Sunday 24 September 2017

John Greene: Clubs will rise up if they are not listened to

Other counties should take note of what happened in Kildare, writes John Greene

Kieran McGeeney
Kieran McGeeney
John Greene

John Greene

In the end it was another GAA coup, death by a thousand votes, or just one in this instance. This was the ballot that brought an end to the six-year reign of Kildare football manager Kieran McGeeney at a county board meeting last Tuesday night.

The decision sparked an extraordinary – borderline hysterical – reaction on social media and in more traditional media too. On Newstalk, Ger Gilroy said it was one of the stupidest decisions in the history of Irish sports administration; in the Daily Mail, Liam Hayes wrote that McGeeney was a lucky man to escape the clutches of a county "choc a bloc with men carrying no real desire to realise their fullest potential as footballers".

On Twitter, Kildare players did not hold back. John Doyle said it was a dark day for Kildare GAA, and Emmet Bolton said it was a disgraceful way to treat a man who had done so much for the county.

Few have mastered the art of democracy quite like the GAA; or perhaps more accurately, few have mastered the art of hiding behind democracy quite like the GAA. But that doesn't invalidate what happened in Kildare last week. There is a lot of lip service paid to the idea that the GAA is fundamentally a grassroots organisation – something that was ridiculed again last week – but like it or not that is exactly what the GAA is. And when clubs aren't happy they have a history of absorbing only so much before lashing out, and that in part explains what happened in Kildare. We have seen it in Meath in recent years, and we are seeing it elsewhere too.

There were very compelling arguments in favour of Kildare holding on to McGeeney for at least another year (and now that he is gone you can be sure he will be in demand) but there were also valid arguments as to why he should go. These arguments, for and against, were aired at Tuesday's meeting, a vote was taken, and a decision was reached. It is a matter of opinion as to whether that decision was the right one, but the derision heaped on those clubs and their delegates who made that decision is very uninformed. As Oscar Wilde said, public opinion exists only where there are no ideas.

A calmer and more measured response was required. This vote was about more than the future of Kieran McGeeney as the county's team manager. Fairly, or unfairly, it seems that clubs were not necessarily of a mind to view this as just a straight 'yes-no' matter.

In the context of Kildare's situation, the vote told us three things: Firstly, that clubs no longer feel they are a big part of Kildare's GAA family because they don't have access to their own players and they don't have a regular programme of games in which they can put their best team on the field, the team they created in their own community. Secondly, it is a vote of concern – probably long overdue – about the state of the county's finances and the amount of money spent in the pursuit of glory that never arrived. And thirdly, it is a shot across the bow of the board's top table that things need to change. Last Tuesday night's ballot was more of a referendum on Kildare GAA than a vote on a manager.

There is a wider context to it also. There is a growing sense of unease in the GAA at its current direction and clubs are hitting back. Times are harder now than five years ago; clubs are finding it difficult to raise the money they need to survive, they are finding it harder to field teams now than at any time in living memory and when huge sums of money are being diverted away from clubs to fund county team preparations, and when clubs are repeatedly denied access to their top players, it should not come as any surprise that tolerance levels are at an all-time low.

It is clear from the reaction of the players that they have huge faith and trust in McGeeney, and he in them. In their bubble – and that's what they are operating in – it is them and us. Outside that bubble, though, there is a wider network of people interested in the well-being of Kildare GAA.

And this applies in every county, and for this network of people the well-being of the Association in their county involves many things, including the health of all county teams at senior and underage levels, and their backroom set-ups.

Then there is the health of Gaelic football and hurling in their county, the health of the clubs, the number of people playing both games, the financial status of the county board and all its clubs, fundraising, the community, social and cultural responsibilities central to the GAA's ethos, and more.

These are all concerns for the GAA family in each county. It is too crude to suggest that for McGeeney and his panel, and for county managers and their squads of players all over the country, these things are of no interest to them. Nor is it stretching it to suggest that they are far from being among their primary concerns. County panels now are mostly inward-looking.

This is not a criticism, this is how it is. And this is certainly how it is for most successful teams, so others aspiring to success will try to replicate those elements they feel are central to that success. (Some, like Cork and Kilkenny, do not allow such a separation between club and county to occur and this has not only fed into their success, it has been at the heart of it. There is no great club v county debate in either county.)

The GAA has survived and thrived because its members have diverse interests, and perform diverse tasks. And for the county player in the here and now, most other aspects of the GAA – those things that first drew them in and those things that will sustain them long after their playing days have ended – become of secondary interest. There is, almost, a suspension of belief. Of course the GAA needs players. But it needs administrators too, and supporters, and coaches, and all the others who open pitches, make tea, wash jerseys and so on.

Other counties should take note of what happened in Kildare last Tuesday night. Kieran McGeeney is a high-profile figure in the GAA, and so the focus since has been on the personalities involved rather than what lay at the heart of the controversy. The message should not be lost: the clubs did not vote for a change of manager, they voted for a change in approach.

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