Martin Breheny: Something must change or even more players will opt out of inter-county
52 footballers spurn Galway in growing trend that highlights unsustainable demands placed on county stars
Published 18/05/2016 | 02:30
You will hear plenty about stats between now and the All-Ireland finals but however informative some of them may appear, none will be remotely as significant as a figure produced by Kevin Walsh.
He has revealed that in his 18 months as Galway manager, no fewer than 52 players have (a) refused to come for trial, (b) declined an opportunity to join the panel or (c) dropped off the squad.
It equates to four goalkeepers, 20 defenders, eight midfielders and 20 forwards deciding that the inter-county scene wasn't for them.
Longford manager Denis Connerton spoke early in the year about how 40pc of players he invited aboard declined.
It was a remarkably high refusal rate but Walsh's figure is even more startling. For while Galway may be off the top All-Ireland pace at present, they are still in the leading ten in the All-Ireland odds.
More importantly, they have always been regarded as a leading football county, a status earned by being third behind Kerry and Dublin on the All-Ireland senior honours table. So the incentive for a young Galway player to aspire to inter-county should be great.
Galway were in Division 3 in the mid-90s, yet won the All-Ireland in '98 as several multi-talented youngsters emerged together to join Walsh and six or seven other experienced operators to form a winning blend.
You would think that against that background, young Galway players couldn't wait for an invitation to join the senior panel. Yet, two full squads have made themselves unavailable.
Walsh sees it as part of a wider problem facing the GAA as the pressures on young people make it increasingly difficult to combine college requirements with inter-county demands.
"I don't fault the lads who opted not to give it a go with the Galway footballers," he said. "Some would undoubtedly have made it, others mightn't; we will never know.
"But I think it highlights the level of demands placed on inter-county players and the need to ensure that we have the facilities and support mechanisms in place to ensure they can do it."
Even All-Ireland winners lose players. Dublin will be without Rory O'Carroll and 2015 Footballer of the Year Jack McCaffrey this summer as the pair pursue other interests.
Walsh said other county managers have told him they were facing similar challenges.
This was always likely to happen. The mantra that county players work as hard as professionals without getting financial reward has long been flagged as a virtue when, in fact, it's an absurdity.
The idea that amateur players not only train like professionals but live the rest of their lives in monastic isolation is unsustainable.
If GAA players visit a pub during the season, or are seen to enjoy a few drinks together after a game, they are regarded as traitors to the jersey, whereas similar ventures by high-profile rugby or soccer players are taken as normal.
The level of criticism directed at GAA players, both by mainline (often from ex-players trying to get on, or stay aboard, the gravy train) and social media is utterly unacceptable but, having spun out of control, it can't be reined in.
Even in their private lives, higher standards of behaviour are demanded from GAA players than others. For instance, what would be the reaction be if an inter-county squad sent a posse around to a house to locate a stolen laptop?
I can guarantee that it would become a major issue, probably led by an outraged Liveline hand-wringing about players acting as vigilantes.
Every figure of GAA authority from president Aogán O Fearghail down would be pressurised for a response on an outrageous act.
So where are the stinging rebukes for the Connacht rugby players who 'visited' a house in Galway to track down Robbie Henshaw's stolen laptop? All silent on that front.
But then professionals who play international sports are viewed differently. Meanwhile, an increasing number of GAA players are remaining outside the inter-county loop because of the unreasonable demands imposed on their work, college and private lives.
And, all the while, club players are left without games for months.
This can't go on.