THE GAA will run the risk of bankruptcy unless it brings costs under control in line with the dramatically altered economic circumstances currently prevailing in Ireland.
The stark warning comes from former Dublin and Offaly football manager Tommy Lyons, after it emerged that over €19m was spent on preparing inter-county teams in 2010. That's an average of about €2.1m for the each of the nine months of inter-county activity from January to September.
While it's down by 3.7pc on 2009, Lyons said he was astonished that the decrease had been so insignificant and believes that unless a fundamental reappraisal of GAA finances is undertaken, there's a risk that county boards will default on debt, leaving Croke Park to deal with the mess.
He would favour the introduction of a cap on spending on team costs and a more active role being taken by the central authorities in the financial running of counties.
"Christy Cooney should devote the final year of his presidency to addressing this issue," Lyons said.
"Everybody is in for a tough time over the next five years and the GAA won't be immune from it. The danger is that if counties keep spending at the current rate, huge debts will be run up, which will land on Croke Park's doorstep. If team costs aren't curbed, they'll end up bankrupting the GAA.
"There's plenty of talk about how much managers are costing, but even in counties where they are being paid, it's Mickey Mouse money by comparison with overall costs," he added.
An analysis of team expenditure for 2010 showed that the top four spending counties -- Cork, Tipperary, Dublin, Kerry -- all exceeded the €1m mark, while the total outlay for the top 10 was over €9.4m. Cork were the biggest spenders with €1.57m, followed by Tipperary with €1.24m.
Leitrim came in cheapest at €291,000, which was £14,000 less than neighbours Sligo, who were the next lowest spenders. "I couldn't believe the figures in Colm Keys' article in last Saturday's Irish Independent," Lyons went on. "The scale of the costs is way out of line with the reality of what's happening in Ireland right now.
"Do teams need such big entourages as back-up? Who's to say that they wouldn't be just as good with fewer people around them? Are counties getting value for money?
"In my view, there needs to be a radical review of the costs for teams and, indeed, other areas of GAA expenditure. We all saw what happened when the banks weren't regulated. When the crash came, it was quick and severe. We don't want something similar to happen in the GAA."
Pointing out that a few counties ran into serious financial difficulties during the boom economic years, he said it was illogical to assume that financial problems weren't bubbling just below the surface of many county board accounts.
Fund-raising returns are down by an average of 50pc since the peak years; counties are finding it more difficult to attract sponsors and, when they do, the deal is worth considerably less than previously; gate returns have dropped and will suffer another dip this year in line with reduced admission prices.
Also, the slump in the building industry has been bad for the GAA as developers were a prime source of funds, both for county and club teams.
The climate has changed dramatically and is likely to become even colder over the next few years.
Said Lyons: "Attendances will hold up because people love watching the games, but reduced admission prices -- and the GAA were right to cut them -- mean less income. When you look at team costs for last year, you wonder if there's any recognition that we're living through different times."
County boards are independent republics in terms of their financial affairs and while Croke Park can sound warning bells on general spending trends, they are not empowered to issue binding protocols. However, if a county -- or indeed a club -- runs into serious financial problems, it becomes an issue for Croke Park.
"What if five or six counties defaulted at the same time with large debts? Then it becomes a problem for Croke Park. It could hit quite suddenly too, as we saw with the bank crisis.
"The GAA did a great job in redeveloping Croke Park and in paying off the debt so quickly, but all the good could be undone very quickly if a number of counties run into serious financial difficulties.
"The GAA doesn't have a bottomless pit of money to raid if counties over-stretch themselves. And even if it did, would it be fair that counties who didn't run their affairs properly were bailed out at the expense of their more prudent neighbours?"
He believes that structures should be put in place so that county boards are answerable to Croke Park for all their major spending. This would be accompanied by a cap on training expenditure.
"We keep hearing about issues like whether a training ban should apply in November-December and the impact of emigration on the GAA, but little is being said about how costs are continuing to spiral to unsustainable levels. They'll bankrupt the GAA if they continue.
"The growth in emigration is sad for the people who are forced to leave and is bad for the GAA, but the strange thing is that, in times of recession, those who remain at home tend to put in more of an effort for their clubs.
"But if clubs and counties are to remain viable, a more realistic approach has to apply to expenditure. I believe it's a serious issue which should be tackled immediately by Croke Park."
Pointing to the IRFU experience for last autumn's international series when they failed to fill the redeveloped Lansdowne Road for any of the games, he said it was a clear example of the changed times.
"Nobody thought that would happen, but it did. We're in a new world and the GAA needs to be as mindful of that as everybody else. The costs for training teams last year suggest that this is not the case," said Lyons.