Wednesday 23 August 2017

Cult of the manager runs out of control

John Greene

John Greene

The news last week that Dublin club Ballyboden St Enda's intends to take on its county board over plans to restructure the local hurling championship is another clear signal to the GAA that all is not well.

The board's proposal, to be discussed at a meeting tomorrow night, would effectively shut down the club championship while the county team remains in the All-Ireland series but the reigning county champions have cried foul.

Manager Liam Hogan warned that this move will damage hurling in the county. "If Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork can play championship games through the summer, there is no reason why Dublin can't," he said.

Hogan added: "Anthony Daly and the lads deserve massive credit for what they have achieved, but it must be borne in mind that, for every player on the Dublin squad, there are 14 club players who are lying idle during the summer."

Hogan is correct, and his club are right to challenge the move. But the GAA needs to realise it has a number of issues which it must address head-on sooner rather than later or it will find itself so far adrift that it may be too late.

Yesterday's Irish Independent published details of an investigation it carried out on payments to managers and although -- to recall former president Peter Quinn's famous quip when asked about under-the-table payments to managers that they couldn't even find the table -- there was no detail of actual payments, the paper did estimate that €15m a year is being paid out by county boards and clubs to managers. The figure is unsubstantiated, but startling nonetheless.

It also estimated that managers of club teams, even at junior level, are receiving between €80 and €150 per training session or match. This inevitably will lead to calls that payments to managers need to be regularised and so, in all likelihood, an Irish solution to an Irish problem may well be fast-tracked when the real question that needs to be asked is, where will it all end?

Last year, Dublin footballers -- whose manager is one of those we know is not being paid --trained in January at 6.30am and this year they've gone even earlier, opting for a 5.30am start. Other counties are said to be training twice some days, in the early morning and again in the evening. Some counties are holding 10 or 12 training sessions per week, and complementing that with one or two challenge games. Most counties completely ignored the winter training ban. Most counties inflict strict dietary and lifestyle regimes on their players.

But where will it all end? What will be the breaking point? What about training at 4.30am? Or instead of two sessions, what about three -- with a quickie thrown in at lunchtime? Or back-to-back challenge matches with just enough time for a sandwich for the players between games? Or maybe we could just scrap the club championships, or at least try and get them played out over Easter weekend, so the county team can get a clear run at the year? Where will it all end?

We are truly living in the era of the manager. GAA managers are becoming cult figures and you are left to wonder sometimes if a lot of what is being said and done by managers is just bullshit. 'If some county board is going to fork out 70 grand to me, then I sure as hell better look like I'm earning it.'

Inter-county managers are effectively taking over the GAA. They are sucking money out of the game, they are inflicting lasting damage on the club scene by bullying weak officials into suspending club games for long spells of the summer and, in time, they will turn people away from football and hurling.

There was a time when a county board or club committee ran a fundraiser and everyone knew that the proceeds went towards development work of some kind, be it structural development or games development, or towards the cost of looking after teams. But that day is gone, and fundraisers now will inevitably be accompanied by the suspicion that they are primarily a tool to gather money to pay managers.

The last thing the GAA needs now is a knee-jerk reaction to the issue of payments to managers. That's not to say that ultimately it might be deemed both right and necessary to pay managers but have we reached the point where we can say with all certainty that this is what needs to happen?

Surely what's needed first is for the hierarchy to take several steps back and to take a good hard look at what kind of association they want it to be 10 or 20 years from now. It's important to remember that the GAA is structured from the bottom up, and not from the top down. Everything begins and ends with the club and therefore it stands to reason that the clubs must be protected -- probably from themselves as much as anything else.

Right now, the inter-county game is a juggernaut speeding out of control. Of course there is a feelgood factor surrounding it at the moment but the history of sport the world over has taught us that if you lose sight of your base and your origins you are destined for a spell in the wilderness.

Eventually, what's happening now will take its toll. Volunteers will become disillusioned on the ground and walk away, club players will become disillusioned with the lack of games and walk away, and potential county players will say 'no thanks' when the call comes for training. The GAA would do well to remember that enthusiasm is contagious, but so is the lack of it.

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