Rural decay of the GAA
Published 12/12/2011 | 05:00
Back in 1995, An Tóchar, a small club from Roundwood, nestled in the Wicklow hills, won their first and to date only county title.
They went on to reach a Leinster club final, which they lost to Eire Óg Carlow after a replay, but An Tóchar were never heard of again afterwards outside Wicklow. They just had the misfortune to be around the same time as the great Rathnew team which subsequently won eight county titles in a row.
It is inconceivable now that a small club like An Tóchar could almost bag a Leinster title. Rathnew were the last rural club to win Leinster (2001) and it's only an established, multi-talented and experienced rural club side that could even contemplate doing so.
In recent years, Offaly's Rhode perfectly fitted that profile. They won five county titles in seven years, contesting three Leinster finals in that timespan.
Making the breakthrough, though, is the real challenge. Caltra were the last rural club to win an All-Ireland title in '04; the roll-of-honour has been dominated by the big clubs ever since: Ballina Stephenites, Salthill-Knocknacarra, Crossmaglen Rangers (twice), St Vincent's, Kilmacud Crokes and St Gall's. Similar to last year's championship, the remaining teams in this year's competition are all big guns: Crossmaglen, St Brigid's (Roscommon), Dr Crokes, Garrycastle and St Brigid's (Dublin).
The big clubs are dominating but this argument is also a little flimsy on an overall scale. In last year's provincial championships, Aherlow should have beaten Dr Crokes, Killererin were caught late against St Brigid's (Roscommon), while Naomh Conaill tested Crossmaglen.
This year, Portlaoise needed extra-time to edge past Louth's St Patrick's, while Horeswood rattled St Brigid's. Drom-Broadford and Kilmurry-Ibrickane have won two of the last four Munster club titles, while Rhode threw away the 2008 Leinster final.
Leinster, though, has still increasingly become locked down by the big urban clubs. It's just inevitable. In the 20 clubs around the country with a membership exceeding 1,000 members, 10 are in Dublin, with five more elsewhere in Leinster. The combined membership of those 15 clubs would equal that of three small counties.
There have always been big clubs but their proliferation is threatening to skew the playing field in Leinster.
"When you see the size of some big urban clubs now, you have to ask, 'Is that fair on rural clubs?" asks Pat Daly, Croke Park's head of coaching and games.
"I think it needs to be addressed. You see some clubs on the periphery of a big club who will struggle, whereas large clubs can't accommodate one third of their players. I think what's required is a little bit more flexibility in terms of eligibility."
As things stand there are just 90 clubs in Dublin catering for 1.3 million people. Some of the big clubs within the city often regarded themselves as villages and took strength from that outlook, but one of the key outcomes of population growth in Dublin was that the biggest clubs turned into "superclubs."
In an ideal world, the GAA would like to see an extra 20 or 30 clubs develop within the capital, but that's unrealistic given the difficulties surrounding infrastructure, land and resource development.
When Dublin recently published the county's strategic plan for 2011-17, 'Unleashing the Blue Wave', the strategic group came up with a couple of really clever alternatives to the traditional club model.
One involves a large club with an extended catchment area setting up a separate "Nursery to Go-Games structure in a location with sufficient population and localised identity."
It is hoped that it would generate a separate club in the area.
The other model involves founding a club in an area where no demand for GAA exists.
That model requires significant intervention and could compromise the volunteer ethos, but Dublin don't really have a choice given the areas they are targeting. Otherwise it would be impossible to get a volunteer-led club in areas that are heavily populated by the new-Irish.
Young kids need to be interested in the GAA by six or seven, and Dublin's target is to increase the number of young children participating in Go-Games from about 12,000 in 2010 to 18,000 in 2017.
For now, though, it's just not possible for some clubs to cater for their vast numbers. Yet it is difficult to try to limit a club's numbers when so many are desperately competing for the hearts and minds of young kids through intensive underage development.
The real conflict arrives when some of those clubs attract bigger names from other clubs. After four Laois players joined Dublin club Parnells in 2010, Stradbally's website expressed their annoyance at what they saw as a recruitment policy by Dublin clubs in "enticing and hoovering up the rural clubs' young footballers".
"With the way the economy is now, a lot of the smaller clubs are going to lose players to the bigger clubs," says Rathnew's Ronan Coffey, who won a Leinster title in 2001. "They'll be able to look after fellas better. In another while, I think the superclubs will win everything."
With no parish rule in the cities, that is another huge challenge. Last February, Dublin manager Pat Gilroy put forward the notion of a draft system, whereby smaller clubs would have first pick of incoming talent.
"Whether it's some form of a draft system or a cap on the number of fellas who play on a senior team that didn't play juvenile in Dublin, smaller clubs could get first choice on them," said Gilroy. "That would make it fairer. It's not necessarily healthy if it's just big clubs getting top players all the time."
The influx of outside players is natural in a big city, but it is still soul destroying when some of those club-players who have progressed from underage level can't get a game at senior level because of the presence of those outside players. There are huge numbers of players in Dublin who annually debate whether it's worth staying with the junior team or just transferring elsewhere.
The presence of outside players in the successful Dublin clubs in recent years has been crucial to their overall strength. However, the spirit and unity and underage development of those sides has also been outstanding. There are some huge urban clubs in Meath, for example, that are consistently underachieving.
Whatever about size, there is no substitute for hard work, and Garrycastle are the ideal model in many ways. Located in Athlone, they have created their own history over the last decade. After Tyrone's Errigal Ciarán and St Mary's Sligo (Salthill changed their name but the club was already in existence), a win in Sunday's Leinster final would make them the third youngest club to win a provincial football title.
For years, the perception in the national GAA consciousness was that Garrycastle was born out of a dispute, but the club was founded in 1981 after a group of GAA people saw the need for a second club in the Athlone area to cater for the growing young population on the eastern side of the town.
It was the trouble which came afterwards -- when an internal dispute within the Athlone club over money raised for a tour to the USA -- which hitched the false perception of their birth to Garrycastle's name.
The real upshot of the dispute for Garrycastle was that some players who left Athlone joined the new club or later pledged their loyalty to Garrycastle through the generation game.
While Athlone were winning more senior titles, Garrycastle were concentrating on their underage structures and development.
The club contested 25 underage premier championship finals between 1985 and 1997, winning 14 titles. They finally secured their senior status in '97 and their first senior title arrived in 2001. Now they've won six county titles in 11 years.
Garrycastle stand on the threshold of history because a Westmeath club has never won a Leinster club title. They have the numbers to compete with the big boys but Garrycastle have got their rewards for years of excellent underage work.
And no matter about size, that's the bottom line. With any club.