Monday 20 November 2017

Colm O'Rourke: Club revolution must start at the very top

Martin McHugh, speaking at the official launch of the Club Players’ Association at Ballyboden St Enda’s GAA club last week. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Martin McHugh, speaking at the official launch of the Club Players’ Association at Ballyboden St Enda’s GAA club last week. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

The new Club Players' Association had a fairly heavyweight brigade lined up for its launch last week. The very existence of this group and the language of frustration that was evident indicates clearly how the GAA has become a leaderless, rudderless organisation with no clear vision of itself or where it is going.

TK Whitaker died last week, at 100 years of age. He was a man of vision and together with Seán Lemass set out clearly in the 1950s and '60s the path of economic development for Ireland. It worked too. The GAA, on the other hand, lurches uncontrollably and drifts from year to year, mini crisis to major crisis without any idea of where it wants to be.

If you set out in a car and don't have a map or an idea of where you want to go, you generally get lost. That happened in the GAA a long time ago - so it is an amazing organisation which has not just survived but actually prospered. Perhaps this just indicates how strong civic duty, community spirit and loyalty to our own sport and culture is in this country because it is certainly not down to the vision thing.

The Club Players' Association fills a void that simply should not be there. Next it will be the referees' union, followed by the umpires' association, and the club chairpersons' federation, the netminders' group and the union representing those who put up the flags and clean out the dressing rooms. Those who wash the jerseys will have even bigger rights. Wait for a while and we will have the overweight Junior B players hard left union being formed because they won't feel the CPA properly represents their feelings. There should be no need for any of these semi-independent bodies - and I include the GPA here. The GAA is supposed to represent everybody but lack of foresight, ineptitude, arrogance, and the pursuit of and retention of power has divided a great organisation.

If all the aforementioned groups were formed, they could join the GPA and other bodies of serious importance in having an office in Croke Park. The GPA might even share the spoils of war with them, although that is probably unlikely as their millions are needed for the small elite.

Nobody said it last week but it was blindingly obvious: Here was a group representing all players - both county and club - and they have no power, no rights, no money, no office, no access to important committees while the group representing county players has everything. Go figure that one.

The reason club players are becoming increasingly rebellious is that county football is dead. Rigor mortis set in a long time ago in most counties and the greatest waste of money, apart from building stadiums which are never filled, is that spent on running a county senior football team in about 20 counties. They should withdraw from the championship and promote club football. Yes, we will have excitement from the All-Ireland quarter-final onwards but below that the carcass is totally rotten. The race for Sam is confined to eight, or 10 at a push.

The players in the other counties have copped on to this and are walking away in increasing numbers. Why would they train five or six nights a week when they know that after the league, which takes account of a county's standard, is a game in the provincial championship and a likely mauling in the Qualifiers? Occasionally, somebody jumps out of the pack like Clare or Tipperary and this is supposed to show how everyone else can make it. This is the equivalent of a pat on the back and a kick in the arse at the same time - and don't forget to close the door on the way out.

These miracles don't happen - ask Sligo or Fermanagh when they nearly made the breakthrough. If they were able to build progress through a properly designed championship, it would be a different matter. But the only answer proposed now is a redesigned championship for those who get all the big games anyway. Kerry, Dublin, Mayo, Tyrone and a few more would love the new round robin championship of the top eight because they are the direct beneficiaries every year. What will it do for Waterford, Leitrim or Wicklow? Absolutely nothing. They can go and rot so long as they don't create too much of a fuss.

In all these weak counties the county players are happy now to abandon the county side and play with their clubs so long as they get regular games and a healthy balance between training and games. They can also go to the US for the summer. Football is, after all, a hobby and their only chance of success is a junior, intermediate or senior championship with the club rather than a regular pasting with the county.

I watched the game between Wicklow and Meath in the O'Byrne Cup. Meath won easily. Wicklow were dreadful and looked as if they had been gathered together just before the match. Afterwards, Jonathan Magee, the Wicklow manager, bemoaned the amount of players who are not interested in playing with the county team. The same script applies all over the country.

Meath, in Division 2 of the league still, have had success recently enough that players are optimistic about the future and willing to train hard. Who could blame Wicklow players or any other county team for opting out of the county scene?

Kevin Walsh had a similar story in Galway last year, which was a bit of a shock given their tradition, but the sun is rising again in the west. All of these players in the weakest counties have been let down by those who are supposed to represent them at county board, provincial council and at the highest level. The ordinary punter is not being fooled any more either. Crowds for championship games are down and likely to fall further. You can't fool all the people all the time. On top of this too the entertainment value of most county football matches is nil.

So is it any wonder that a Club Players' Association has sprung up? But the real need for them is to tackle individual county boards on their fixtures programme rather than general ideals. Putting All-Ireland finals back or forward a week or two makes no difference. The complete overhaul of the inter-county calendar is the only way that club fixtures can be properly managed. As I have said before on many occasions, anything else is only putting the cart before the horse.

Meath County Board published a master fixtures plan last week which covers from February to August. There are the normal provisos and after August most clubs will have no football until next February which is a particular gripe of mine. Yet at a minimum this plan guarantees club players 20 games between the beginning of next month and August.

That is what all counties should be doing. Yes, clubs will have to play league matches without their county players but so be it. At least the majority are being catered for. If the CPA could get something similar in every county they could melt away like the recent snow.

Over the next few weeks we will hear a lot of speeches from prospective presidents about how important clubs are. If you looked at the speeches of almost every president for as long as I can remember they probably all said basically the same but none in office have tackled the inter-county runaway train which has caused most of the problems at club level.

If any of the present candidates come up with a comprehensive fixture plan which sorts out all the competitions packed into spring and the demands on players from underage county football, county senior and third-level competitions, then they are worthy of serious support.

Forget about backing someone from your own province or someone who has done favours in the past. What policy will save clubs? Maybe the CPA should interview them all and make a recommendation. Then this new body would really show that they could bite as well as bark.

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