GAA EXCLUSIVE: 'If someone came in with €10 billion to fund player payments for the next 100 years, we'd refuse it'
As GAA prepares to make several big decisions over the next three months, president Aogán Ó Fearghail talks to Martin Breheny about the challenges ahead and how it's planned to address them
The president is not for equivocating. Change is needed and the means by which it can be achieved is on the agenda.
Now it's up to those most affected by the unfortunate circumstances which led to the need for the formulation of a suite of recommendations on burnout, over-training and club player dissatisfaction to decide if they trust the new plan.
They will do so between now and February, when Congress will make the final call.
"The bottom line is quite simple. This is about shifting the balance unashamedly, unapologetically from inter-county to club activity," says Aogán O Fearghail.
"It's also about reducing the heavy pressures on players in the 17-21 year age bracket.
The headline proposals, all of which relate to inter-county activity, have been in the public domain for some weeks: abolition of the All-Ireland U-21 and junior football championships and intermediate hurling; re-grading minor from U-18 to U-17; playing extra-time in all drawn championship games; bringing the All-Ireland senior finals forward by two weeks; completing the All-Ireland club championships by December.
There are lesser impact items too, such as dropping the semi-finals from the Allianz Football League, having more dual code weekends in the leagues and ensuring that squad members not required for match-day panels are available to play for their clubs.
"I believe the document should be accepted and, if it's to be changed, there should be a good alternative. We have made some difficult decisions," says O Fearghail.
"We're proposing to drop some competitions and to change others, but it's done for a very good reason to help clubs and younger players."
The president and director general Páraic Duffy visited the four provinces this week, explaining the rationale behind the plan.
Many of the proposals featured in previous reports over several years but it's only now that they have been brought together in a coherent document.
They won't be to everyone's liking but Ó Fearghail believes that they offer the best solution to a difficult problem.
"When I came in (as president last February) I talked to Páraic on a range of issues and this was top of the agenda. The most influential person in the Association has to be the director general," he says.
"He knows the Association better than anyone else. We decided that Páraic would produce a paper, based essentially on what we already knew from previous reports. Changes were made along the way and we now have something very worthwhile to put before the membership."
In his pre-election interviews, Ó Fearghail repeatedly emphasised that getting a better deal for clubs would be his top priority.
He regards the balance between club and county as unfairly skewed in the latter direction - hence the need to create greater certainty and leave more time for club action.
"If we weren't serious about this, we wouldn't be proposing playing extra-time in all championship games. People might have thought we'd never do that because of the lost revenue, but we've done it, even for All-Ireland finals," he says.
"The greatest chaos is caused by replays. If you don't have replays, it helps in drawing up a proper fixtures list.
"We could have decided to continue with All-Ireland final replays but we didn't because that's a crucial time of year for clubs; we want the inter-county season to end on a specific day, not a few weeks later because of a possible replay.
"Besides, if you replayed All-Ireland finals, there would be calls to replay semi-finals. No, we either make a clean break with replays or we don't, and we believe we should.
"I'm aware too, that by bringing the All-Ireland finals forward, we're losing a few weeks inter-county promotion but we're either serious about the club players and the clubs or we're not. No replays and earlier finals prove just how committed we are to making things better for clubs and their players,
"If the Association goes for the proposals in this document, it will radically alter things.
"Fergal McGill (head of games administration) has done an analysis which shows that it would reduce the number of inter-county games in July and August from 40 to seven. That would create huge space for clubs."
The proposal to abolish the U-21 football championship and to lower the minor age limit in both codes arises from damning evidence of burnout among young players.
It has been the subject of several reports, without any practical action being taken.
"Burnout is like climate change. You can argue it's not happening but really you're naïve if you believe that. We know it's a problem and we've got to address it," says O Fearghail.
But is it necessary to scrap U-21 football, which has been in place for over 50 years, and change the minor age limit, which has applied for 86 years?
And why no proposal to tweak third level competitions, which many believe are a major contributor to the burnout problem?
"Abolishing U-21 football at county level only is a judgement call. You can reduce activity at third level and stick with U-21, but we think getting rid of it is the way to go because, on balance, we believe it is a greater contributor to burnout.
"Activity at primary, secondary and third level is very important to us on a number of fronts, we won't do anything to damage that.
"It's also worth remembering that when U-21 was introduced in the 1960s, far fewer young people got to third level. It's a lot different now and many of them are playing in college, so the need for U-21 is not as great.
"As for reducing the minor age limit, it makes sense because it means that lads would not be playing county minor in their Leaving Cert year. It's a pressurised year, so do they need the demands of playing minor championship on top of that? No they don't. Dropping the age to 17 gets rid of that problem for most students."
There was some surprise at the proposal to scrap U-21 football while retaining its hurling equivalent, with the small proviso that the final be played before the senior decider.
Ó Fearghail says: "U-21 hurling is played at a different time of year to football. It's easier do that because there are fewer games than in football.
"Also, the training-to-games ratio seems higher in football than in hurling, maybe not at all levels but certainly among the guys at college.
"The burnout problem is bigger in football than hurling. We have to accept the medical evidence that there are too many of our top young footballers with difficulties of various types. And anything that's a problem within your body is a problem for the rest of you too. It can't be dismissed."
The formats of the All-Ireland football championships are also on the agenda at present and while various options are being considered, anything that increases the number of games will not be considered.
That includes the GPA proposal which features provincial championships and group stages, thus adding 27 games to the programme, taking it from 64 to 91. Some counties have also proposed group formats in their submissions.
Ó Fearghail says that Central Council had decided that there would be no changes to the provincial structure and, very definitely, no extra games in the overall package.
"We have taken a decision that we don't want any more inter-county games," he stresses.
"Round-robin or group stages - whether in provinces or outside - would increase the number of games so any proposal that includes them will not be looked at any further. We're simply not going to squeeze the clubs anymore. On the contrary, we're trying to free up more time for them."
The threat of creeping professionalism appeared real in the GAA some years ago but has, to some degree at least, subsided. Ó Fearghail reiterates the commitment to the amateur ethos and contends that any move towards pay-for-play would ruin the GAA.
"If someone came in with €10 billion to fund payment to players for the next 100 years, we'd refuse it. Pay-for play would destroy our Association. We are an amateur organisation, rooted in our community. That's the core principle, the vision we have to keep us rock solid.
"The GAA is in a great place now. We have more people playing than ever before and there are so many positive things going on that we can be proud of. Our job is to build on that and hand it on to the next generation."
To that end, he regards the burnout and fixtures document as crucial to the GAA's wellbeing into the future.
"We have to prepare the Association for the next 10/20/40 years. There will be no new committees producing reports in my time as president," he says. "I have been around a long time and I've seen a lot of good reports put forward.
"I want this presidency to be one of implementation, not about producing more reports. We're looking at all the reports since the Strategic Review Committee (2002) to pick out things that have not been implemented.
"A small group are sifting through them with a view to finding out what wasn't implemented.
"They are looking to see if there are nuggets in there that should be revisited. It's already producing a lot of good information and this document (burnout/fixtures calendar) is top of the pile."
The President's Views on...
A more equal share of resources
"We are investigating ways of re-distributing our money so as to tip the balance in favour of those who need it most. If a county is already fairly well off, there's no need to give them more. We're looking at possibly combining counties for sponsorship deals. Some smaller counties might find it hard to get a sponsor on their own but if you combine a few counties, you're in a different situation."
"We're quite well catered for in Ulster, Connacht and Munster but Leinster hasn't had the same level of development, particularly in the north of the province, where there's a serious deficit. We don't need a mega-stadium but we need something for north Leinster."
Illegal payment to managers
"I don't think it's a major issue at county level. The majority of managers are from their own county, certainly the successful ones. Are some managers being paid? Probably, but it's a bigger issue for clubs. It's unfair to use a broad brush here but there are some managers who hop on the merry-go-round. Clubs need to ask themselves: why sell lottery tickets to pay a manager when there's probably someone just as good in the club?"
"The current agreement with the GPA will continue for the next 10 months. During that time, we will be examining the protocols on how we deal with each other. That includes what areas we look after. All matters will be on the table."
"It's a good idea and will continue. We're committed to next year and 2017. It's a great chance for players from various counties to come together and play for their country. We also need to breathe new life into the interprovincials."
Friday evening championship games
"I know there are difficulties but I wouldn't be closed to it. If neighbouring counties are involved and they know about it for a long time, it might be possible. We should always be progressive and look for ways of moving things on."
Rugby World Cup bid
"We're very pleased to be part of the process and hope the bid is successful. It would be a great boost for the country. What's good for the country is good for the GAA."