Counting the cost of survival
Emigration has left many clubs without enough adult players, writes Damian Lawlor
TWO years ago Valentia GAA club submitted a motion to Kerry Congress which looked more like a plea for help than anything else.
The motion was simple in its wording, but its sheer candour caught the eye. It proposed that: 'The county board help small rural clubs to survive in these challenging economic times'. Survival. It's that stark out there.
"Existing is the only thing we're concentrating on now," says Valentia chairman John O'Sullivan. "There is talk of things picking up in Ireland -- well they are not picking up down here."
Kerry County Board chairman Patrick O'Sullivan sees little sign of things changing any time soon in the county.
"Out of all the counties on the western seaboard, Mayo and ourselves are the worst hit," he says. "We don't even have that much opportunity to go to Cork to find work because they've been hit too. Unless the IDA and Government come down and help us to stimulate some job creation, we will leak young people like there is no tomorrow.
"We are already trying to keep some of our county players at home; we're looking for a teaching job for one player and trying to find something for one or two more. But if the jobs don't come, we'll lose a generation and we needn't be thinking of winning an All-Ireland for ten years."
For any Kerry man or woman that's a bitter analysis to digest at the start of a new year.
John O'Sullivan feels the issues of unemployment, rural depopulation and emigration could potentially create more havoc than simply affect the Kingdom's chances of winning trophies. He has been banging a drum for the plight of clubs for years.
He's not looking for sympathy and points out that the people of Valentia are very resilient. They are being sorely tested, though -- in 2005 they won the South Kerry championship with a panel of 25, but last year they only had 14 adult footballers on their books. At under 14, 16 and minor level they join forces with Skellig Rangers but they want to hang on to their own identity at adult level for as long as possible.
With this in mind they submitted a proposal looking for 13-a-side games to be brought into effect two years ago, but the motion got nowhere.
Just before Christmas, however, another Kerry club, Tuosist, submitted the same motion and Valentia supported it. This time around the Kerry board indicated they may facilitate teams in Division 5 of their football league exploring the 13-a-side option.
Last year Tuosist were relegated to Division 5 after pulling out of Division 4 with three rounds left. Like Valentia, they know they are in for a struggle over the next couple of years.
"The relevant clubs will have to meet, see what they have at hand, and through communication with us and the teams they play against they could have the option of playing 13-a-side," confirmed Patrick O'Sullivan.
Further talks will be held in the coming weeks between the relevant parties but once again Kerry, who have done more than most counties to try and cope with ever-declining numbers, have led the way. With clubs all over Ireland struggling to field teams, it's only a matter of time before the concept of 13-a-side football becomes a hot topic.
"It's a huge step," Valentia's O'Sullivan says. "It may be only two players but to us that's massive. We feel this could be the start of something. The aim would be to get the 13-a-side motion in front of GAA Congress in the near future to help clubs like us. Maybe even next year.
"We have 17 players and we're just waiting to see if we lose one or two to the US this summer. It's tight enough but at least we have an option after years of fretting. Just let us compete and there will be no surrender from us."
The club chairman, however, also makes the point that the new black card ruling has inflicted further pressure on them.
"We were the first club around these parts to be really hit by numbers and we have been scraping teams together and barely getting by. Now there's the black card to contend with. Don't get me wrong, it's a good rule and it will stop cynical play, but what do we do? How are we going to go to north Kerry to play a game and cope if we don't have a panel of 16 or 17? You must have a panel and that's where we're caught."
At least the Kerry board can see that exploring the 13-a-side option for struggling clubs is a meaningful way of extending an arm of support. Clubs in Meath were less fortunate last week.
Despite a huge population influx over the last 15 years, there are still some clubs in Meath struggling to stitch adult teams together. Last week, at the county board's reconvened convention, one club submitted a motion to allow teams in the bottom division to seek permission to play 13-a-side league games when there is a difficulty fielding. The club was removed from the league last year after twice failing to field a team and so fell foul of the county's two strikes and you're out rule. Had the 13-a-side option been available the club says it would have fulfilled its fixtures in 2013. However, the proposal was shot down.
Some of the figures which have emerged from counties paint a pretty stark picture. Roscommon have lost 105 players in the last 18 months while almost 900 GAA players have left Clare and Limerick since 2008.
Fermanagh, with just 22 clubs, have serially managed to punch above their weight in Gaelic football, especially over the past decade, but they have seen 74 players transfer to clubs outside of the county in the past two years.
Tipperary, another county with big numbers to draw from, is also hit badly. A recent survey by the board revealed that 639 players from 72 clubs had left the county since July 2008 with only 40 per cent continuing to play abroad.
The hardest hit was the Cappawhite club in west Tipperary which lost 36 players with none returning.
In counties like Tipperary, especially in scenic areas like the Glen of Aherlow, planning permission processes are extremely complicated and have not helped stem the mass exodus of young players. Thus they are forced to move into towns, meaning that the GAA, a rural-based organisation, must now reassess the path forward at ground level.
This will surely mean bringing 13-a-side games into effect across the country over the next three to four years.
Relaxing the parish rule is another option. This rule demands that a player owes allegiance and loyalty to his home club and county. However, the problem with the 'principle of the parish' is that it is not in force across the board, which is a glaring weakness. Furthermore, where a club refuses to allow someone living in their parish to play with another club it can now be brought before the county board for adjudication.
As rural depopulation continues to grip the country, the rule needs to be looked at again. There's no problem with a player switching from a rural club to play for an urban club where he has a better chance of getting a job, or house, but there is absolutely no flow in the opposite direction. Flexibility is needed in some shape or form.
Perhaps here the GAA should immediately look to the Ladies Gaelic Football Association which has a novel solution to this problem. The LGFA also operates, strictly, the parish rule but there is also a rule which allows a player to play for another club if her own club cannot field in a particular year. Her original club retains her registration, so she essentially goes on loan to the other club until such time as her own club can field. This applies in all ages up to adult football and should be seriously considered by the GAA.
Amalgamation will continue to be a way of life, meanwhile, though many club leaders -- and top Croke Park officials themselves -- are wary of going down that road. John O'Sullivan says that it will be a last resort for Valentia.
"We will strive to keep our identity for as long as we possibly can. It's what defines us. It's what makes this ongoing struggle worthwhile."
GAA president Liam O'Neill has already warned clubs to be careful when they join forces. O'Neill, who established a rural communities group chaired by former GAA president Joe McDonagh, says he would like to see clubs hang on in there as long as possible and drive forward when the economic downturn ends.
"I'd counsel on amalgamations. I'd prefer to see it done from a position of relative strength rather than two clubs coming together because they both feel they're weak. The danger there is that the new club might be weak too," he said.
"I'd like to see clubs work their way through the current tough situation as best they can. Being there for the local community is very important at a time like this."
There's another issue that needs to be urgently looked at. For a large chunk of the summer, hundreds of club players are denied meaningful game time because inter-county managers and county boards suspend championship games for weeks at a time or, in Donegal's case, until the county team is out of the race for Sam Maguire. This has to stop.
There are 2,250 clubs affiliated to the GAA, and the least each of them deserves is to hang on to their own identity. In many cases, however, that is just not feasible anymore.