Wednesday 21 February 2018

Proposal to create a private club for big counties will do little for 'lifeblood' of GAA

‘The three years of the Super Eight trial will become permanent’ (Stock picture)
‘The three years of the Super Eight trial will become permanent’ (Stock picture)

Joe Brolly

It is no surprise that Aogán 'lifeblood of the Association' Ó Fearghail has rejected the lifeblood of the Association's request to address Congress this weekend.

The Club Players' Association (CPA) had asked him to exercise his power under Rule 3.35 to allow them to make a submission to Congress.

But that won't happen - even though Aogán is the country's most fervent supporter of the lifeblood.

What ordinary GAA folk fail to understand is that being the lifeblood is a somewhat rhetorical matter. A bit like Donald Trump telling Americans he is the president of the underprivileged.

Words do not matter. Only sentiments.

In the press release of September 24, 2013 announcing his bid for presidency, Aogán said: "I will continue to work to ensure that the fabric of the club, uniquely defined by its local community, remains at the heart of the GAA.

"The most important aspect of the GAA is the actual playing of the games and the proper planning of fixtures is most essential."

All the buzzwords are there: Heart. Unique. Fabric.

In February 2014, in an interview with Martin Breheny of the Irish Independent on the eve of his election, Aogán stressed the plight of the club players and said he would "establish a small work group to devise a template and bring clarity to our fixtures schedule... to ensure a sufficient games programme is laid out for club players throughout the summer and insist the schedules as published and agreed are adhered to."

His slogan was "the presidency of the clubs".

Always wiser to say these things on the eve of an election, like promising full employment or an end to hunger.

And please don't embarrass yourself by asking how he's getting on with that sufficient games programme for clubs players.

Two years on, in February 2016, on the eve of yet another Congress, Aogán told RTÉ Sport: "We need to create more space for our clubs and our club players, particularly that they have a clear and defined season and a clear and defined playing programme.

"I never made any apologies for saying that the club is the most important part of the Association and it is now time to be true to our words. It isn't enough to just say that the club is the cornerstone, let's act upon it."

This is a textbook example of double rhetoric.

First, you promise something that's never going to happen.

Then, you make no apologies for promising it.

It's easy to misrepresent the meaning of his phrase "let's act upon it". An ordinary person might interpret this as meaning that the GAA hierarchy intends to act to restore the balance in favour of the clubs.

But as any GAA insider will tell you, that is not what the Uachtarán meant at all.

When the Rose of Tralee says she wants world peace she doesn't mean it literally, for God's sake.

So when Aogán says that a 'Super Eight' competition is a boost for the lifeblood, it's not to be interpreted in a literal sense.

(The Super Eight is a proposal to create an elite mini-league of the top eight football counties in the country, who would compete only against each in two groups of four from the quarter-final stage. This will have the effect of prolonging the season and propelling this section of the competition in order of importance.)

According to the GAA hierarchy, the 'Super Eight' is part of a package that will help to restore the balance in favour of the clubs.

Rational thinkers say it will be great for the strong, detach the weak and compound the disenchantment of the clubs.

The hierarchy is selling it on the basis that "it is only a trial".

But during that three-year trial, it will become entrenched.

Sponsorship and funding will increase around it and on the basis that the more we earn the more we spend, we will quickly become dependent on the new money.

An example: Sky was supposed to be a trial. On any principled view, it has been a disaster, both in its popularity and in its cementing of the idea that the games are little more than a product to be sold to the highest bidder.

While almost one million viewers (976,000) tuned in to watch RTÉ on All-Ireland football final day 2016, just over 4,000 tuned in to Sky.

The fact that the lifeblood of the Association hate it is neither here nor there. The fact that vast numbers of the lifeblood are prevented from seeing big games because they cannot afford to is dismissed.

As Liam O'Neill, the last president, put it, elderly people in rural areas can surely find a neighbour with Sky.

So, the trial period has been extended. For another five years.

For the same reasons, the three years of the 'Super Eight' will become permanent. A private club for the big counties.

A commercial juggernaut.

It is a professional sport spectator-driven model that will rescue the ailing senior championship by concentrating on the top eight and leaving the rest of us behind.

But it will only deepen our problems.

It is a statement of the bleeding obvious that the GAA year needs to be looked at holistically.

Get rid of subsidiary competitions, sort out the universities/county clash, create a master fixture list, radically shorten the county season, introduce a tiered championship.

The primary aim has to be that players are club first and county second.

Or as Aogán likes to say, "put the clubs back at the heart of the GAA".

This proposal does none of these things. The CPA were told in their rejection letter that Aogán felt it was "improper for them to speak prior to the ballot".

One can only assume that because the CPA was intending to address Congress in a non-rhetorical way, this was a breach of standing order that could not be permitted.

Being called the lifeblood and being treated as the lifeblood is a distinction that only GAA insiders can truly understand.

Read Joe Brolly's column every week in the 'Sunday Independent'

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