Sport GAA

Friday 22 March 2019

Comment - Players have become empowered and emboldened but most will suffer grisly endings too

Pete McGrath
Pete McGrath

Declan Bogue

There was a curious symmetry in how the news filtered through of Pete McGrath’s resignation as Fermanagh manager last Friday evening and comments made by his fellow Down man Dr Maurice Hayes only three days previously.

Hayes was discussing how, after Down’s All-Ireland successes in 1960 and 1961, he was voted out of his roles on the county board and as a Central Council delegate.

Last Sunday, I bumped into the great Sean O’Neill of Down at the Ulster final and Hayes came up in conversation.

On hearing that Hayes played down his contribution to Down’s All-Ireland successes in the ‘60s, O’Neill insisted that without Hayes there simply would have been no All-Irelands.

Hayes made the point that when the end comes for people in GAA, be it players, managers and administrators, there is hardly ever a happy ending, citing McGrath’s exit from Down in 2002.

“I mean, Pete McGrath, Pete McGrath what he did for Down and they humiliated him,” said Hayes. 

“That last guy before Burns, Jim McCorry, disgracefully treated.

“We started off with some scepticism within the county board. People were scoffing at the ideas, so it was kept to a small group.

“Then, people who had been scoffing wanted to scramble onto the bandwagon. And the second thing is that they thought it was easy and that anyone could do it.”

The problem here is the age-old one of democracy in the GAA — there is simply too much.

Players have become empowered and emboldened, told they are the most educated generation of all and not to settle in life. The Gaelic Players Association have guidelines in how to deal with player grievances and perhaps because of the Fermanagh players’ use of these, they and McGrath parted company.

McGrath gave a flavour of what the players felt was wrong about the set-up. For now, the players are remaining silent, not returning calls, so judgement has to be reserved.

Players do not escape the grisly endings either.

For some, it comes lying on a soaking pitch, a ruptured cruciate or a broken leg that will cause them bother as they move into middle age, signalling the end to a playing career.

For others, the finality hits hard. Staying with Down, they used to have a practice whereby players who were not going to be part of the next season’s panel were sent a letter, thanking them for their services which would no longer be required.

Some players considered that cold. But Owen Mulligan wrote in his autobiography that he would have loved some acknowledgement of his career, instead of waiting by the phone that never called him back into the Tyrone panel after his All-Ireland club campaign with Cookstown ended in 2013.

The sympathy in this Fermanagh case will initially rest with McGrath.

The media have been treated by him with courtesy, patience and class. Even to the end, he wasn’t prepared to get into the pigsty and wrestle with the players in public, stating: “There is no bitterness. I think players did make a mistake but I am not going to indict them on that because they have given too much to me and to the cause to put them in the dock now and execute them. Fermanagh football has to move on.”

And there will be an element of ‘ah no, not Fermanagh again’, after the fall-out in 2011 when several players went public in withdrawing their services mid-way through the league, ultimately forcing then manager John O’Neill to step down.

It’s worth bearing in mind though that only three of the present panel — who were either teenagers or just out of their teens — were about for 2011. That’s another stark illustration of the player turnover in one of the smallest playing populations in Ireland.

There were things that could have been done better in all of this, too.

McGrath said he knew there were issues with certain players and complaints stacking up against the management team.

The county board were also made aware of these.

Neither party sat down with the players as a group or with the representatives to discuss these or plot a way forward, before the re-appointment of McGrath was announced.

The lack of dialogue between the parties caused a fracture that was impossible to heal.

So you have to ask yourself what had been learned from the lessons of 2011?

Pete McGrath is right when he asks a simple question relating to player power: “Does that lead to a situation where every team manager knows that he ultimately is at the mercy of players? And somehow he has to pander to players to keep them sweet?”

And the players are the ones giving up their lives to play county football with scant chance of success.

In the whole affair, there are no winners. Just losers.

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