'We won't become puppets to the GAA'
Published 02/10/2010 | 05:00
Apart from the three extra staff and scent of fresh paint in the rooms touched up to provide extra space in the accommodation above Kennedy's public house in Drumcondra, there isn't much tangible evidence to suggest that the Gaelic Players Association are on a different pathway.
It's still the same bunker from where so many hand grenades were thrown in the direction of the mothership just a few hundred metres down the road.
But the fundamental differences are large scale. On Wednesday next, the players body will give an update on what they've been doing over the last six months, how they have morphed from a militant sporting cause to the bona fide welfare arm of 'City Hall'.
Increased scholarships, career advice, proactive jobseeking help, personal issues, health and nutrition, injury rehab, the GPA cater for it all, provided you are one of the 1,920 or so inter-county hurlers or footballers who are members. Even at that figure, the door won't be shut on past players seeking the same detail and advice.
It's where the midwives of the organisation always wanted themselves to be, a genuine welfare body understanding the needs and requirements of the vast pool of inter-county players they have always sought to represent.
Dessie Farrell will always insist that this, rather than any pay-for-play ideal, was their raison d'etre.
So, it's a vastly different GPA than it was 12 months ago prior to the interim agreement that has taken them on this different pathway, the provision of an initial €1.4m of GAA funds giving them the scope to pursue the avenues they felt were most important.
The megaphone, once the key implement in their diplomatic overtones, is now gathering dust. They've been busy. But they've also been quiet.
And the silence has inevitably led to suggestions that once the deal was done, they have been subsumed and brought to heel, sticking to the party line on issues like celebratory pitch invasions in Croke Park.
Farrell insists that the association he has nurtured for more than a decade now is as independent as it always was and that there is no question of a compromise in their independence.
"I don't believe that is the case. I think it was a hugely important issue through the interim process that our independence wasn't compromised in any way and that we're still an autonomous body.
"It's also important for the GAA, because the dynamic won't work if, all of a sudden, the GPA as we know it has been subsumed and no longer has a voice and is only a puppet to the GAA.
"If that happens you are open to players breaking ranks and setting up their own organisation or squads doing their own thing. That's a very dangerous scenario.
"The GAA have an acute awareness of that as well. Publicly how that plays out, I don't know. Megaphone diplomacy may be gone, and while it was useful for us at a point in time for where we needed to get to, we have a forum to deal with the issues in a proper way."
The roll out of the services they have effectively been hired to provide remains the priority. For Farrell, the timing of the agreement could not have been better given the economic downturn the country continues to experience.
Their latest estimate has the unemployment rate among current inter-county players at 15pc, above the national average. On Wednesday, they will reveal how some 560 inter-county players have participated, at some level, in the 20 or so programmes they have set up.
Chiefly their work centres around education. Pat McCarthy, a Tralee IT based lecturer, heads the education committee and the emphasis has been on scholarships.
Farrell senses real progress in the last two months as players realise what is actually available to them now.
"In the last two months we've seen a big increase in the uptake, we've over 560 players at this stage have availed of some service, some past (players) as well, and that's an area we're going to get involved in more.
Career guidance and job creation is the other hugely important strand. Pilot schemes with the Kildare and Waterford County Boards to create awareness of their players' skills have been developed and it is hoped to engage administrations in a similar way.
"We're snowed under with that. It's a priority area. We've been trying to open doors with employers and recruitment agencies.
"In the last couple of weeks we have seen a bit of traction where fellas are now getting jobs and getting job offers, which is good to see, and I think over the next couple of months we'll see more success in that area. It's a difficult metric given the climate."
Farrell no longer sits as the players representative at Central Council -- his place has been taken by Thomas Colton, a recent recruit to the GPA workforce as a 'field' rep, who spends his time visiting inter-county squads.
"The more resource you put into this organisation the more work actually flows from it. We have Thomas out in the field and there is more contact with players, more issues emerging, not necessarily issues of conflict, it's just general issues."
Farrell believes conflict between the player and administrator is coming to an end. The GPA deal helped, but so too has the attitude of administrators.
"There is a natural evolution and what we are doing here is no different to what has been happening with players associations across the world. Initially, there was that barricade put up, the hostility, the suspicion and eventually there comes a point in time where you just move beyond that.
"There is younger blood coming into official positions within the GAA and it has changed dramatically. That's not to say that any issue that has emerged we have been able to sort it out or find a solution to it."
Elements of the 'old' GPA still exist and need to be addressed in the coming weeks. The Club Energise deal, once the bedrock of the players body, runs until 2013, but is losing pace, and the Government grants are back up for discussion soon for 2011 with a real threat that they will disappear.
This, Farrell believes, is something they won't take quietly and they have commissioned a report on the value of inter-county games to the Irish economy from Indacon which is due in the coming weeks.
"There are no guarantees, but obviously we'll be making the case in the strongest possible way. We've been saying it for a long time now that the value of inter-county competition to the exchequer is enormous. We're trying to place a value on it.
"Players will not take it lying down, they are still sore and reeling after the 70pc (€3.5m to €1.01m) reduction.
"I think they have to be kept, they should be at the current level. It's a dramatic reduction from where it was, but it is hugely important that we keep the principle alive. When you recall the reason for it being introduced it was state acknowledgement giving parity of esteem with other athletes."
Farrell envisages a merging of sorts between the All Stars and the GPA team next year and sees a bigger role for players in how the games are run.
"Gone are the days where you appoint a player in a token fashion to a committee and the fall-back line is 'well sure, we had player involvement in this report or that report'. It needs to be more meaningful than that and through the GPA, we can start to play a more dynamic role in that regard."
The man most readily identified with the evolution of a players body within the GAA has himself graduated in recent months with a masters in business from DCU and may in time choose a different career pathway. But not in the immediate future. Not while the fruits of so much toil are still to be harvested.