'We don't want to be playing at our age' - Ex-Donegal star Martin Shovlin (56) on the rural GAA crisis
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung once said that ‘in all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.’
The GAA certainly has a lot of chaos and disorder within its ranks this year.
The summer hasn’t even begun yet and the GAA has already voted to abolish the quarter-final stages of its senior football championship.
Its President Aogán Ó Fearghaíl has revealed that a round robin structure will be considered for the provincial stages of the hurling championship.
And the fledgling Club Players Association (CPA), who were just one Nicky Brennan intervention away from facing certain defeat in their motion to be recognised by the association at the annual GAA Congress in February, are gaining rapid momentum.
The fact that the CPA have not only formed, but reportedly picked up in excess of 20,000 members, shows that there still is a massive disconnect between the association’s hierarchy and the players that they are supposed to represent.
In addition to the radical changes taking place at the top of the game, there’s still a lot of discontent in the GAA community with regards to fixture congestion, the black card, Sky Sports, and certain managers taking to the field to physically confront players, but away from all of that disorder, there is order, in the fact that at least some of the games are still being played, championships are still being contested, and the interest is still high.
And amidst all the chaos, playing the game itself is still the most pivotal function of the GAA, however, it’s easier for some clubs more than it is for others.
For clubs like Dublin’s Na Fianna, or Cork’s Nemo Rangers, the games are so frequent, and across so many age groups and levels, that the size and magnitude of those clubs can become an issue upon itself.
But in Donegal, and specifically in Dunkineely and their local club Naomh Ultan, just making the numbers up for an Intermediate Championship game can be a mountainous task in itself.
Of course, the issue of rural clubs consistently battling to make up the numbers is not a dilemma that is exclusive to Dunkineely or Donegal.
Get out a map of Ireland, close your eyes, and point anywhere outside of Dublin, Cork or Galway, and you won’t have to look too far to find similar issues, but some clubs inevitably feel the pinch more than others.
Naomh Ultan get by. They always have. The club has won two Junior B championships in the last six years, they won the Junior A championship in 2015 and they were promoted to Division 3 that same year, but with injuries and players unavailable due to a variety of reasons, including tertiary exams, their panel of 24 was reduced to 17 last weekend.
The reduced playing squad meant that replacement full-forward Sean Furey, 48, was drafted into the starting line-up for the club’s intermediate clash with Cardonagh last Sunday, while 1990 Ulster Footballer of the Year and former Donegal intercounty player Martin Shovlin, 56, had to come off the bench after playing a full game in the second team just before the intermediates were due to start.
But Martin and Sean aren’t the only players at Naomh Ultan still playing into their mid-50’s. There’s Shovlin’s older brother Colm, 57, and 53-year-old corner forward Liam Kennedy.
The quartet have been involved in football for most of their lives, Martin as part of Donegal’s 1992 All-Ireland winning squad, while Sean has been playing for the Naomh Ultan senior side since he was 15.
But why do they both continue to play two decades after most players start to realise their own mortality?
Sean says it’s for the atmosphere and the banter that he still has with the players, Martin insists football has been in his blood since 1974, and that it can be a sport that is awfully hard to walk away from, but both agree that there is a greater reason that they still decide to lace up their boots on Sunday’s. Both agree that they play for the survival, stability and the future of their club. The future of Naomh Ultan.
“The population in County Donegal is decreasing,” says Shovlin.
“Emigration is still serious up here and even now with the colleges finished, I know we’re going to lose up to about half-a-dozen young lads because there’s nothing in this area for them. No work for them to keep them here for the summer.
“They’re leaving in their droves and it’s not just ourselves. Rural clubs are suffering big time up here. We’re trying to put out two teams but it’s a real struggle trying to get players. This rule that the GAA put out with 17-year-olds not being able to play, it’s alright in big cities like Dublin, Cork, Galway etc., they have the players, but it’s not fair on rural clubs that can’t put out players.
“We don’t want to be playing at our age, but you still don’t want to see the club fined because we can’t put out a team. It’s a €100 fine and if you don’t field in four games it doesn’t take long adding up. Last year we didn’t field in three games.”
The rule Shovlin is referring to was Congress’ decision in 2015 to pass a playing eligibility motion which stipulated that only players aged over 17 years of age would be eligible to line out at adult club level.
The rule change was enforced last year but it has not gone down well with clubs like Naomh Ultan, who have found it difficult to field teams.
“Last Sunday myself and Martin had to step up for the first team due to injuries,” said Furey.
“We’re working off a panel of about 24 at the best of times and last weekend we were down to 17. We found it very tough when they introduced the rule that anyone that wasn’t over 17 couldn’t play senior football, that hit us very hard like it hit a lot of clubs throughout the country.
“That curtailed who we could play. We’ve a lot of fellas who are 15, 16, but they couldn’t play senior football so that’s the reason myself and Martin, and actually Liam and Colm, are still playing football at this stage of our lives.”
The issue of player unavailability in rural clubs is recognised by GAA director-general Páraic Duffy, who claims that his biggest fear for the association’s future is mass migration from rural parts of the country to urban cities, which would naturally put the long term future of a lot of the GAA’s clubs into jeopardy.
“It's by far the biggest fear I have for the Association in the long term," said Duffy. "And the real concern for us is that we can't fix this on our own. Whatever issue - however difficult - that arises directly within the organisation can always be sorted out but we're facing something here that's beyond our control. That's what makes it so worrying.
“The movement is very much from west to east and from country to town and city.
"That process is accelerating rapidly and will continue if, as a country, that's the way we intend to go. From a GAA perspective, the dangers are obvious. Will we lose clubs in rural areas? Will others have to amalgamate? What impact would that have on the club scene? Then you look at the effect it will have on places like Dublin and towns in the hinterland.
"The growth in Dublin has been fantastic but many of their clubs are now super-clubs, catering for massive numbers. It makes it very hard for them to cope. And if they want to expand, where will they get the land?”
It’s good that Duffy can recognise that part of the GAA’s house is on fire, however, when you fine clubs like Naomh Ultan €100 for not being able to field teams, it’s a bit like fining a house’s tenants for property damage in the living room, while the rest of the house comes crumbling down in the background.
To highlight the extent of the problem, Na Fianna is one of Dublin’s biggest clubs boasting over 3000 members. Dunkineely is a town with a population just north of 300 people.
At first glance, four players playing for their local club when they’ve either passed or are approaching life’s half-century mark, represents what we all love about the GAA - players continuing to play a game that they love, in the communities that they cherish, in the places that they call home.
But for a lot of players’ home has now shifted to new locations like Galway, Cork and Dublin, meaning that the likes of Shovlin and company have to continue playing now as much as ever.
But the question still remains, why play? Why take the responsibility for a problem that is far beyond your control? An issue that the GAA’s director-general has admitted is even beyond the association’s control.
The answer is complicated, but it lies in opportunity, and not denying a club’s players the chance to play the game that has given its elder statesmen so much over so many years.
“If we didn’t play there’d be young fellas losing out,” added Furey.
“Our second team is made up of young fellas and if we didn’t play they wouldn’t get any football. They’d have to progress to the senior team and it would take them a couple of years to do so.
“We wouldn’t have a second team if it wasn’t for the likes of Colm, Martin, Liam and I still playing. I was asked to do a job last Sunday for the seniors and I did it, I didn’t think twice about it. It was an honour to do it, but I know I’m only a stop gap until these fellas come back and I was delighted to do it.
“If it happens again I’ll play again and Martin is the same, he’ll step up to the plate.”
Shovlin, who played a full game in the Naomh Ultan second team before the seniors were to take on Cardonagh, said that he was asked to stay behind for the seniors by new manager Kevin Lyons.
“The reserves had six or seven taken up to the senior team and then after our game the manager came to us and said ‘I need players for subs, if we get black cards or blood subs we have no one.’
“We had to stay. He hadn’t got subs. But if we didn’t turn out for the reserves, there would be seven or eight young lads and you’d lose them from the game or to different sports.”
Donegal and Dunkineely may be losing its youth to Ireland’s big cities and places further abroad, but it has managed to keep its elders, who are helping the GAA to keep Gaelic Football alive in areas where its future is looking increasingly bleak.