Monday 23 October 2017

County bosses out of control

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‘What are we to think of all the managers over the last decade who effectively drew a line through club fixtures?’
‘What are we to think of all the managers over the last decade who effectively drew a line through club fixtures?’

Eamonn Sweeney

Donegal County Board's decision to postpone next year's club football championship until the county team has been knocked out of contention for the All-Ireland is a remarkable slap in the face for club players. And the fact that this decision, which will severely disrupt the season of a large proportion of the county's footballers, largely comes at the behest of one man illustrates how inter-county managers have come to wield far too much power in the modern GAA.

All over the country club championships are regularly interrupted because of inter-county games, although Donegal's decision broke new ground.

In fairness to Jim McGuinness, he has brought success to the county, though the idea that all serious club action must stop while he's training his team is symptomatic of a worrying tendency in many counties to disregard their duties to clubs.

County boards bear the greatest responsibility for this travesty. Charged with ensuring the well-being of the Association as a whole, they have increasingly showed an inability to stand up to the managers they appoint.

The funny thing is that in Donegal's case, McGuinness was actually willing to have one round of the championship played in April or May and it was the board which decided to postpone the competition altogether.

The result is that club championships are virtually ruined as a majority of players sit idle during the summer because one or two of their clubmates or prospective opponents have made the county panel. Sometimes the player holding up the fixture may only play a few minutes in the championship, sometimes he won't play at all. Activity comes to a standstill all the same.

Fear of injury is the stated reason behind this tailoring of the fixture calendar to the manager's requirements. But players can get injured in training as easily as during a match. And there have been few enough examples of such injuries in the counties who go against the grain and try to keep a normal championship running. It's a pity more managers don't share the view of Brian Cody who used to maintain that players are better off playing serious games with their clubs during the inter-county season as it keeps them sharp.

The increasing power wielded by managers will, if it's not checked, ultimately lead to the creation of an elite coterie of inter-county players who may not be released to their clubs at all. Don't think there aren't inter-county bosses who wouldn't see this as a desirable objective. After all, one of the reactions to the FRC report which pointed out the problems faced by club players was a suggestion that clubs be more willing to play big games without their county players. But this would actually punish the clubs who put in the initial work to nurture top-class players.

Break the link between club and county and you damage something integral to the GAA. In any case there's hardly a player in the country who'd be willing to see his clubmates lose a big match while he sat on the sidelines wrapped in inter-county cotton wool.

The FRC's recognition that club players are being short-changed, and recommendation that something be done about it, is welcome. But chances are that the report will remain nothing but a collection of pious platitudes unless county boards show some backbone when dealing with managers.

All this kowtowing and forelock-tugging is usually futile in the end. Most inter-county campaigns end in failure as do most managerial reigns. And yet the demands of the manager result in a situation where county championships are squashed into a few frantic weeks. Players find themselves playing week in, week out on the soggy pitches of late autumn and early winter. And if they're lucky enough to win a county championship they may even find themselves starting a provincial campaign a few days later.

McGuinness's old buddy Kevin Cassidy pointed out that if Donegal only get as far as next year's All-Ireland semi-finals, the club championship will have to be run off in six weeks. Why, he wonders, should players train all year for a six-week competition?

The implication, daft as it may seem, is that the management of an inter-county side is such a delicately calibrated process that any divergence from the boss's writ could end in disaster.

The media have played a big part in creating The Cult Of The Boss. Many inter-county football and hurling managers are big names while the county board officials are faceless guys who normally don't get a chance to answer back. Nobody wants to fall out with a winner lest they be damned from the pulpit as Declan Bogue was.

The result is that scant regard is shown for the impact of managers' demands, and county board decisions, on the game as a whole. These decisions lead not just to fixture congestion in so many counties --congestion which is let's face it easily avoidable -- but also to a strain on financial resources because of the cost of running modern-day inter-county teams.

And have you noticed it is often high profile managers who are at the forefront in trying to resist much needed rule changes which would make the game of football more positive? The first black card will hardly be out of a ref's pocket before we have a chorus of bosses complaining at length that the new rule is ruining the game. Some managers are prepared to let football stagnate rather than run the risk of having to change their approach.

Then there was the GAA abandoning the notion of a closed season, patently the most sensible idea the Association has had for dealing with the vexed question of burnout. Far too much heed was passed on guys arguing for their inalienable right to put teams who wouldn't win anything if they were trained 365 days a year through their paces in November and December.

It says something about the Association's failure to face up to reality that anyone who expressed out loud his belief in Croke Park's contention that no inter-county managers are being paid would be laughed out of it. We've even had suggestions that the decent thing to do is pay managers, and not players. Perhaps players would put up with that for a little while. But not for long.

So where does this idea that the Association should fall in the views of a handful of influential men come from? Well, as the country's leading sporting organisation, it's only natural that the GAA will be influenced by the wider culture. And manager worship is an obvious manifestation of that culture. What are we to think of all the managers over the last decade who effectively drew a line through club fixtures?

Another unlovely feature of that wider culture was the notion that boasting was a good thing. And the manager forever willing to tell us what a 'winner' he is, even if he's never actually won anything as a manager. To be fair to McGuinness, he was one of those who quietly went about winning an All-Ireland -- maybe there's a lesson there for some others.

But above all, county boards fell prey to the quaint Celtic Tiger belief that everything can be solved by throwing money at it. So instead of doing the hard work of changing the structures which had made their counties unsuccessful in the past and building from the grassroots up, officials found it easier to paper over the cracks by throwing good money after bad. And when things went wrong they acted like someone making excuses for an unsuitable Christmas present and pointed at the price tag.

The Tiger model isn't fit for purpose anymore and the sooner the GAA realises that the better. One of its great strengths has always been its democratic nature but too often county boards have shirked responsibility to the extent that GAA activity in a county can be dictated by the needs of one man.

It can't go on like this.

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