Saturday 17 March 2018

Joe Brolly: Without our principles, we are nothing - and the GAA leadership needs to understand that

‘Development squads are counter-productive. John Horan (above) is right about this’
‘Development squads are counter-productive. John Horan (above) is right about this’

Joe Brolly

John Horan's various contributions at Congress last weekend suggest that he can be a useful ally for the next director general. It is important, though, that he articulate the deep-seated problems we face honestly.

To do that requires confidence, something that has been sorely lacking in our leaders since the heyday of Peter Quinn, when we were fearless, unafraid of criticism, and happy to change tack if we were getting things wrong. Otherwise, John Horan will be just another rhetorical president like his predecessor, reduced to telling us we are the "lifeblood of the association". Just another schoolteacher, irked by the slightest sign of disobedience from his undeserving pupils. So, it was a little worrying when he said at Congress, "Unfortunately there is criticism going on out there and I'm not going to engage with that whole area."

It is one thing for a thin-skinned president to refuse to engage with criticism and describe it as unfortunate, but if the new DG follows in the footsteps of his equally thin-skinned, school-teaching forebears, we are in trouble.

We have been drifting along for 20 years, and as any serious leader will tell you, drifting along is not a sustainable strategy. In the absence of a plan, the hierarchy has gotten itself into one unprincipled mess after another. One minute PPV is out of the question and will never happen, then it is entrenched for eight years. The Super 8 is another example of the chaos that prevails.

In 2016, Aogán Ó Fearghail made the following announcement: "We have taken a decision that we do not want any more inter-county games. Round-robin, or group stages, whether in provinces or outside, would increase the number of games so any proposal that includes them will not be looked at any further. We are simply not going to squeeze the clubs any more. On the contrary, we are trying to free up more time for them."

In January 2016, Paraic Duffy endorsed his president unequivocally. "Clearly, we cannot have a principle that says we want to protect the club game and then turn around and recommend a proposal that increases the number of championship games."

Paraic authored and presented the Super 8 proposal in October 2016, just ten months later, opening his U-turn with the phrase, "Whilst this proposed format would increase overall the number of games . . ." Let's estimate three months' thinking and writing time, which leaves a U-turn period of only six months, though it was probably less. Three months later, fellow amnesiac Aogán said at Congress: "These new-style quarter-final groups will provide members and supporters with the opportunity to see our best teams at venues around the country and a carnival of games when people want to see them most."

You really couldn't make it up.

Elitism is rampant, because there is no strategy to eliminate it. Kids as young as 13 are being brought into county development squads. County players no longer play for their clubs. The clubs are in open revolt. Things are so bad that a club players' association has been formed, a howl of rage that should have put the leadership into a state of high alert. Instead, the hierarchy has used the only option known to them: to pretend it doesn't exist, and hope that it might go away.

Sound familiar? Twenty years earlier, in the player welfare void caused by the GAA hoping for the best, the GPA, a private, commercial association, had to be formed to represent county players. The GAA initially hoped it would just go away. As their power increased, the GAA continued to hope it would go away. The results illustrate why hope and rhetoric are not widely used strategies.

The upshot is that we're paying the GPA €6.5m per annum and we have a highly commercial, self-interested body at the heart of the organisation, modelled on entirely professional lines.

A fortnight after the deal, when I asked Paraic Duffy if we could even afford that, he shook his head and said, "just about". County boards across the country are on the verge of penury, paying fortunes for county teams that have no possibility of winning anything. The Fermanagh vice-chairman said in The Irish News on Friday that if a tiered championship was introduced it would bankrupt the board. He said they were already at full stretch taking a county team through to June every year, and another month or two would finish them off. Large numbers of clubs are in debt, particularly in rural areas, where they are struggling to survive. The championship is a farce, pitting Leitrim against Mayo and Carlow against the Dubs.

Participation, the supposed core of the GAA, is declining drastically. The drop-out rate in Gaelic games is a national disgrace. In almost every sport, the 2013 ESRI study shows that if a player continues to play until he is 20, then he is highly likely to play on until he is in his 30s. Not in our games. In hurling and camogie, the drop-out rate is 60 per cent. In Gaelic football, it is almost 75 per cent (ESRI 2013). Think about that. In an association supposedly based on participation and social cohesion, 75 per cent of our young women and men quit in their prime, because there is no strategy. All of the above has been caused by the GAA not doing its job. If they were a corporation, the board would have been sacked years ago.

The core of the new DG's task is to preserve and enhance the social cohesion of the GAA. His or her strategy needs to focus on participation. Which means curbing elitism. Development squads are counter-productive. John Horan is right about this. They should be banned. Time enough to go to the county when it is time to play in the new under 17 grade. Instead, the focus should be on coaching the coaches.

On any rational view, the National Games and Development plan has been a disaster. We are haemorrhaging young players in spite of spending tens of millions on this over the last 20 years. We need to ditch this and start again. As I have repeatedly said, these drop-in centres sponsored by Sky, which embody the fantasy that kids who are not from GAA backgrounds will wander in and start playing our games, are a colossal waste of money.

We urgently need to start treating the ladies' games with respect and every effort should be made to unite the associations. An enormous advantage we have over any other sport is that our sons and daughters can play for the same club, on the same grounds, with the same advantages. It's time to stop treating our ladies as second-class citizens when it comes to the county game. The new DG would do well to invite the leaders of the ladies' games and people like Gemma Begley of Tyrone to Level 5 to help put together an inclusive strategy.

The GPA needs to be curbed, and curbed quickly. They are out of control, to the extent that they are taking over Gaelic games in the States for their own commercial ends. There is nothing to be afraid of. They are not Angela Merkel and the German government. If they are not dealt with, they will continue to destroy the GAA ethos from within. And without our ethos, we are nothing.

Symptomatic of the general chaos is the fact that we are the only sporting organisation in Ireland that is unable to create a sensible fixtures schedule. The solution here is simple: condense the county season into one mixed league/championship format competition lasting a maximum of four months, with perhaps a second provincial knockout competition run off alongside this, like the FA Cup. Once the season is four months, then the main competition can be tiered, with the weaker teams afforded exactly the same respect and privileges of the stronger ones. So, the Páidí ó Sé final should be played at Croke Park before the Sam Maguire, and if the Dubs get €100,000 from the GAA for a holiday, so too should Derry when we win the ó Sé Cup.

Crucially, our governance needs to be radically reformed. Congress doesn't work. There are thousands of high-capacity GAA volunteers all over the country who are prepared to devote four or five hours a week to the cause. My own club St Brigid's is a good example of this. We are midway through our second 10-year plan and the club community is flourishing, on and off the field. The new DG should gather an unofficial board around him or her from the highest places in Irish life to guide and advise him or her.

Our principles are important, not rhetorical devices. They set the example for us and give us a path to follow. Banning gambling sponsorship was a great first step, but we need to comprehensively review all of our commercial activity and ensure it accords with our core principles and the needs of our members. The television rights is a massive issue that is causing widespread disenchantment. Money has been prioritised over the GAA heartlands. I was in Doohamlet a fortnight ago to present medals to their juveniles and give a talk on organ donation. They are a superb, cohesive, tiny club in Monaghan. Having a pint with the club chairman afterwards, he told me that "the elderly people in the club ask whether such and such a game is on the poor man's telly". Meaning RTé, where they can watch it. The Monaghan chairman was at the same event and I was stunned when he supported the Sky deal on the basis that it "allows people in the States and all over Europe to watch our games". When I pointed out it only applied to the UK, he was taken aback.

The viewing figures from the first weekend of this year's National League make the point. Eir's Saturday night coverage of the Tipp v Waterford hurling game attracted 3,300 viewers, a 0.28 per cent audience share. Their coverage of the big football game between Dublin and Tyrone was watched by 2,200 viewers, a 0.36 per cent share. The very next day, TG4's coverage of Cork v Kilkenny took 282,000 viewers, and the deferred football game between Donegal and Kerry had an audience of 246,000. The TG4 highlights package on the Monday night of the eir games from the Saturday had an audience of 93,000, 88,000 more than the live audience. Is this principled? Should our members be able to see the games through the two national broadcasters (or TV3, BBC etc), or should we take the satellite giants' money and allow only a tiny minority to watch them?

A final comment on our leadership vacuum: The largest, most important social and sporting organisation in the country does not have a single lobbyist in the Dáil.

Aogán Ó Fearghail said last week in his final address that he had achieved everything he wanted to achieve as president, the various deals and changes made during his tenure were working perfectly, the association has never been in better health, and aren't the mammies and daddies great. In fairness to Aogán, he has never allowed the facts to get in the way of a pleasant fantasy.

Time for some critical thinking. Fantasies are a luxury we can no longer afford.

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