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Doing nothing is not an option as vanishing clubs reflect growing malaise

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'The problems are not just GAA problems; entire communities and their everyday lives are being affected in so many ways, and not just from a sporting point of view.' Stock photo: Sportsfile

'The problems are not just GAA problems; entire communities and their everyday lives are being affected in so many ways, and not just from a sporting point of view.' Stock photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

'The problems are not just GAA problems; entire communities and their everyday lives are being affected in so many ways, and not just from a sporting point of view.' Stock photo: Sportsfile

There are 20 fewer GAA clubs in Leinster, outside of Dublin, than there were 40 years ago, despite a massive population increase in the province over the same period.

Furthermore, it is anticipated that as the population in Leinster counties continues to rise sharply over the next decade, as many as 30 more clubs could become extinct or be forced to amalgamate with another to survive.

These are among the key findings contained in a recent report to the Leinster Council which was commissioned by then chairman John Horan, now the GAA's president-elect. Horan set up a working group to look at issues affecting rural clubs in the province. In the end, however, the findings went beyond that after it became obvious that the urbanisation of Ireland is bringing with it a new set of problems the GAA must also face up to.

In his introduction to the findings, the group's chairperson Syl Merrins notes that they "cannot look at either the rural or urban in isolation - both are interlinked, to varying degrees, in each county".

Between 2002 and 2016, the population in Leinster increased by just over 525,000. There is no sign either that this eastward migration will slow down. Indeed, over the next 15 years, it is projected that it will increase by the same number again, meaning there could be something close to 3.25 million people living in the province by 2031.

And yet some alarming patterns are emerging which will be of huge concern to the GAA. The impact of rural depopulation on communities became a talking point at Congress last weekend and it was also dealt with in Páraic Duffy's annual report. To these communities the difficulties in having too many people as opposed to too few may seem like a 'first-world problem', but this report makes it clear it is a problem the GAA cannot afford to ignore.

For instance, on top of the decline in the number of clubs, the 11 county boards outside of Dublin each insisted that, in their view, there is no realistic chance of a new club being formed in the next 10-15 years. This is a staggering admission, given that it will lead to a net loss of around 50 clubs despite the massive population increase. In this regard, the work-group pulls no punches: "The reality is that we have been, and continue to be, the biggest sporting organisation in the country and perhaps because of this we have become complacent. Continued complacency will be detrimental to our association."

Some more statistics in the report point strongly to what Merrins describes in his introduction as "an urgent need to focus on the grassroots of our association". And they also give added credence to the debate on the future of clubs that raged in the days leading up to and following Congress. It makes clear that despite all that happened last weekend, coping with the problems that clubs face, both rural and urban, is a far bigger challenge for the GAA.

Over half (55 per cent) of the country's entire population now lives in Leinster and yet there were 144 fewer teams registered in the province last year compared to 2010, while in some counties up to 40 per cent of second teams in clubs failed to complete their fixtures programme.

One particular observation stands out: "There is an urgent need for resources to be put in place to help the grassroots of the association. Many club volunteers are tired and lack motivation, many club volunteers are engrossed in ensuring that the financial needs of their clubs are met, instead of being able to focus on the primary purpose of the club."

The idea that there is a tiredness in clubs and among volunteers is not a new one, but that the largest of the provincial councils is drawing attention to it in such a strong manner should give pause for thought. This is what is at the heart of the growing disconnect between the top tier of the GAA - the inter-county game - and the clubs. The goodwill and integrity of the army of volunteers who keep the show on the road is being tested not just by the conditions they find themselves operating in but by the fact that they are starting to feel as if they are almost part of a separate organisation from the one they see on television during the summer.

Add to that the frustration of players at club level and you get a picture of an unease that has been simmering below the surface but is now starting to boil over.

For the Leinster Council to show bravery and leadership by publishing this report, warts and all, is commendable. The problem is too big for one unit of the association to attempt to deal with on its own - a point acknowledged in the report - but there needs to be a willingness to act. Going by Duffy's annual report, and by what he and others said at Congress last weekend, there is an acceptance that action is needed.

The problems are not just GAA problems; entire communities and their everyday lives are being affected in so many ways, and not just from a sporting point of view. There are issues around poor services or a lack of services, a lack of employment opportunities and even around education.

The GAA is arguably the one organisation best placed to bring others together and show leadership in tackling this problem. Doing nothing is not an option.

Sunday Indo Sport