Monday 24 June 2019

Breheny's blueprint

Thousands more supporters have seen Ireland's rugby and soccer players in Croke Park and the GAA would be wrong to lock its doors simply because Lansdowne Road was available
Thousands more supporters have seen Ireland's rugby and soccer players in Croke Park and the GAA would be wrong to lock its doors simply because Lansdowne Road was available

MARTIN BREHENY

The GAA issued a ‘strategic vision and action plan’ on Tuesday which will underpin their approach up to 2015. It plans essentially to improve efficiencies across a wide range of areas but, according to our gaelic games editor Martin Breheny, it doesn’t go far enough. Here he presents an alternative strategy, proposing major change in 10 key areas

1. Recognise the GPA as a formal wing of the GAA.

Other than in games scheduling, there is no specific reference to inter-county players in the latest plan, which is disappointing given that they are the main generators of revenue.

Irrespective of the large number of hard-working volunteers, the many club players who participate at various levels of the GAA's embedded role in communities, the inter-county game is the engine which drives the Association in financial and promotional terms.

That gives inter-county players a large shareholding in the GAA. It doesn't mean that they can dominate policy or philosophy, since the healthy organisation into which they grew is the fruit of their predecessors, so they are merely passing through before handing on to the next generation.

However, as the principal wealth creators, they are entitled to official recognition. Since the GPA has now firmly established itself as the players' representative body, it should be formally recognised by the GAA.

The GAA negotiates with the GPA so why not recognise it officially? That would involve part-funding, but so what? It would also require the GPA to consult the GAA regarding sponsorships etc, leading to more streamlined interaction.

The GPA might well reject an offer to be officially recognised but the invitation should be extended.

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2. Amateur status: time for realism.

"All our members play and engage in our games as amateurs," claims the latest strategy report. Not true. Apart from having an increasing number of professional administrators and coaches, the GAA also has a large 'black economy' class of paid managers.

It applies at county and club level and is overseen by officials who happily ignore the rules. Because it's virtually impossible to infiltrate the 'black economy' world it's here to stay, but please don't try to fool the rest of us with claims that all GAA members are amateurs.

The GPA leadership insists that pay-for-play is not on the agenda and will remain so. However, as the government grants initiative has proved, there are ways around it.

What happens if the government scrap the grants? Will the players demand that the GAA fund the shortfall? And if the GAA maintain their financial strength over the next decade, will a new generation of players demand that even a proportion of the financial yields be directed their way?

All arguments on pay-for-play rely too heavily on emotion, principle and ideology as opposed to a cold, clinical analysis of cause and effect. Pay-for-play will become an issue at some stage in the future, which is why the GAA should commission a study of the impact it would have on the Association. As of now, it's all based on opinion which is guided by tradition, a currency which will be of little value if war erupts.

3. Four green fields: why are they different sizes?

As an exercise in twisted logic, the provincial system is world class, both from a playing and administrative viewpoint. Dividing such a small country into four provinces made up of 12, nine, six and five counties is bizarre.

The divisions follow the traditional provincial boundaries and, as such, have a historical appeal, but how can it make sense to run competitions on such a lop-sided system? If it's felt that there's a need for four different areas, why not split into four groups of eight in a north-south-east-west divide, both for championship and administrative purposes?

That would make it easier to organise fixtures and result in a more even spread of money. It would require some tweaking with provincial boundaries but that's not difficult (ie Donegal, Longford and Clare into the west). Indeed, all three would almost certainly do better in the western region than in Ulster, Leinster and Munster.

4. Inter-county schedule: still flawed after all these years.

Eight counties were eliminated from the senior football championship on July 19 last; another four went a week later, followed by four more the following week. That's 16 of the top 24 counties (Division Four teams weren't allowed into the qualifiers) gone by the first week in August, leaving them six months to wait for the next competitive game.

Is there any other sport in the world where that happens? Club competitions have to be fitted into the schedule but a system where inter-county teams, which cost huge amounts to run, play seven league games in spring and as little as two championship games in summer, followed by more than six months off, just doesn't make sense.

Apart from losing promotional opportunities, it creates an environment for sporadic outbreaks of unrest, with Cork producing their quota on a near-annual basis.

The current trend in the GAA seems to favour widening club activity at the expense of inter-county action, a policy which is neither necessary nor prudent.

5. Hurling: take it out from under football's large shadow.

Dublin, Offaly and Wexford opposed Galway's switch to Leinster but were swamped by the rest of the country. That's democracy. However, there's something wrong when several counties where hurling is -- and always will be -- extremely weak have the same influence in decision-making as those who will be directly effected.

There are some counties where hurling dominates football but the reverse is much more prevalent. That's why it's time to separate hurling and football for administrative purposes. Then, and only then, will hurling be empowered to the degree it should be.

6. Chain of command: as strong as its weakest link.

Who runs the GAA? Actually, it's made up of many independent republics in the form of county boards, provincial councils and Central Council. There's no actual chain of command, except in the implementation of rules.

Nobody can tell a county board how to run its affairs; nor can anybody demand an on-going update of progress. Provincial councils are also largely free to run their own kingdoms without interference from Croke Park. It's a strange way to do business and demands a strategy where county boards are answerable to provincial councils, who in turn report to Croke Park. That would greatly strengthen the accountability chain.

7. Croke Park: don't lock the gates when Lansdowne Road is completed.

Such has been the success of renting Croke Park to the IRFU and FAI that it might be forgotten that once Lansdowne Road is re-open for business in 2010, the mighty edifice on Jones Road closes to rugby and soccer. That's what the GAA decided in 2005.

Now consider the reality. The GAA earns around €1.5m for every rugby and soccer match at Croke Park; there's absolutely no suggestion that any other GAA ground should open to other sports and, despite gloomy predictions by those opposed to opening Croke Park, the sun still rises and sets every day.

It will make no sense whatsoever for rugby and soccer internationals which are capable to attracting 82,500 to be played at the 50,000 redeveloped Lansdowne Road, which is why the GAA needs to be very clever. If they close Croke Park, the IRFU and FAI can wriggle off the hook when over 30,000 people who have grown accustomed to attending their games can't get tickets.

"Croke Park is no longer available to us," will be the convenient excuse. And so the blame will pass to the GAA. That's why the GAA should declare long before the completion of Lansdowne Road that Croke Park will remain open for business for rugby and soccer if required.

Throw the responsibility over on the IRFU and FAI for staging big games at a venue which is too small. Also, leave the opportunity open to continue making sound commercial use of Croke Park once common sense kicks in for the IRFU and FAI.

8. Stadium Development: stop the waste.

The GAA is rightly proud of Croke Park and of the extensive infrastructure in virtually every parish in the country.

However, what has happened in between is economic madness, fuelled by local vanities rather than sound judgement. Munster has four grounds with a capacity of 40,000 plus, which are rarely filled. Now Cork have plans to redevelop Pairc Ui Chaoimh as a 60,000 arena -- but for what?

Counties have shown great resourcefulness in developing their county grounds but, in the majority of cases, the capacity is excessive.

Each province needs one major stadium accompanied by a downsizing of other county grounds (maximum 20,000) where increased spectator comfort is essential.

9. Population imbalances: can the county system continue?

The strategy published this week promises to address the challenges created by population shifts, in particular the difficulty of penetrating the large city and urban areas where clubs are trying to cope with huge catchment areas. Despite that, they oppose the founding of new clubs.

Apart from the problems of trying to cater for large urban areas, there's the question of equality and opportunity. Dublin will have a population of around 2.1 million by 2021, yet it will be represented by one county team, the same as Longford and Leitrim, whose combined population is around the 65,000 mark.

The proposal in 2002 to separate Dublin into north-south teams never got fair consideration, which was a pity because sooner or later reality will have to be addressed.

Dividing Dublin would have been a sensible start and could lead to other adjustments around the country too. As of now, there seems to be no plans to even consider that, but how long more can the GAA ignore the reality that population trends have changed so much that old systems can't apply forever?

10. Discipline: it's for others, not me.

Appointing disciplinary committees from within the GAA's own committees doesn't work. It's clear that the Association is infected with a culture where every loophole is exploited in an attempt to escape punishment and where senior officials will defend the indefensible where one of their own is concerned.

The Disputes Resolution Authority (which operates independently of the GAA) may annoy people from time to time but their arrival has ended the cynical dash to the courts to seek injunctions to enable suspended players to line out in a particular game.

Scrap CCCC, CHC and CAC and establish a DRA-like body to deal with charges right from the start. Like the DRA, it should be comprised of people not directly involved with day-to-day GAA activities. Allow one subsequent appeal to the DRA.

The DRA has worked as a point of last resort. That's why a similar body should hear the case from the start.

It's laughable that GAA discipline is so difficult to implement. The enemy is within the organisation in the form of people who refuse to live by the spirit of the rules.

A strategy must be put in place to make life more awkward for them.

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