Colm Keys: GPA aims to project better message on services but needs its voice to be heard again
On the walls of the lobby of the Gaelic Players Association headquarters in Santry there are a series of photographs that chart some of the important milestones in the lifetime of the players' body since its foundation in 1999.
The inaugural meeting in a Belfast hotel in September of that year is captured as is the top table at quite a stormy media conference in the Croke Park Hotel when a potential strike loomed over welfare demands in 2006.
The GPA had held extraordinary general meetings simultaneously in Portlaoise and Belfast two days beforehand on the issue with then chief executive Dessie Farrell describing an air of "militancy" and members "baying for blood."
The photographs provide reminders of the journey taken to get where the organisation is now and some of the challenges met and overcome. In one respect they've got to where they wanted to get once the aim of pay-for-play was set aside - a body providing a suite of services to its membership, 2,200 inter-county players (and 64 managers if they so choose).
The early days of militancy have long since been left behind and a three-year strategic plan, promised by new chief executive Dermot Earley on his first day, reflects that as it sets out where they would like to be by the end of 2019.
The booklet, 'Players Thrive On And Off The Field' covers a variety of themes from 'playing a better game' to 'investing in players' and celebrating players' to 'leaving players in a better place' after a consultation process that collated the views of players, managers, GAA officials, Government, their own committee members, donors and media.
Among the GPA's intentions are to have more face-to-face meetings with its membership nationally to ensure that they are fully aware of the services that are provided. It suggests an inter-county 'passport' system and comprehensive induction programme that will spell out exactly what entitlements and services are available and give clear guidelines on anti-doping rules and concussion protocols.
For the most part though it is heavy on broad aspiration. "Delivery of life-changing programmes so all players can unlock their potential" is one of the objectives under the strategic theme 'more than a player' with a desired outcome to leave "players better equipped to have a lasting and empowering career playing for their county."
Earley would like the roll out of these services to be taken up by all the membership. In conversation after the launch he noted how those who had availed of what they provide made better players.
"We can see that players who do engage off the field have an increase in their own performances," he said.
Getting a better message across about what they do is also central to it. In 'celebrating players' the objectives of 'changing perceptions through open and engaging dialogue' and 'raising awareness of players' contribution to society' are listed with a projected outcome that 'players stories are the heart of our communications.'
But it doesn't really get down to detail. Such is the way of strategic reports like it.
Earley inherited a strong organisation in January that had just come off a year where a €6.9m deal for players was agreed and enhanced Government grants were signed off on.
In reality, the gains over the next three years are relatively small by comparison with all that heavy lifting done.
Providing more quality services to more players so that they become better players and people on and off the field is the distilled aim of this review in the broadest terms. Doing that in more transparent ways so that the benefits of what they do can be more clearly seen is the challenge.
"The challenge for me is getting that message out because a lot of them don't know what we do," said Earley. The bigger challenge for the GPA though is raising the players' voice again and making it more relevant in the matter of games and fixtures.
The objectives and outcomes of the opening theme 'playing a better game' which focuses on making sure the voices of players are heard so that a revamped master fixture list can be delivered and that 'player-mandated actions for positive change (are) delivered.'
It flew over the head of Congress that 75 per cent of inter-county players were not in favour of the All-Ireland football quarter-final round robin, while the hurling proposals may well have the support of Central Council this weekend by the time the views of hurling squads are properly collated by the GPA. Earley expressed "annoyance" that a potential inter-county fixtures programme may be in place in 2018 with 19 extra games, two years after their own football proposals didn't even make Congress because it was considered top-heavy with extra games.
"We have time but we want to get it right. We have a competitions reform structures committee that will look at that and we will put something together and we will put something, hopefully, to the floor of Congress by 2020," he said.
But by then the new structures may have bedded down more securely and the appetite for change could well have passed.
Being in receipt of so much funding to provide services that will join objectives to outcomes over the next three years shouldn't deter them from making their voices heard more loudly and clearly on game-related matters.