Monday 23 September 2019

GAA begrudgers should lay off aussie hopefuls

Eugene McGee

Where would the diehard GAA true blues be without the Aussies in recent years? Australian Rules football has been a godsend for every begrudger in the land who believes that only Gaelic football shines, and that other forms of sport are a distraction and annoyance.

There are two obvious signs of this: the animosity towards the compromise rules games between Ireland and Australia, and the furore that has developed over the possible involvement of young Gaelic footballers with Aussie Rules.

It is the latter that most interests me just now, because the levels of hypocrisy in the comments on this development are truly amazing. The anonymous heroes who frequent chat rooms on the internet seem to have an insatiable hunger for casting all sorts of aspersions on some of these young men who are willing to give the AFL experiment a go, but more importantly, lots of leading GAA people are also indulging in the same type of player-bashing.

They are, of course, an easy target and, as is typical of GAA arguments, emotion is one of the main planks. We are told that these are the lads who were reared in football by the hard-working clubs; they nurtured them, coached them and now look at the 'ungratefuls' walking off and leaving the clubs in the lurch in the pursuit of 'filthy lucre' on foreign fields.

Maybe it is time to insert a bit of perspective here. Let's start with the fact that in the GAA all players are amateur. So as amateurs, the GAA itself has no control over the decision of any player as regards their choice of sport. The overwhelming majority of young players involved in the GAA remain exclusively Gaelic players. So, as president Nickey Brennan has repeatedly pointed out, the players are free agents and the GAA has no power to change that.

What amuses me is the focus on these particular young men who wish to leave the GAA and try out AFL, because for donkey's years the same thing has been going on in connection with other sports without a murmur from the critics of the present day.

Hundreds of players have left the GAA to play soccer in the UK over the years and half a dozen members of the current Republic of Ireland soccer team have GAA origins. But not a word of dissent is uttered about that.

Recently, an outstanding young player, Cillian Sheridan from Bailieborough in Cavan, went off to play for Glasgow Celtic but there was no outcry in the Breffni county. Local GAA people wished him well and regarded his decision as a major achievement in a county that has tended to have less soccer-playing involvement than any of the 32 counties.

On Saturday, Tomas O'Leary played for Ireland against the All Blacks, having captained Cork minor hurlers to All-Ireland success in 2001. Not a quibble to be heard about that. And hundreds of former GAA players have switched to rugby at all levels since 'The Ban' was abolished in 1971.

When Kevin Moran left the Dublin team for Manchester United at the height of his GAA power in '78, Dublin were going for a three-in-a-row that they did not get, but I don't recall the slightest dissension from Dubs fans. And in Derry former All Star Gerry McElhinney and former All-Ireland colleges finalist Martin O'Neill became folk heroes at soccer without any whinging from GAA people.

All of these developments were seen as perfectly natural among the sporting populace throughout Ireland, even though of course there were some regrets at the loss of individual popular figures.

But for whatever reason, there is a nasty edge to some of the criticism of young men wishing to try out the AFL. It may be the organised process of agent-recruitment that some people are worried about the leakage of talent.

But even a cursory glance in any county over the past 20 years or so will show that far more leakage occurred to soccer, rugby, golf and, especially, to apathy. The fact that all these sports have proper fixture lists and a regular playing season was one of the critical factors in most of these 'transfers'.

Getting trials to Australia must be a marvellous opportunity for any young GAA player. They get excitement, the chance to play football for a living and are exposed to probably the best sports methodology in the world. Even if they fail to make the big time, as is the norm, these lads have had a great experience and they will still be young enough to have a GAA career.

Of course, they owe a lot of that opportunity from their underage Gaelic football experience and, from the comments of players involved, they do really appreciate that and are often reluctant to to down the AFL road. But for ambitious young footballers who have shown themselves to have great natural ability, having a go in Australia must be seen as success.

Emigration has been a way of life in Ireland and some of this country's most successful people have been in that category, temporary or otherwise. Why should young Gaelic footballers -- almost all of whom will return to Ireland -- be any different? Most GAA people I know, at least, appreciate that and wish these young adventurers well.

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