Comment - Club players are collateral damage in the inter-county arms race
If there is one thing we are not good at in this country, it is piecing clues together as they present themselves to us. All the scandals of recent years, the economic crash, all the misery . . . there were clues littered everywhere to all of it, and yet we didn’t see. There were people telling us about clerical abuse, about the guards, about the HSE, about the housing bubble . . . and we didn’t see. Hercule Poirots we are not.
We just don’t see.
And there are people telling us about the GAA, pointing to the clues that are littered everywhere, that all is not as well as it seems.
Yet we just don’t see.
Attendances are falling. Counties — if we are being honest — are losing heart. Players are losing heart — at club and county level. No-one would ever admit such a thing but there are some counties who have simply given up. They are just going through the motions. They are miserable. Players are miserable. In football and hurling. The drop-out rate among players in the GAA is higher than in soccer and rugby.
The GAA is putting a brave face on its admittedly impressive revenue streams but the reality is that it is being propped up by the elite. And how long will the elite be prepared to stand idly by without asking for its ‘fair’ share? It is being propped up by television and gold-plated sponsors whose real interest is in the top tier. In what we might call the super eight. And who can blame them?
Here we are, trying to drum up excitement for a championship that, let’s face it, doesn’t really matter until August and it’s only mid-May. With each passing year, the titillation just falls flatter.
In just one seven-day window last week, as we all gear up for the glorious championships, all the clues were there — scattered about in newspaper articles and radio bulletins — about just how far the GAA is straying from what it is supposed to be about.
Last weekend, the Meath senior football champions refused to play a league game because their inter-county players were not allowed to play with their club — again. They may be fined; they will certainly forfeit the game.
On Monday, during a discussion on fixtures, a delegate suggested at a meeting of the Meath County Board that because of the arrival of the Super 8s in football next year, the county will have to look at restructuring its clubs programme, possibly even reducing the number of games, because there won’t be enough Sundays available. It hasn’t even happened yet, and already people are genuflecting to the Super 8. See how the narrative is already shifting: here’s a real fear being expressed that there won’t be enough time to play as many club games as before because of the introduction of a new format which has been sold as something which will improve the lot of clubs.
Clubs will have to make way for the Super 8.
Later in the week, Clare manager Colm Collins reiterated his belief that the Super 8 format is a “cynical exercise in collecting more money”.
And Derry manager Damian Barton criticised clubs in the county, accusing them of jeopardising his team’s chances of beating Tyrone in two weeks by insisting the players play with them this weekend. He said: “We have a very small squad of players. Fair play to the clubs who are behind Derry, fair play to them. But we have been handicapped by the fact we have a very successful club scene.”
Former Waterford hurler John Mullane said being an inter-county manager is a full-time job and that he favoured making it a paid position.
On Newstalk, Liam Griffin warned that a “radical overhaul is needed within the GAA”. He, along with others in the Club Players’ Association, is trying to restore some balance in the Association but his frustration was clearly evident.
Club players are on loan to the county, not the other way around. County boards are in charge of county managers, not the other way around. But these simple truths have been lost in the inter-county arms race. And so it is accepted within county boards that players cannot play for their clubs because they are needed by their county manager so that he can flog them to death and fill them full of joylessness and drain them of their love for the game, bit by strength and conditioning bit. Those who quite reasonably enquire why there can’t be club fixtures three weeks before a county game are made to feel like fools. But it’s a fair question: why can’t someone play for his club and his county? Why can’t a club championship run alongside an inter-county one?
The answer is an unpalatable one for an association that wraps itself up in a cloak of amateurism, community spirit and egality; it is because of ego, power, money, self-interest . . . it is because the tail is wagging the dog.
Indeed, the club v county debate is the greatest smoke and mirrors trick in the GAA. In an excellent column in the Irish Examiner on Friday, historian Paul Rouse commented on the absence of three of Kildare’s best players from their Christy Ring Cup quarter-final defeat to Carlow. David and Michael Reidy, originally from Limerick, opted to play with their club in the Limerick intermediate hurling championship, while John Mulhall, originally from Kilkenny, played with his club in a Kilkenny senior hurling league game.
“The decision to choose club over county in this instance laid bare the spurious notion of the divide between club and county as being the one that defines an ‘elite athlete’ within the GAA,” wrote Rouse.
It’s an observation that cuts to the heart of the problem. It is not a reflection on those players — it is simply highlighting that the club v county issue is entirely subjective, and can easily be shifted to suit the needs of any individual, as well as any group.
All the clues are there . . .