Saturday 23 November 2019

Clubs can do little to stop loss of players

John Greene

The exodus from Ireland is really starting to hurt the country's sporting organisations. Clubs are suffering.

The latest figures from the Central Statistics Office show that in the 12 months to April 2012, 76,400 people left these shores -- that's 209 people a day, and it represents an increase of almost 17 per cent on the previous 12 months. And there is no sign that this rate of emigration has slowed down since April.

Of those who left, 40,200 -- or 53 per cent -- were Irish nationals, and twice as many men as women have departed.

Even more startling, most of the men who have left are aged between 15 and 24, while the total number of people in that age bracket to have emigrated in that 12-month period is 33,100, almost half of the total.

Given these figures, it's easy to see that clubs in all sports are feeling the strain. The GAA, IRFU, FAI have all been hit, while golf club membership is down, racing attendances are down, and so on.

GAA clubs stand out, not just because of the association's penetration into rural Ireland where emigration bites hardest, but also because information which gives a sense of the impact is more readily available. There are GAA clubs all over the world and this makes it easier to track its members because they need transfers to play with a team when they reach their new home in the UK and Europe, America, Australia, Canada, the Middle East or Asia.

Donegal and Mayo are two counties which have always suffered more than most from emigration and there was a timely reminder of this fact just last week when Páraic Duffy, the GAA's director-general, said there has been a huge demand from abroad for tickets to next Sunday's All-Ireland final. One club in western Australia, the Southern Districts in Perth, has 10 players from Mayo in its ranks. It is a club which is now thriving, having enough players in training to field two teams. One of those is Trevor Howley, who played for Mayo in last year's championship.

"The last four years has seen them [the club] come from not having goalposts, footballs, no management team and only seven or eight lads at training and getting well beaten in most games, to having two floodlit, all-weather pitches in Perth, 35 to 45 players training twice a week," Howley told The Mayo News recently.

In Down, 104 players have transferred from their clubs in the last seven months. All but one of those were to clubs overseas, and almost one-third of those were to Australia.

A survey in the Roscommon Herald last week found that 105 male footballers have left the county in the last 12 months. The survey also found a pattern to the emigration which can wreak havoc on rural clubs in particular. At first a small number of people from a parish, two or three perhaps, will emigrate, get work in a new city and establish a base, and soon after a larger group will follow. The paper highlighted one GAA club in the county, Pádraig Pearses, which has lost 17 footballers and hurlers.

The mass exodus affects all sports. The Roscommon Herald also reported that the Roscommon and District League has lost five teams this year.

One of the country's strongest junior leagues is the MDL (Meath and District League) and its secretary Gerry Gorman recently told a local newspaper that there are "challenging times" ahead for clubs.

"We're down about 12 or 14 teams from last year as a few have dropped out although we also have a few new teams taking part this season," Gorman told the Meath Chronicle. "For a lot of clubs and for the league this will be a season about consolidating rather than anything else. Clubs have suffered mainly because of the emigration and the economic climate."

GAA president Liam O'Neill (pictured) has spoken out on the hurt emigration is causing to the association. Earlier this year, before taking up office, he said: "We're facing a player crisis that we've never faced before. Nobody ever envisaged we'd be in a situation like we are where places like south Kerry are short of players and I'm not sure if the organisation understands the gravity of the situation."

Behind the hard numbers, there is the anecdotal evidence, the stories of clubs on the verge of extinction; ranging from the extreme of not having enough members to keep the show on the road, to not having enough adults to be able to field teams in competition, to having fewer volunteers available to put their shoulders to the wheel.

And the worst of it all is that there is very little clubs can do to stop it. At the moment, emigration is not -- as one minister said -- a lifestyle choice; for many it is the only choice.

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