Monday 23 April 2018

Transfers an affront to GAA's core ethos

John Greene

John Greene

In the book The GAA County By County, Mick O'Dwyer's success in leading Kildare to two Leinster championships is noted, and commented upon as follows: 'In many ways, it was entirely appropriate that it should fall to an outsider to spearhead the resurgence. After all, by the end of the twentieth century, the county was home to more non-native Kildare people than native. This was the result of the extraordinary population growth that had taken place since the 1970s.'

Now, over a decade since their last provincial title, another outsider in Kildare is making all the news. When the CCCC approved Seanie Johnston's transfer from Cavan to Kildare last week, it was an admission that the GAA's rule book had finally run out of ways of preventing something everyone knew shouldn't be allowed to happen. In casino parlance, the house lost.

There is no need here to rake over the underlying principles which govern the GAA. They have been well covered in the last few months while the saga rumbled on. The key point is that the GAA is 'community-centred', and is 'based on the allegiance of its members to their local clubs and counties'.

At some point in the coming weeks, Johnston will take the field in a Kildare jersey and it will be an act which flies in the face of everything the GAA stands for. He will be there on the field thanks to a technicality, a loophole in a rule book which is full of loopholes. There because, in the end, the GAA ran out of ways of preventing the transfer from going through.

When first refusing to sanction the transfer, the GAA's ruling stated that its belief was that Johnston's Kildare address "was to enable the player to play with a county to which he could claim no obvious allegiance". This, it added, was "contrary to the Association's ethos".

Kildare took exception to this, which is remarkable in itself because it quite clearly was exactly that. It wasn't just that Johnston was attempting to play for a club and a county with which he has no known association -- other than an address and, apparently, a friendship with members of the backroom set-up, but it was also the fact that he was attempting to leave a team with little or no chance of success to join one with every chance of it. It may not have been spelt out in quite those terms, but this -- as much as anything -- is what rankled most.

The idea that you are from somewhere is something of an anachronism in modern Ireland but it is still something the GAA clings to, described in another book, A People's History, as 'a masterstroke'. It adds: 'Residency rules were introduced which restricted the movement of players between teams and these, together with the establishment of a system of internal county-based competitions, helped in the creation of intense inter-community rivalries. This was vital to the success of the early GAA and to the roots it set down. It meant that when clubs took to the field, players were playing for more than personal glory -- the reputation of their community was also at stake.'

This ethos remained largely unchallenged for over 100 years and so it took root through the generations. What may have been in the beginning a simple system for assembling teams in a fledgling organisation became an underlying principle. Subconsciously almost, young footballers and hurlers have been indoctrinated through the years into this notion of belonging to a place. The GAA has largely stood alone on this as other team sports have long since given way to the free movement of players.

But unlike other sports, the GAA is completely intertwined -- you cannot separate club and county. Once the free movement of players becomes possible, it will become widespread; and once a player can move from team to team without any legitimate basis other than the desire to move, it will mean clubs and counties can never be the same again.

It will also mean that players at club and county level can be offered inducements and so the amateur ethos will quickly evaporate. After all, if a player has the freedom to play where he likes, the choice may ultimately boil down to who makes the best offer.

This is not something that can be just laid at Seanie Johnston's feet. Players just want to play and tend not to worry about the ramifications of their actions. The same cannot be said of the army of administrators, officials and volunteers which make up the GAA. They are charged with protecting its rules, and its ethos, and this hasn't happened in this case.

Kildare are said to be aggrieved about the level of exposure the affair has received, pointing to other players past and present whose legality is questionable. When you have to resort to this logic to defend your actions, however, it's time to take a good hard look at yourself. Because that is just passing the buck.

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