Sunday 19 January 2020

Ewan MacKenna: 'You could set your watch by the annual whine - the GAA have no right to begrudge AFL dreams'

Cathal McShane is the latest high-profile Gaelic footballer who is ready to try his hand in the AFL. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Cathal McShane is the latest high-profile Gaelic footballer who is ready to try his hand in the AFL. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

Some required reading before we go any further.

Part 1: The Dream

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Perhaps it was Tadhg Kennelly that exemplified it best.

It wasn't so much the Premiership medal with the Sydney Swans or the salary he earned. Instead it was what went with all of that.

The house on Bondi Beach. The fact that once, having pulled a teammate's shorts down on a stage, he came home to see that he'd made the evening news.

Tadhg Kennelly spent 10 years playing Aussie Rules before coming back to a job with the Kerry County Board. SPORTSFILE

The notion that before she married Lleyton Hewitt, having been seen at a party with the actress Rebecca Cartwright, he'd reached a status and stature where dating rumours seemed very plausible.

Indeed he told me once that the stuff that arrived in the post ranged from cup cakes to g-strings on the basis there were "a lot of freaks out there".

He may have been the rarity but that's a lot to wave in front of a footballer from Ireland.

Part 2: The Reality

For so long the Irish experiment in the AFL had and has been a failure to the point the above is the exception.

The rule? Homesickness that sees many fail to make it before they even get near the physical requirements of a game they've never really played before, and one that causes many Australian journalists to refer to Gaelic football as non-contact.

Then there's the mundane day-to-day in any pro sport, and for most there isn't the money to live a lifestyle that provides a counterweight.

You get there, you get your rent taken care of, an away-from-home allowance, and some cash for things like a toaster and a kettle.

It's why most quickly come back to club and county with an experience and a memory to share.

Paul Cribben in action for Kildare against Dublin's Peter O'Curry. Photo: Brian Lawless / Sportsfile

Part 3: The Bridge

Before he returned, Paul Cribben was quite open about what it took to be a Collingwood Magpie.

Having made the trans-planet journey, he was still fit enough to get off the plane and win the team's cross-country when they came back to training, but that was a beginning rather than any end.

Once in their facilities, downstairs there was the room where teammates were lifting 130 kilos as they put muscle on top of muscle, while upstairs was the altitude room that fabricated life at 3,000m as all that muscle learned to enhance oxygen intake.

Pearce Hanley during Ireland International Rules squad training at Wesley College, St Kilda Road Complex, Melbourne, Australia. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Part 4: The Reason

Pearce Hanley stayed the course to the point he's now a household name to those that know the sport. Over a decade and counting.

He may not have reached Kennelly's lifestyle but he did go through the loneliness and the brutality to get this far. What he left behind though? Before skipping Ballaghaderreen, he worked as a barman and waiter in Durkin's.

That to this? What young man would or could ever turn away from the chance?

To try and even bend their ear or to put pressure seems as unfair as it does pointless.

* * *

"I have given Cathal my views on what I thought in my heart and soul would be best for his career both on and off the field. The very simple answer to that is that I thought it would be best served by him being here. He has to take that on board and look at what may be on offer elsewhere. He has to make that final decision and I respect him for that."

Cathal McShane is 24 years of age. For the last while, aside from dedicating himself to Tyrone's cause to the point he joint top-scored in last summer's championship, he's been flogging cars to make a living. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just that it's not this.

Cathal McShane of Tyrone during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Round 2 match between Longford and Tyrone at Glennon Brothers Pearse Park in Longford. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Later this month he'll have a trial with the Adelaide Crows and, while that's something to be hugely proud of for many and any who helped in his development, he's instead become the latest piece of meat chucked into a debate that has never been worth having to begin with. Still it rages.

Mickey Harte may be one of the louder elements in the association when it comes to players going to Australia, but he's far from alone.

From wanting compensation, to wanting it to stop completely, there are various stakeholders who've no right to hold their attitude. Yet here we go again. You could set your watch by the annual whine and pseudo-panic.

Harte and others are correct in one assertion, if wrong in many others. The GAA's association with the AFL is baffling. It served little purpose beyond the fans once feeding their bloodlust, while a handful of others get a now-and-again junket from it.

Were it scrapped though, would the AFL's interest in Irish players really lessen much? Not likely.

The problem is that, as an organisation, the GAA is a muddle of vested and conflicting interests and, while often hypocritical and contradictory, it tries to claim one thing and then does the other. Such an attitude works for a while but eventually it causes you to trip over all the crossed wires.

Mickey Hartecould lose Cathal McShane to the AFL and players like Seán O’Shea could follow. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

That's what we are seeing here, for crucial to any AFL conversation is the GAA's amateur ethos, which is a ruse given what's expected of players.

In hiding behind that, it proves to be a serious money saver but the flipside and the downside comes when organisations abroad are willing to give players a genuine living. It's then the GAA can't expect sympathy.

Players in Ireland may not have dreamed of being a professional in Aussie rules, per se.

But how many kids in Ireland dreamed of being a professional sportsperson?

For all the benefits and openings many get from playing football and hurling here today, there will still only ever be a handful fortunate enough to make an actual full-time wage from their talent.

So why wouldn't the rest go if given the opportunity?

If they do, and if the GAA was serious about its pride-in-the-parish belief system, then there'd be a pride in those from the parish who have helped create someone like McShane.

Instead we get calls for a pay-off but how absurd is that when the GAA still claim this is no more than a hobby.

Can you imagine a local am-dram club looking for a cheque because one within its ranks makes the silver screen?

Can you imagine a local art society suggesting reimbursement because a painter there got exhibited in the Tate? In the same way would the GAA ever ask for money were it to lose a player due to office work commitments?

Besides, why should the AFL care for a far-away body that so often turns its back on the majority of its own?

Why should it care about waving money at GAA players when the GAA have trampled across those same players to grow income?

It shouldn't.

The GAA defends many of its decisions as it talks of itself as a business. It cannot complain then when someone else wants to engage in that very same business. Indeed by now, if anything, the association should count itself lucky more haven't left.

Not for the AFL though.

At the start of the last decade, the Cork side that won the All-Ireland looked more like a rugby league team in their style of play.

By the end of the decade, Dublin were dominating mostly thanks to an athleticism that was based around size, pace and fitness.

If Australia has shown anything, it's that these traits translate across sports, and with one pro game on this island, the real wonder and the real worry should be why rugby here hasn't yet capitalised to a serious extent.

The GAA doesn't know what it is right now, yet moans about those with a clear vision and with contracts to hand out.

If that continues then in the coming years a genuine exodus could happen from within.

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