Wednesday 28 June 2017

Joe Brolly: Drift towards capitalism is sucking life out of the GAA

Derry minor Conor Glass, ‘who went to Aussie Rules to get a rest’, in action against Longford’s Peter Lynn, Enda Farrell and Ruairi Harkins
Derry minor Conor Glass, ‘who went to Aussie Rules to get a rest’, in action against Longford’s Peter Lynn, Enda Farrell and Ruairi Harkins

Joe Brolly

Finally, someone at the top has had the balls to say it. The senior inter-county game is sucking the life out of the GAA.

There are only 2,000 senior county players. Meanwhile, there are almost one million GAA members in the country and around 100,000 men playing senior club football or hurling. The county game used to be the icing on the cake. Now, it is a sprawling commercial colossus that dominates the calendar, leaving the clubs to feed on the scraps.

The drift towards capitalism and the creation of an elite game has resulted in the club members and players who make up 99.9 per cent of the GAA being screwed. Clubs are left in an annual limbo that is seriously damaging participation.

Each year Dublin runs off their club championship like a blitz, getting it done and dusted inside a month. Last year, the winners of the Donegal senior championship played the quarter-final, semi-final and final in eight days. As the fixation on winning has taken hold, elitism has replaced participation and an entire ethos is speedily being corrupted.

When elitism replaces participation, then the focus moves to a tiny minority. In fairness to Páraic Duffy, he calls it as it is in his newly released discussion document.

Read more here:

Colm Basquel, Ballyboden St. Enda's, left, celebrates after scoring a second half goal with team-mate Conal Keaney. Enda's. AIB Leinster GAA Senior Club Football Championship Quarter-Final, St Patrick's v Ballyboden St. Enda's. County Grounds, Drogheda, Co. Louth. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Colm Basquel, Ballyboden St. Enda's, left, celebrates after scoring a second half goal with team-mate Conal Keaney. Enda's. AIB Leinster GAA Senior Club Football Championship Quarter-Final, St Patrick's v Ballyboden St. Enda's. County Grounds, Drogheda, Co. Louth. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

While club players twiddle their thumbs, the demolition derby that is inter-county football rages unchecked. As the fixation on winning at all costs has polluted our games, so injuries for elite players have reached epidemic proportions.

The GPA’s statistics on this issue, released earlier this year, are shocking but unsurprising. I have spent a lot of time with elite physios over the last year. I have spoken to consultant radiologists and surgeons and to high-performance experts. The message is always the same: the GAA is experiencing a serious injury crisis and the problem is getting worse.

We are seeing a massive increase in overuse injuries in 17- to 21-year-olds.

Osteitis pubis, plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis, tendonitis, persistent hamstring problems etc. The problem — correctly identified by Páraic — is chronic over-training, too many competitions and insufficient rest.

Martin Loughran, physio at the elite Sports Institute for Northern Ireland, was the physio with Tyrone minors and injury prevention expert with elite footballers in Tyrone between the ages of 14-21. He describes how he, in common with his colleagues, has been banging his head off a brick wall for the last 10 years trying to get the GAA to actually do something. He paints a scary picture.

In 2013, Loughran resigned from his wider underage role along with the county’s high-performance coach Liam Donnelly on the basis that player welfare was a subject to which lip service is paid. Last July, the county’s senior coaching officer Brendan Harpur resigned, stating that he did not want “to be a member of a county committee that does not see the welfare of our youth players as paramount”. Minor players during the 2012/’13 season in Tyrone played 30 games in 90 days (between club, county and college), on top of 40-45 training sessions.

Loughran says this is typical of what is going on in every county. Through his work at the Elite Sports Institute, he treats players from many counties and constantly gathers information. Noel Napier, consultant radiologist at the Ulster Independent Hospital and at Alliance Medical, spends his days reading MRI scans on players and reporting on them. Serious overuse injuries to the hip, groin, knee, hamstring and ankle are piling up.

Loughran says: “In 10 to 15 years’  time there will be an epidemic of serious long-term injuries. Players will retire early. They will suffer arthritis in the knees and hips. Many will find themselves seriously immobilised and in constant pain.” I met a group of physios recently and they said exactly the same thing. ACL tears — such as suffered by the Gooch, Paddy and Eoin Bradley, and hundreds of others over the last decade — mean guaranteed arthritis within 10-15 years. It is a grim prospect.

Between September 2013 and June 2014, for example, 16 members of the Kildare senior county squad went under the knife, mostly for hip, groin and knee operations. Talking about the problem at the time, manager Jason Ryan said: “That’s just the way it is now for county players. With the demands there are now, this is regular, this is what happens. In GAA now, our workloads are very high. Nor is there a possibility of recovery because we have to work and are pushing all the time. Burnout is not being addressed at all.”

Páraic Duffy does not miss the nail and hit the wall. His proposed solutions are only the start, but by GAA standards they are revolutionary. Abolishing the under 18 grade is critical. As he puts it, a boy’s 18th year at school is generally

“life-defining”. Yet, our kids are preoccupied and exhausted by nominally amateur games that are only meant to be an enjoyable part of a balanced life.

When Loughran was physio for the Tyrone minors, it was common for him to have 16-18 players on the treatment table on any given night. That is 16-18 out of a panel of 33. It is a widespread pattern.

Take Conor Glass, for example, the young Derry star who just last week emigrated to play Aussie Rules. He has been playing with Derry minors for three years.

In that time he has gone to two schools’ Hogan Cup finals with St Patrick’s Maghera, has won three Derry club minor championships and three Ulster club championships. In all, he has played simultaneously for four teams. As one of his club men said to me last week, “he’s going to Aussie Rules to get a rest”.

Getting rid of the under 21 football championship is another must. As Gaelic football has become an all-consuming obsession, the newer universities in particular have made it a flag-waver for recruitment. A good footballer can get his fees paid, digs, even a car, just so he can play football.

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John Ryan had met Kildare officials in recent weeks to confirm his interest in continuing on in 2016

It is only a matter of time before degree courses in flower-arranging are available to All Stars. One top-class county player told me recently that the beauty of his university was that it didn’t interfere with his farming. Duffy correctly identifies this 17-21 age grouping as an injury minefield. At the turn of the year, when Tommy Moolick, Kildare’s star midfielder, badly damaged his knee playing for UCD against Kildare, it was his third game in seven days. “What these guys are being put under is just mental,” said Jason Ryan.

Duffy proposes replacing the under 21 football championship with a new

knock-out under 19 competition, where under 18s are eligible. He sees it as a developmental stepping stone. Again, it is an excellent idea. It frees up valuable rest time and recognises that elite players in the 20-21 age bracket are already getting loads of football.

The other proposals are not just so decisive in their impact but are an excellent start in the long overdue process of rebalancing the game towards the clubs and of reducing the crazy training-v-match ratio of county players.

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Mike McGurn takes a training session during International Rules Series in 2011

Mike McGurn, who coached the Irish Rugby team from 2005-2007 and the All Blacks in 2008-2009, is currently working with the Queen’s Sigerson team. He told me: “Joe, put it this way. Most inter-county teams have a bigger training load than the All Blacks.” McGurn, in common with his colleagues, points out that there is no comparable sport in the world with a training-v-game ratio like ours. The average ratio in inter-county football is 12-14 sessions per game. Compare that to professional soccer, basketball or American football, where the ratio is a maximum of four or five sessions per game. Mental.

Duffy advocates a slightly more condensed National League and a more condensed provincial championship. No replays, unless the game is still deadlocked after extra-time.

He proposes the All-Ireland final be played at least two weeks earlier. This would mean playing it on the first Sunday in September, leaving a fortnight more for club championships. It could easily be pushed back to the second Sunday in August, which would, for the first time, allow a GAA off-season. Then there is the completion of the club championship in a calendar year, which is sensible but only affects a very small number of players, and the abolition of the inter-county junior and intermediate grades, another must.

I wondered publicly over the last few years whether Páraic Duffy had the balls for this. I said as much to him when we met earlier in the year for what proved to be an excellent and robust discussion over a long dinner. I take it back. His report is honest and real. It is the beginning of an essential process to save the GAA.

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