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Colm O'Rourke: Pressure on Croke Park to ensure books are balanced

W hen the cost of training inter-county teams was revealed last week by Colm Keys in the Irish Independent, there was the usual anxiety in GAA ranks about the huge quantities of money involved.

But before we rush to judgement, there should be some analysis of whether the money is being well spent or not. Running county teams is a costly business but it is not like throwing money at Anglo Irish Bank. There is, in general, a good return on the investment. Unless other GAA activities within a county are being neglected, then there is no reason to suggest the money is anything other than well spent.

First of all, the money is being invested, not spent. Looking after the top players is the best way to have county sides at whatever grade young players aspire to. Running a county team badly with no money is a sure-fire way of breeding young players who won't care if they ever play for the county. This is the difference between knowing the cost of something and its value.

Looking at the figures blind tells us nothing either. Ask anyone in Cork or Tipperary and they will probably feel they got great value for money. Cork won a football All-Ireland and also provide for hurling where the sums involved, at least to the outsider, seem a lot greater than for football. So running county teams from under 14 to senior in hurling and football is a very expensive business and it appears the player strikes in Cork have yielded benefits in the way they are looked after. This costs money. Lots of it.

Comparing counties is of little value. The number of teams involved, the length of time in the championship, the distances players have to travel and the extent of the back-up team are only a few of the factors to be taken into account. A comparison of the cost of training sessions and matches for each team is the only way to see if there are vast differences across counties. Even then there are obvious flaws. If Cork or Kerry play in Croke Park, there is a huge difference in the cost between them and a county which doesn't have to overnight in Dublin.

The only way to look at these figures is to examine individual budgets, look at the overall income and relate the amount spent on county teams to that. If Croke Park, through some type of central accounting committee, were able to lay down some general ratios of spending to total income then figures would begin to mean something.

The idea, for example, would be that a county might set aside a certain figure for the minor team at the start of the year and a budget would be prepared by management in co-operation with the county board. It would save a lot of hassle when managers of teams feel they are not being looked after properly by the board in comparison with the senior side.

So maybe Cork got good value for €1.5m because of their big income, but it is of great concern where counties are spending more than their entire annual income on county sides in the belief that something will turn up to save them. There needs to be a guiding hand from a central authority to prevent counties spending recklessly.

Most counties need to budget for a fall in income with sponsorship declining and supporters' clubs finding it increasingly difficult to get their hands on the easy money they had access to a few years ago. In the good times, supporters' clubs were able to make €100,000 from selling tables at Punchestown races. Hard to see that sort of dosh being available this year.

And it is not just counties that are affected by the harsh realities of modern living. Many clubs are finding the going very tough too. And getting people, including players, to pay membership is like pulling teeth from a pig. The GAA must be the only organisation where a player feels he should be entitled to play even if he is not a member. Imagine someone trying to play in the local golf club for a year without paying his sub? And I'm sure there are players playing in the All-Ireland final every year who are not members of clubs.

As Mark Twain said, there are lies, damned lies and statistics and while these figures can be interpreted in different ways, they are only part of the picture. Certainly it is better to spend money on players than wasting millions on grounds to hold crowds that will never turn up. Last week I saw Mayo play Down in the newly refurbished McHale Park in Castlebar. It looked great in the floodlights and I don't know exactly what it holds, but a few thousand people would be lost in the place.

Will it ever be full? Maybe once every few years for a Connacht final, but even a county final crowd will make it look half empty. Nobody should be allowed to build a stadium anymore for over 12,000 supporters. The millions spent on training teams is better is a far better investment than bricks and mortar and too many counties have stadiums that are white elephants.

A more sensible approach to spending money was the recent announcement by the GPA and GAA of 250 paid coaching jobs. This is a good idea to help a lot of high-profile players who might otherwise be hopping on the big bird in the sky. With the GAA selling premium seats in the Hogan Stand there should be money available for the real assets.

If most of the money spent by counties went on players then I would have very few complaints, even if I do think that a lot of the ancillary staff with a county senior team should be willing to do their jobs for very little money. After all, especially for young professionals starting out, such as physios, doctors, nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches and so on, there is no better chance of making a name for the future than being with a good county side.

But nothing beats winning and most people in a county, especially those outside of Cork, Kerry and Tyrone, would not mind their county board breaking the bank to win the All-Ireland. The really smart counties, of course, can have it both ways: they can win Sam and make money too.

Sunday Indo Sport