Friday 18 August 2017

Frost believes the GAA is key to rural Ireland's future

Robert Frost believes the GAA must play a crucial part in helping rural Ireland from losing its identity. Photo: Eamon Ward
Robert Frost believes the GAA must play a crucial part in helping rural Ireland from losing its identity. Photo: Eamon Ward
Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

There are few memories that resonate more with Clare people than the vision of Anthony Daly raising the Liam MacCarthy Cup on the steps of the Hogan Stand in Croke Park 22 years ago. Behind every great team stands an administration, and at the helm in Clare during that time was Robert Frost.

He was chairman of the county board and the man who handed the reins of that team to the legendary Ger Loughnane. Frost is now running for president of the GAA in a crowded five-man field after a career behind the scenes that has stretched over five decades and, he feels, has given him the tools needed to serve in the highest office of the Association.

Frost comes from a farming background; he lives in Sixmilebridge with his wife Margaret but he grew up in Kilkishen, a village in the parish of O'Callaghan's Mills in east Clare, where he was reared on hurling. The Mills is small club in a small parish but during Frost's time they competed with the giants in the county. He and his team-mates contested senior finals, but they never made it over the line - unlike the dominant sides that went before them.

Frost's career in administration started in the 1970s, after he was tasked with the role of secretary in his club at just 17. He held the post for 10 years.

Kilkishen is in a rural area where the GAA is the backbone of the community. The hurling club survived when at times it looked like the village might not. It has been a constant even during the darkest days of recession.

The support it provided to the people in the parish has emphasised its value to Frost and he believes that protecting the GAA's presence and identity in small villages is vital for the future of the Association and the country.

"Rural Ireland has been decimated for the last 30 or 40 years. When I was growing up there was a Garda station, a post office, a local creamery, there were plenty of shops and pubs and lots of activity," he says. "It's all changed now, and I firmly believe that without the GAA clubs there would be nothing at all left in rural Ireland.

"I also believe these clubs should be getting more support. It's clear there is a declining population in rural Ireland and I think the GAA club should be getting a small grant from government agencies. I'd love to see the GAA club survive everywhere but in some areas it might not be possible, as the numbers are so small. In these instances they could join up together for underage, but for senior, junior or intermediate level I'd like to see them hold their own identity, as I think that is very important."

Frost also believes that having nine, 11 or 13-a-side competitions would go a long way to sustaining the GAA in areas where it is struggling.

The sporadic nature of fixtures is also a problem and doesn't help clubs retain players or the interest of the community. He feels in order for change to happen, sacrifices will have to be made and that these should come in the form of a shorter inter-county season.

"We could be done and dusted in September with both All-Irelands played and that would leave a block of three months to play the club championship," he argues.

"There is a window of opportunity there and you could make a plan. It's wrong to be calling off matches: a lot of players have families, and they need to know when they are playing.

"The GAA are moving in the right way but there has to be a calendar for club players. I would like to see players get a minimum of 20 matches per year; you can't expect lads to train for months on end and not play any games."

The newly-founded Club Players' Association has been very vocal in calling for a change to the fixture situation. Frost believes they are on the right track but would like to see the CPA and the Gaelic Players' Association join forces.

As one organisation, he feels that they would be able to lobby for both the inter-county and club players and that the latter would benefit greatly from the services that are provided by the GPA. However, he is adamant the amateur status must always be maintained.

"We are fortunate in the GAA to have plenty of people who are willing to put in a huge amount of work coaching our young people," he says. "They start at under six and are there all the way up along. These are the people that are the breadwinners of the Association, they are the people that I want to represent, and without these people the GAA would be a lot poorer.

"So it's very important that we keep our amateur status, that we keep our volunteers on the ground - and you must not forget the parents who drive the kids to and from training. These are the people who keep the GAA alive and strong in Ireland."

As for Galway and where they should play their hurling, Frost feels that there are solutions available - but again progress will require sacrifices.

"In 2015 there was a motion in front of Congress about restructuring the minor championship," he recalls. "That motion stated that the fifth and sixth teams from Munster and Leinster plus Galway and the winners of Ulster would have a round-robin play-off. Then the two top teams would go into the All-Ireland quarter-final. For the under 21s, the runners-up from Leinster and Munster would play Galway or the Ulster champions in the All-Ireland quarter-final. That should be trialled for two years and then assess it."

When Clare won the Munster football title in 1992, Frost was the county board liaison officer for the team and vice-chairman of the board. He saw first-hand the financial difficulties facing a county fielding ambitious teams in both football and hurling. Clare are now in a strong position with their population and budget but Frost has spoken to some counties over the last few months who are struggling to finance teams in two codes as populations shrink and gate receipts drop.

"We will have to do something for some of these smaller counties," he says. "Maybe a reduced rate of insurance or a grant - I would like to see something done. A lot of them have two codes and they are trying to keep the two going.

"They are finding it difficult to make ends meet and they are struggling to find success. They are working hard and I'd love to see them get some assistance."

After his stints in the Clare County Board, Frost went on to become the Clare delegate on the Munster Council, and then vice-chairman and chairman. While working at provincial level he investigated the possibility of GAA clubs receiving Leader funding. Although he was told at that time by certain government agencies that the GAA weren't eligible as they weren't a community-based organisation. Frost counters this and plans to pursue the matter.

Frost is confident ahead of Friday's vote for president; he believes that this is his chance - and he's planning on taking it.

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