone -- other counties have had similar problems -- the Treaty County is something of a basket case.

Since the departure of Tom Ryan (even his relatively successful time in charge wasn't without diplomatic incident), successive county executives has failed to show it is capable of addressing management appointments effectively, or handling the problems that invariably arise.

During the reign of Eamonn Cregan, the executive had to devise a solution to improve working relations between management teams and administrators when trouble flared. Cregan, having felt undermined by the board executive at the time, left the job in March 2002, momentarily replaced by Mossie Carroll. He returned almost as quickly. One of the executive said later that this was the start of 'player power' in Limerick as it was the players who had demanded Cregan's return. Cregan strenuously denied this. The disputed version of events is found in Henry Martin's Unlimited Heartbreak, a painstaking account of a county plagued by almost routine conflict.

With the truce in 2002, and Cregan's reinstatement, it looked like a lesson had been learned. A board officer would be given a liaison role between the management and county executive to ensure no more blurring of the lines of authority or pointless acrimony. The previous summer, Limerick defeated Cork and Waterford to reach the Munster final and were only narrowly beaten by Tipperary, who would win the All-Ireland. There was much to be optimistic about. But Limerick's form did not carry through to 2002 and the petty fighting that spring did little to help or maintain focus.

Hopes were also justifiably high because of Limerick's three U21 All-Ireland wins. Instead that inheritance has been wasted and the three titles, pleasurable as they were, will forever be qualified by the failure to yield even one Munster senior title in the years that followed. Nothing was guaranteed by that blossom of underage success, but there is no excuse for having the good work undermined by horrendous faffing by your county board.

Cregan's departure was followed by the uneasy spells of Dave Keane, Pad Joe Whelahan and Joe McKenna, none of which were a success. All three finished prematurely. Richie Bennis was next and brought the county to an All-Ireland final in his second year. Then he found himself surplus to requirements after year three. There was considerable disquiet about the interview process to find his successor, many quickly viewing it as a formality and believing that Justin McCarthy was always going to get the job.

All of this has come to a head with the latest fiasco over McCarthy -- ending the players' silence. It required a number of improbable elements to create the current impasse, not least an impressively obstinate and self-serving streak in McCarthy that sees him carry on as if it were business as usual. Justin: it's not. How may more signals do you need?

He has, along with the board executive, sidestepped all logic and reason and convinced himself, like the executive, that he has Limerick's best interests at heart. Unless there is a resolution and a dramatic u-turn in player sentiment, before long the pitfalls will become manifest in a string of impoverished league performances, peddled as moral victories and defended by the sort of illusory rhetoric which characterised Cork's second -- or third -- string sacrifices through the early rounds of last year's league.

So Justin will plough ahead despite the grave risk of him being gored by the tusks of countless elephants in the room. And while he may argue, however speciously, that he is merely doing the job being asked of him, there is zero excuse for the architects of this monumental and hideous failure. That lies squarely on the shoulders of the executive who ignored the lessons of last season and Limerick's shockingly sub-standard performances.

Faced with inaction by the people in charge, the players felt obliged to take matters into their own hands. They are hardly raging revolutionaries and renegades for taking that decision and have lost no honour in doing so.

It is now obvious that most executives, Limerick and beyond, are ill-equipped to deal with choosing county management teams. And in fact, in many cases, may actively resent the increasing power and influence wielded by those appointed. We then get a power struggle and the team will suffer ultimately. Boards can raise the finance, no mean feat, but dealing with people on a personal level and making decisions on appointments has become a source of endless strain. They are, through no great fault of their own, out of touch with what is required to manage a county team. The first decent thing would be to admit it. It is too easy to lay the blame on player power when the real scourge and hindrance is executive power. When it comes to playing petty politics, players are still light years behind.

There are suggestions that a compromise may yet be found and that the door is open, to use that empty expression. But the bottom line in the players' statement appeared clear and resolute: they would not play under McCarthy again. At times like this the board executive needs to be strong and clear-minded and it has shown none of those qualities, instead hiding behind procedure and claptrap, as their cousins did before them in Clare and Cork.

For some time now the county executive of Limerick GAA has known that there existed serious issues between the county manager and many of his players -- a breakdown in communication. Did it not occur to them that this was one of the chief issues that led to the player revolt in Waterford? If there was a problem then the executive was the obvious go-between and yet it did nothing. It cannot wash its hands of the current crisis.

In their statement, the players make clear their belief that the board has failed them again. They maintain that the board was aware of serious unrest among players throughout the year and noted the lack of discussion after the demoralising All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Tipperary -- as if they were in denial.

They also strongly rejected the idea that players were responsible for the brisk turnover of managers in Limerick over the last decade. As often happens with these disputes, the various sides have become entrenched. The appointment of a new selector, John Tuohy, seemed to offer hope of a compromise after he initiated contact with some of the players. Tuohy has been sending out positive signals but sources say differently, believing that it should not be read as a significant ice-breaker.

McCarthy could do Limerick a major turn by quitting now, the most sensible and wisest action open to him, but in a way that would be letting the county board executive off the hook. They have made their bed and now they must lie on it. Another disappointing year for Limerick hurling is in store, but there is also the chance to find some lasting salvation and make this their turning point on the road. A traumatic experience like this may be what's needed to initiate the changes required. This has been an accident waiting to happen for a long time.

A Limerick hurling team will take the field in Kilmallock today obeying the principle that the show must go on, but the burning issues won't go away. Sooner or later, you have to face them and what better time than now.

Sunday Independent

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