Ewan MacKenna: Defiant action from clubs over the GAA's fixtures farce seems imminent
For some time now, the GAA has being using gimmicks and catchphrases to cover for their self-made inadequacy.
Turn your premier competition into an event containing one-and-a-half super teams? Invent Super Eights. Allow a subscription television company wriggle as close as possible to the very essence of your volunteerism and community-based sporting psyche? Hide it behind cheap ambassador programmes and free branded t-shirts. Let a bank, having tugged the rug out from under so many members' lives, shackle themselves to you to wash their reputation? Mask it with excellent marketing via 'The Toughest' slogan.
Late last year more catchy names were used when Páraic Duffy and his association pulled out another sticking plaster. Quickly it became known as the “April black-out” and the “fixture-free month”. At best it meant well, at worst it was one more diversion, but the problem with the look-over-here approach to what's broken is that, not only does it not solve the issue at hand, it allows it to worsen in the interval. In this case it didn't even sound too good to be true as, rather than write this club-only interval into law, it was left to county boards to enforce what they'd always fled from anyway.
It was yet more style over substance and, as much as packaging and structures have changed, the GAA has not. Instead what's been rotting has been left alone as if it would somehow un-spoil itself.
When you sit too close to the screen, you miss out on the show and that's what's been happening. As we tip-toe into the month so much focus is on how well it's going, on how many championships are played, on the availability of county stars. In Donegal, players got a week away from county training but that was in late March, although they have been lining out with their clubs; in Mayo, hard county sessions were mixed with the first round of their championship while stories emerged that one session was pulled as clubs refused to give over their players; in Roscommon, weather and then more weather meant a round of club games on a Wednesday to much annoyance; in Galway, they won't play their premier event until after they play Mayo.
But none of that matters as what we are addressing is once more a symptom as if in fear of the disease. Ultimately this has not been a failure of imagination but of common sense and we are right back to the same problem of not being able to pour a keg into a can. Indeed all this has been met with the usual brief and flickering buzzwords of yesteryear like outrage and disgrace, but none of this is anything new and is hardly surprising with so much invested in elitism and its income.
However the question it keeps raising is what are clubs going to do about it and, unlike before, we are getting nearer an answer. One insider in the Club Players' Association hinted that members will be asked about “escalation” in the coming weeks. At some point we could be facing a walkout.
In a world where hyperbole sells, such action shouldn't be considered that, rather it should be seen as the next logical stopping point for it's when you try and keep people down that they tend to rise up. The fuse for ultra-capitalism in all spheres has always been the masses having enough and right now for instance the CPA are wording their latest set of survey questions to go out to their 20,000-plus members. Sources there tell us that they'd also involve whether players are happy with club fixtures, if they'd gotten their hands on a master plan so they could plan both their season and their lives, and whether April was set aside as was planned and was promised.
Chairman Mícheál Briody refused to comment on any specifics but did note of this April intervention that "it's tokenism".
He added: "If they were serious about giving clubs the month they'd bring it into rule and we even brought motions to bring it into rule and they were stopped. Look, Páraic Duffy stood up at launch and said it's for counties to decide, and that was it done for really. But my view is this is going to be a bad year for fixtures and club players don't realise that yet. Because of the intercounty restructure, in May and June and July there'll be big gaps between games. So, I think at that stage, it'll hit home. The only way to fix it is to start with a blank sheet and to look at the entire national fixture plan. We asked for that 18 months ago, and we still are asking for that."
That'll be brought up over the coming weeks when the CPA sit with new director-general Tom Ryan and president John Horan but it's hard not to be cynical as it reminds of the Davos Economic Forums. There, world leaders came out and talked about how they must end 90 per cent of global wealth being held by 10 per cent before disappearing behind closed doors; then, they came back the next year and demanded an end to 90 per cent of global wealth being held by one per cent before disappearing behind closed doors; lately, they've come back and promised an end to 90 per cent of global wealth being held by 1,000 people before disappearing behind closed doors.
What should you take from all of it? The important words are spoken out of sight, and you can guess what they are by what actually takes place. The GAA's own elitism has been no different.
It's not to to pick on individuals, for a culture is so prevalent in Croke Park that the danger is people simply fit into it. So much so that by now this isn't about whether the GAA goes down a certain road that puts money above all, but if it can ever go back. If not, what makes Gaelic games different dissipates and disappears and at that point it becomes a second-rate version of other sports it can't and shouldn't want to compete with. It'll be like rugby without the international dimension, where bustling clubs were traded for a big-bucks entertainment enterprise.
There's little reason to be hopeful though as you can't wake a person pretending to be asleep. After all, it's already a decade since Pat Gilroy said what the CPA are pleading for. Back in 2008 he aimed to be director-general and not only could he diagnose the illness, he could pinpoint the cure. Club fixtures and the bundling of the majority to the side was a major concern and he stated the sport needed that master fixture plan. In the end the gain of the Dublin footballers was everyone else's loss. The proof has been in the pudding.
By the start of 2014, having been elected as what he himself described as a president for the clubs, Aoghán Ó Fearghaíl said: “I will establish a small work group to devise a template and bring clarity to our fixtures schedule... to ensure a sufficient games programme is laid out for club players throughout the summer and insist the schedules as published and agreed are adhered to.”
We'd ask him what happened?
By the start of the next year, Duffy added in his annual report that "since 2008, we have now had five major reports that, from varying perspectives, have addressed many of the same issues concerning club fixtures, the needs of the club player, intercounty competition structures and player welfare”. He then spoke of the "unacceptable distortion whereby the vast majority of our players do not have a planned and fairly scheduled set of fixtures, fixed and known in advance".
We'd ask him what happened?
For still we are here, with a system where the county game isn't representative like for example the State of Origin in rugby league, but is ruling over the sport; where county players are released to clubs and not the other way around. Is it any wonder that playing numbers drop off by around three-quarters between 19 and 25? Some of that is just life, some of it is even on the GAA doing so well at getting huge numbers of kids involved, but some is on how bad they are at offering adults' games, structures and basic respect. No one simply wants to have a go at the GAA, but it's become about the need to put matchsticks in certain eyelids.
They instead shoot the messenger though because they don't like a message they themselves created. In fact in recent times one journalist was pulled aside by GAA suits due to a line of questioning deemed unacceptable, another simply skipped a call as he knew a dressing down was on the way for promoting views not to their liking, even a national editor was asked to change a headline. That's all a microcosm and the consequence of this arrogant attitude is to not so much to jeopordise the sport but to jeopordise the strength of numbers in the sport. You don't join a team to sit around and watch bureaucracy between training sessions, and put all on hold because of those that are better than you playing in prime time. But in doing so the association has lost it's very essence and, in a time of options, it's promoted other sports for them. It's why the GAA is on a precipice and it's why a club strike could be on the way.
If you go through life with head in the sand, all people will see is an arse. And many are fed up of looking at the GAA's.