Breaking stranglehold of county bosses must be first step for clubs
It is time for everyone to take a step back and survey the GAA's fixtures landscape properly, and that includes the newly-formed Club Players' Association. It is time to dispel the myths that have taken a firm hold of the debate around improving the lot of club players.
The CPA says it wants to 'fix the fixtures'. What a shame it is that it has even come to this point - a new organisation made up of frustrated players and former players being set up to do the GAA's job for it. But we are where we are and it is hard to argue now against the need for the CPA seeking to level the playing field.
The fear, however, is that the CPA will fall into the flawed groupthink on this subject - namely that tweaking the current Championship structures in either football or hurling will make any fundamental difference to the problems being experienced by club players.
The simple fact is that it won't - not yet anyway.
There is no link between the current structure of the Championships and the fixtures problem which is a blight on the club game. There certainly was a link once upon a time, but that ship has long since sailed.
That's why it's time to take a step back and properly look at what needs to happen next. And that includes the motions set to be put to Congress to bring forward the All-Ireland finals, do away with some replays and introduce a round-robin phase at the quarter-final stage. Páraic Duffy said last week that the GAA intends to proceed with these motions and if that's the case then counties should vote for or against them purely on their merits. If they think any or all of these suggestions are a good idea and have the potential to improve the Championships, then support them. If not, then don't. But do not support or oppose them on the basis of the fixtures mess - that is a red herring.
The fundamental flaw is the near-universal acceptance that the club championships and inter-county championships cannot co-exist. And this is the mindset that needs to be challenged; no, this is the mindset that needs to be overturned. This is where the CPA should start, because whether they like to hear it or not, clubs have been complicit in allowing this situation to take hold, but they too now have the power to organise themselves to fix it.
Clubs were complicit because they permitted county boards to develop a level of power which has been ultimately bad for the Association. County boards are there to represent clubs, not to ignore them. In the past, too many clubs abdicated responsibility when it came to taking part in county board affairs, which only helped to foster a 'them and us' culture which still unfortunately pertains in many counties. Having said that, however, clubs could not foresee what was going to happen next - which was that the boards would then effectively cede that power to the managers of their inter-county teams. That's when the real problems began.
The downward spiral and decay didn't just happen overnight. Over time, the power of the manager grew to the extent that we see today so that they, and not those elected to take charge of Gaelic games in each county, would rule with an iron fist. These managers can now bring an entire summer's programme of football and hurling grinding to a halt year after year in the face of little or no opposition from the county boards they have been brought in to serve. Those clubs who did cry foul in time were ignored, paying the price for their previous indifference.
Of course, other factors combined to create the perfect storm to allow the obsession with the inter-county game take a firm - and disproportionate - grip on the GAA. The needs of the few now outweighed the needs of the many.
The stranglehold that inter-county managers have on the game needs to be broken. County boards must be forced to retake what is rightfully their responsibility. They can be forced to do this by clubs and they can be forced to do this by Croke Park. The CPA has already gathered over 15,000 members. This shows the extent of the frustration that exists out there among the rank-and-file players. These players must go to their club committee meetings and demand change. The CPA can play a major part in this.
The players must hold their clubs to account. They must insist that their clubs hold the county board to account. And they must be vigilant in helping to bring about a change in attitude so that delegates to county board meetings don't just sleepwalk their way through their term of office. The delegates must learn to be engaged and fully prepared to challenge the status quo.
Meanwhile, the CPA can also help to put pressure on Croke Park to act in the common interest. Because, as well-intentioned as Páraic Duffy's proposals are, they cannot possibly succeed in the current environment.
It was interesting last week to see Jonny Cooper admit that he would love to give more time to his club. The painful reality is that even though he is not a professional athlete he is not allowed to. That's a core condition if he is to remain a part of the Dublin team. Na Fianna played 15 league games and two championship games last year and he featured in just four of them. "I really wanted to put my shoulder to the wheel for the club but I was only able to give five weeks, maybe six weeks, to the club last year," he said. How sad - and wrong - is that?
The culture has to change - nothing else will work otherwise. There is absolutely no reason that the club and inter-county championships cannot run side by side. There is no reason that players and the rest of the GAA's substantial grassroots base cannot speak as one and finally stop the tail from wagging the dog.
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