Sunday 19 November 2017

Fennell verdict should raise alarm bells in smaller clubs

Dublin bottled their chance to make a stand on inter-club transfers, says Dermot Crowe

Dermot Crowe

T HE Eamonn Fennell transfer marathon wound to a close at a Dublin County Board meeting on Tuesday night last and while O'Tooles, his club since the age of six, eventually conceded, their resistance was not a worthless or pointless crusade.

Through a highly-publicised and emotive process they maintained great dignity and it is unlikely they will appeal the vote taken by a poorly attended meeting. The issue they fought for is as relevant today as when they first refused to give their consent: they believe Fennell had no good reason to justify a move to a club like St Vincent's.

They didn't want to lose him, or his friendship, and felt they could not condone the transfer of a player who has been part of their family for almost 20 years. It was not their intention presumably when giving so freely of their time, without the spur of financial gain, to see O'Tooles become a nursery for well endowed neighbours. This decision to grant Fennell his transfer should scare the daylights out of smaller clubs in need of protection and safeguards to ensure they are not simply grooming players for the day they walk away.

If this interpretation of the transfer rule were to apply universally in Dublin the future for smaller clubs would become unsustainable. Good volunteers would drift away. The county committee's decision to vote against the recommendation of the management committee, and not by a small margin, shows no consistent line of thinking on previous rulings on the Fennell case. How the player's circumstances had altered from the last two failed attempts (three if you include an earlier bid to another club) is far from clear.

His first request cited the need to play at a "higher level" -- by then he was an inter-county player -- and it seems he had genuine issues with the standard of training in the club and its overall commitment to football. The club has argued that this is not valid any longer, if it ever was.

In 2010, O'Tooles won promotion to Division 2 of the Dublin football league and had a very promising championship. In round two they defeated Trinity Gaels, a Division 1 side, by ten points. In the next round, they lost by four to the reigning county champions Ballyboden. This defeat gave them a back-door reprieve where they met Na Fianna, another Division 1 side with strong credentials. They lost by three. Eamonn Fennell, as he has chosen since October 2008, did not play. It seems fair to say that had he done so they might well have won a few more matches than they did.

So the notion that O'Tooles did not provide Fennell with the platform his Dublin career required holds no water. The second transfer request cited a breakdown in relations between him and the club. This was flatly rejected by O'Tooles who last year made every effort to reconcile the two parties and have him return to play football again. Evidently, it fell on deaf ears and when he submitted a third successive transfer request, the club held its position as it was perfectly entitled to.

Fennell's final plea in an address to the floor last Tuesday cited his absence from club football for over two years. That was his choice -- he remained a registered O'Tooles player and the door never closed. It appears to have worked though. Last year's vote took place in his absence; the DRA later ruled that he should be entitled to put across his position and asked for the vote to be retaken. Mercifully, cases like this are rare enough and most players have an innate loyalty to their clubs and appreciate that while they are not under any contractual obligations to continue playing there, it is nearly expected that they will unless there are exceptional circumstances.

If the GAA still values allegiance to club and community and all it encompasses, then it has to look on the Fennell decision with considerable alarm. Either it makes a stand for those principles and values or it does not. In a country that has been disembowelled by sharp practice and Olympian levels of selfishness and greed in our economy, those core beliefs are worth preserving with all our hearts and souls.

If you coach a kid through to adulthood and he walks out the door to a club down the road, are you not entitled to be dismayed? Is there not an inescapable sense of futility to the exercise? And how are clubs

like that supposed to function and aspire to greater things? I am sure many of those delegates who voted in favour of Fennell's transfer, possibly worn down by the whole affair, come from clubs that value those principles too. If there's a lesson maybe the system of throwing such critical decisions to the lottery of the floor needs to be reassessed.

O'Tooles gave this brief reaction: "O'Tooles have never had a dispute of any kind with Eamonn Fennell. As a club we give equal attention to the playing of football and hurling. We believe this decision is a bad one for the GAA generally but we will get on with life and Eamonn Fennell is always welcome in O'Tooles."

In 2009, the Dublin convention introduced a bye-law governing transfers. Here is what it states: "As the GAA is community-centred, based on the allegiance of its members to their local clubs, the object of which is to promote the Association's aims at local level, the transfer rules in the Official Guide and this bye-law reflect that ethos. A player is considered to always owe allegiance and loyalty to the club he first legally participated with in club competition."

Last Tuesday's decision was a flagrant abuse of that bye-law. They, the delegates present and, more so, those absent, reneged on their duty. They bottled it.

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