Tuesday 20 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: 'It's the question of disrespect which rankles most at grass-roots level'

A Gort supporter looks on from a skylight window during the recent Galway SHC final against St Thomas’ at Pearse Stadium Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
A Gort supporter looks on from a skylight window during the recent Galway SHC final against St Thomas’ at Pearse Stadium Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

I've always had a soft spot for Kilmore GAA club in Roscommon. It may be because the first match I ever covered as a reporter was in Kilmore, a senior football championship match between the home side and Tulsk 29 years ago. Kilmore won 1-8 to 1-4 with their goal coming from former All Star defender Gerry Connellan. That I can remember this yet usually forget where I've put the remote control illustrates the mysteries of human consciousness.

Kilmore seemed a special club to me at the time. With a small pick, they'd worked their way up from junior to win a county senior title in 1983, commemorated by a book called Ten Years Of Playing Like Hell. Play like hell was their motto in those days. They had two defenders called Michael Connellan, who you could tell apart because one of them was called HP, as he came from the half-parish.

They're not such a major force in Roscommon any more but Kilmore have continued to punch above their weight. Many people contributed to the GAA's decision to open up Croke Park to rugby and soccer but no-one did more than Tommy Kenoy, the current Kilmore chairman, to passionately proselytise in favour of that decision and persuade people it was the right step to take. It turned out to be the GAA's greatest ever PR coup and would not have happened without Tommy Kenoy.

Last week Kilmore again put themselves at the forefront of a new movement which can change the GAA for the better by becoming the first club to declare their support for the new Club Players Association being set up by former Monaghan player Declan Brennan.

Their decision came after a ludicrous weekend when they were forced to play a Connacht intermediate football championship match against Galway champions Monivea less than 24 hours after playing a Roscommon county final which went to extra-time. "Can anyone with a single functioning brain cell justify this?" Kilmore wondered. "It proves that the spin we hear about the physical and mental welfare of players and the importance of club games is no more than that: spin."

Kilmore's plight isn't an isolated one. Donegal's intermediate football champions Burt had to play two games inside 24 hours the previous weekend, again after winning a county final in extra-time. You can see why after Brennan announced his intention to set up the CPA, he received over 10,000 supportive texts.

The cases of Kilmore and Burt may be exceptional ones but they do illustrate the dire situation which club hurlers and footballers find themselves in these days. Brennan says he's decided to set up the CPA because so many people are "totally frustrated by the lack of respect in putting on club fixtures at short notice. These issues are rumbling on for a number of years."

Donegal County Board's decision a couple of years back to cancel all senior club championship activity till the county was knocked out of the All-Ireland series was merely an extreme example of the prevailing idea that club activity should be regarded as entirely secondary to the needs of the county team. The result is that club players are idle for most of the summer and that the majority of championship action is telescoped into a frantic few weeks at the back end of the year. One result of this is that you end up with situations like the ones which bedevilled Kilmore and Burt.

There is no reason why the interests of the new organisation and those of the GPA should be contradictory. And Brennan is also keen to stress that he doesn't see the CPA's role as a confrontational one vis a vis the GAA. All GPA members are club players too and I think Brennan is correct in seeing that the current morass stems from indifference and confusion at the top level rather than malice. A CPA putting the case on behalf of club players and drawing strength from their input and experiences would be an important and necessary body.

It's the question of disrespect which rankles most at grass-roots level. An acquaintance of mine who's involved at club level told me that a while back his club had a player who was a member of a large inter-county panel. The lad hadn't kicked a ball in the National League campaign, and with the championship coming up the club wanted to know if he could be released to play in a challenge match.

Your man rings up the manager only to be told: "I am the manager of the county team and while they're on the panel, they're my players. I can do what I like with them and he won't be released for any challenge match." The manager went on to bollock him at length for having the temerity to even ask the question.

The problem with this attitude is that it leads to a sundering of the link between club and county, which is one of the most important things in the GAA. Proponents of some kind of 'Champions League format' for a kind of everlasting championship seem utterly unconcerned about the effect on an already constrained club calendar. The GAA's proposal to add a round-robin system to the later stages of the championship is a milder version of this idea, but it will also make things worse for club players in the counties involved.

Those who propose and support such restructuring initiatives pay lip service to the club game but this is just empty talk. As far as they're concerned, the inter-county game is the 'shop window' which brings in the money and the club game merely an afterthought.

Croke Park sent out a snazzy brochure last week telling us why their proposed structural reforms are right and every argument against them is wrong. It reminded me of the old catechism:

Q: 'Why is God the saviour of us all?'

A: 'God is the saviour of us all because . . . '

But one thing that caught my eye was the precipitous decline in average football championship attendances. Having reached a high of 20,172 in 2007, they have fallen by almost 30 per cent to 13,146 last year. With the exception of a blip in 2015, they have fallen every single year since 2007. The GAA's new system will artificially inflate these figures by the simple expedient of providing extra games for Dublin in Croke Park, but it won't address the reasons behind a drastic decline.

One of those reasons may be the alienation of some fans from the inter-county game. A few months back I met a well-known local club player. "Pity about Cork getting knocked out," I said to him. He laughed at me, "I'm delighted. We'll get to play a proper game. We're hanging round all summer with nothing to do, we can't even have a social life because you don't know when they might spring a game on you."

There are people within clubs who regard the county set-up with dread. It takes away your players for long stretches, monopolises their time while often leaving them on the bench without games, overtrains them so they come back to the club jaded or injured, and screws up the schedule for everyone who's not involved.

An association where there's such a growing disconnection between the elite and the grass-roots is not a fundamentally healthy association.

Back to Kilmore. When I think of Kilmore I think of Frank Dennehy. The best way I can describe Frank Dennehy to you is to say 'think of the man who most truly embodies the spirit of your club'. That was Frank Dennehy in Kilmore. He'd managed them to their county title, later he'd be president of both Kilmore and the Roscommon board. He was one of those men who always took on the job that needed doing, which at the time was county PRO. And in my first year as a journalist, no-one was more help to me.

He was a big bear of a man with an unmistakable baritone rumble of a voice which made him seem gruff on first acquaintance. But at heart he was a genuinely lovely man and a funny one, and I remember to this day drinking out of the North-West Championship trophy with him in a pub in Strokestown. Three decades on I can honestly say I never spent a happier year in this job than I did that year in Roscommon. Frank Dennehy had a lot to do with that.

On Sunday morning as the Kilmore people prepared to haul their tired bodies to Tuam for a game they knew they'd lose, they heard Frank Dennehy had died. They asked the Connacht Council for a postponement. It was refused. Now I'm sure there are rules and regulations which justify this decision but if the law can't be bent to honour a great man like Frank Dennehy, then in the words of Bumble in Oliver Twist, "The law is a ass."

There isn't a wage big enough to pay the likes of Frank Dennehy for what they've done for the GAA. Because what drove and drives them is not money but loyalty, first and foremost to their clubs. The GAA club may be the finest institution ever created in Ireland. Let's show it the proper respect.

Bring on the CPA.

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