Tuesday 20 February 2018

Joe Brolly: We must not let GAA follow rugby down the elitist path to destruction

Season needs a dramatic restructuring to shift the focus back in favour of the club game

The National GAA Coaching plan is a total mess. The Super Games Centres make no sense whatsoever. They are drop-in centres for people curious about our games’. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
The National GAA Coaching plan is a total mess. The Super Games Centres make no sense whatsoever. They are drop-in centres for people curious about our games’. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

The new GAA director-general's first meeting around the conference table on Level 5 in Croke Park will be like the meeting of the heads of the five families in The Godfather. They take their seats, Don Corleone shakes his head sadly and says, "How did things ever get so bad?"

All around there is chaos. The disenchantment and frustration is summed up on social media. Trawl through it and you will see endless complaints about elitism, corporatisation, the deterioration of the club game, and so on. The new DG must be courageous enough to admit the problem. This way, he will earn the support of the grassroots, county players, county boards, and most of the membership. Then, he can fix it. The core problem is elitism. The other problems revolve around this.

Rugby provides a useful comparison. Trevor Ringland, the legendary Irish rugby international, has been warning the GAA for over a decade not to follow rugby over the cliff. Ringland, a renowned lawyer, describes how the game has become an elite spectator sport, where participation and community spirit has collapsed, and commercialism is rampant.

The basic model for rugby now is that the clubs and schools are feeders for the provinces. The job of the paid coaches is to cream off the best players and get them into development squads, run by Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht. Once they are in these elite 'academies', they are segregated from their clubs, never to return. The point of the game is no longer participation or community, but to sift through youngsters at an early stage in order to feed the elite teams.

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As this process has unfolded, club rugby has disintegrated. Spectators no longer go to the club games because the best players are in the academies, training six days a week, surrounded by paid sports scientists, nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches and sports psychologists. They are no longer playing a game they loved with their friends, leading a balanced life and helping to sustain their communities. They are merely commodities, part of a ruthless, heavily commercialised industry that is interested only in winning. Sound familiar?

Soon, clubs that once had ten senior teams of amateur players, enjoying the game and helping out at the club, dwindled to one team of semi-pros. The game is now an elite spectator sport. The process has been well documented. Volunteers became disenchanted, realising that what they loved and worked for had disappeared forever into the Sky Sports portfolio. They quit in their thousands and rugby simply became a recruiting system for the elite teams. Journalist Cahair O'Kane's description last week of the decline so eloquently described by Ringland and others is inimitable:

"Don't let the window dressing fool you. The top end of inter-county football is in rude health. Just as the top end of rugby is in rude health. But no amount of Grand Slams or even World Cups for an Ireland team packed with foreign-born stars can hide the corpse of club rugby."

The elitism that is destroying the game (ruining the work-life balance for our young men, marginalising the club game, paving the way for full-time paid county managers, etc, causing participation to drop by 75 per cent between the ages of 19 and 25, bankrupting the county boards, justifying the GPA's demands for €2.9m per annum, etc) can be fixed. As Professor Jack Anderson has been writing for some time, the starting point must be fixtures. The guiding principle must be that the club is paramount.

For county players, like provincial rugby players, the club is increasingly irrelevant. This process is already entrenched. There were eyebrows raised all over the country when Donie Vaughan (below) transferred recently from his boyhood club Ballinrobe to Castlebar, 20 minutes down the road. Ballinrobe had just been relegated to Division Two. It is incredible for someone of my generation, but for the current county player why should it be a big deal? He only played a few games a year for Ballinrobe anyway. It is a good example of the new culture of elitism.

DV.jpg
Donal Vaughan

At the turn of the millennium, Seán McCague, a great GAA president, said that the way things were going we might need to consider axing the inter-county game altogether and allow the club champions to go forward to represent the counties. Pat Gilroy's idea - rejected by the hierarchy when he applied to be DG last time round - was to shorten the inter-county season dramatically and cure elitism by creating a master fixture programme that guaranteed that our young men were club players first and county second. His plan was to create a relationship between club and county like the relationship between professional soccer clubs and national teams.

Players would be released by their clubs for league games (the league could be run off over two months, with no semi-finals or finals), then there would be a two-month festival of county football in the summer like the World Cup, with each county playing in a tier that gave them a realistic prospect of competing. The county season would that way be around four months all in, which is more than enough. Former president Seán Kelly, Jimmy McGuinness, Professor Anderson and many others have presented similar, logical solutions to the problem.

For a decade, I have advocated this. Get rid of the subsidiary competitions. They are a nonsense. Dublin don't even field anymore, putting out a squad of unknowns with a stand-in manager. They bore the players terribly. They take up the whole of January and February. That's two months subtracted from the season already. Reduce the county season to four months from start to finish. The provincial championships, if they are to be retained, can be run off in four weeks, or even less with midweek games. They'd be our FA Cup. More games, less training. Then a two-month tiered league and championship with each team competing at a realistic level, with the ability to move up and down through the tiers.

This would leave a full club season, where players would be required by rule to play with their clubs, with a two-month break for the summer inter-county championship during which time county players would be exclusively with their counties.

The effect of this would be benign and enormous. It would immediately reverse the balance. Kevin McStay articulated the extreme financial plight of Roscommon GAA just before Christmas. He said it was costing them €15,000 a week over a nine-month season (all counties save for Dublin and a few others start in November) just to stay afloat. Twelve of their panel - like most rural teams - were travelling from Dublin. I was at an event in November and Colm O'Neill was there. When it ended, he was wearily setting off to Cork for county training. Four times a week in November?

The average senior training session, with the accompanying professional sports industry, costs around €4,000. The spending and income figures set out last week by Colm Keys in the Irish Independent illustrate how many counties are now on the verge of bankruptcy. This in turn puts a huge financial strain on the clubs, since they help to bail out the counties with expensive levies. With this new system, a nine-month season would be reduced to four. County boards could go back to their primary task of ensuring the GAA community in their county is in rude health. As it is, they have become fundraisers for the county team and ciphers for the senior team manager.

Development squads should also be abolished. They put kids onto an elite conveyor belt at a young age, begin the process of downgrading the importance of the clubs, and as they have become increasingly professional, are simply putting too many demands on our young men.

I wrote recently about what is happening with the elite Tyrone academy, where players are routinely required to train and play up to four times a week. It is the same everywhere. The net effect is that the club is seen as something second rate, something for the kids who are not good enough. It is the opposite of what the GAA is supposed to be.

Another key element of this is that coaching should revolve around the clubs. The Dublin County Board model, which has operated over the last decade, means that a coach is attached to a school, linked to a local club. So, the coach works Tuesday to Friday in the school, then on Saturday morning he is at the club when the kids arrive. Dublin's great success has come from great coaching at the clubs. The National GAA Coaching plan is, on the other hand, a total mess. The Super Games Centres make no sense whatsoever. They are drop-in centres for people curious about our games. An independent review of the national coaching strategy has been completed and sent to Croke Park. I understand it absolutely savages that strategy. For the moment, in true GAA fashion, it has been mothballed. After all, Sky are backing those super games centres and the hierarchy are as critical of Rupert Murdoch as a North Korean TV host is of Kim Jong-Un.

The whole point of the GAA is the club and community spirit. The county game is merely the icing on the cake. Because we have neglected these core principles over the last 20 years, we are now on precisely the same elitist path to destruction that rugby has completed.

Don't take my word for it. Ask Trevor Ringland.

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