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Capital acquisitions become a taxing issue for rural clubs

T HROUGHOUT the last decade, some of the brightest talents in Laois football were targeted by Australian football clubs but the latest threat to their rich reserves lies much closer to home.

Two weeks ago, Stradbally man and former Brisbane Lions and St Kilda player Colm Begley cut his local ties and joined Dublin outfit Parnell's. There, he linked up with two other Laois team-mates, Colm Parkinson and Darren Rooney.

Another Stradbally colleague, former Laois U21 Stephen Lawlor, has also opted to move to the capital where he has joined St Vincents. Meanwhile, there are persistent rumours in the county that two other young cubs, MJ Tierney and Donie Kingston, are also pondering a move to the capital.

"We've seen the players go and heard that one or two others are thinking about leaving but there's nothing we can do," says Laois secretary Niall Handy. "The GAA's official guide is there in black and white and we're powerless to stop players transferring to clubs from different counties if they're living or working there and there's no objection issued. Obviously, the ground-level feeling here is strong but there have been no official representations made by local clubs and while it's not preferable, our hands are tied to stop lads leaving."

Put yourself in the players' shoes for a moment. If you were without employment and a club targeted you and offered you a promising career, most of us would snap it up. In Begley's case, he came back from Australia and sought work. Having left a professional lifestyle behind him, he must have been frustrated when the local search for employment proved fruitless.

Parnell's stepped in, offered him a Games promotion role within their burgeoning set-up and a place on their senior team too. His Laois team-mate Rooney, a member of the Garda Siochana, has worked in Dublin for some time now while Portlaoise's Parkinson has also put in a long stint in the capital.

Down through the years there was always speculation as to what incentives players receive to leave their native clubs. Usually, however, all that can be evidenced is that secure and suitable jobs have been found and the new recruits are spared regular and arduous traffic-jammed journeys home for training.

Former Stradbally manager Gerry Kavanagh absolves the players for moving on but says the drain is most distressing for his club and county.

"In Colm's case, he came back from Australia and you wouldn't meet a nicer lad. Do I blame him for leaving? No, I don't. There is no work around the midlands at the moment and he had a life to forge when he came home. There are jobs in and around Dublin and he got fixed up with one that interests him.

"But it's horrible for a club like Stradbally to cope with this. In fact, it's most upsetting. Clubs like ours are hard pushed to produce 18 players that could play senior football and then you start losing a few to outside clubs. It makes life a lot harder for us."

Stradbally did release a statement to express their annoyance at what they see as a recruitment policy by Dublin clubs. On their website they said: "Unfortunately and reluctantly, Stradbally GAA has signed the transfer for Colm Begley to change clubs to Parnell's of Dublin. It is with regret that we see bigger clubs enticing and hoovering up the rural clubs' young footballers. We wish Colm all the best in the future and look forward to his return."

Kavanagh admits they could have said a lot more but admitted they held their thunder with the long-term in mind. Had they objected to the Leinster Council over Begley or Lawlor's transfer, the likelihood is that relationships would have been soured and they would never see them back in home colours again.

"The bottom line is that we'd hope to get Colm and Stephen back again some day," Kavanagh admits. "Maybe that might happen in a couple of years, but there would be no hope if we came out with all guns blazing. Very few of us locally would blame the lads for moving with the job situation so we have to keep that in mind."

In a recent interview, Begley alluded to the enormity of the decision he had to make when switching to the Coolock club. "When I came home from Australia I was hoping to play with Stradbally and Laois and I was hoping to get a job around home that would have let me do that," he explained. "Both Stradbally and Laois were looking for a job for me but it's not easy. There are lads out there with good degrees and good experience who can't get work so when Parnell's approached me to see if I'd be interested I said I'd speak to them.

"I was looking at all opportunities and Parnell's have found themselves in a position where they can employ people in coaching jobs so I'm going to be going around to the schools in the area coaching."

Admitting that Stradbally would find it hard to compete with the likes of Parnell's, Begley added: "They are worlds apart. There's no other club in the country with the resources they have after selling their grounds and they are in a position to offer players jobs. Stradbally have been fantastic. They're disappointed that I'm leaving but they understand my position and that it's a job I'm going to. I could understand if people are annoyed but I haven't come across it and I hopefully will play for Stradbally at some stage again."

And that's the nub of the problem. Rural clubs simply cannot compete and thus players from all over the land will continue to migrate to city areas in these times. It wasn't such a major issue when the Celtic Tiger was around but domestic transfers are now set to rise with jobs continuing to go by the wayside in country villages and towns.

When a club like Parnell's, with €22m in the bank after the sale of land in Collinstown, offers a player a job and a new way of life, how can a compact, midlands outfit the likes of Stradbally compete?

The irony is that for years, Parnell's didn't have the facilities to compete with richer Dublin rivals but boosted by that land sale they're now working on a €30m complex that will include two all-weather pitches, a new sports hall, a fully equipped gym, bar, games room and large function room, as well as several community meeting rooms.

The club is also looking to develop 85 apartments and 11 townhouses on a section of the site, along with a medical centre and a retail outlet, which they hope will help the overall financing of the project. Around 200 people will be employed during the construction phase of the project, which will take 12 months to complete.

The only downside from a GAA purist's point of view is that they're now in a strong position to entice players from other counties when perhaps they should be looking to strengthen their underage academy, although club chairman Frank Gleeson has already rejected any notion of them being out of order.

Referring to Begley's case, the chairman said: "Colm is coming to work and study in Dublin and it doesn't make any sense for a young lad to be travelling up and down. He has made a decision for his future and his career and I wouldn't see it like the way Stradbally are seeing it."

On the field, they look set to make serious strides and will target a seventh Dublin senior title in the near future. Last year, they gained promotion to Division 1 of the league, just 12 months after finishing five places off the bottom of Division 2. They also had a decent run in the championship.

"That's all very well and I wish them luck," Kavanagh says. "But looking at the bigger picture and not just this club, will the imminent arrival of more country players do Dublin football any good in the long term? Will a local player be kept off the team? And what happens when Pat Gilroy goes to a match and sees that the four best players on the field are all from another county?"

Kavanagh is correct. Something should be done to ensure that the domestic football landscape doesn't suffer. The Dublin board need a bye-law limiting the amount of outsiders on any club team. The way things are going a score of high-profile footballers from outside the Pale could well be the stars of this year's Dublin senior championship.

"With our best players gone, the standard and quality of the Laois club championship will hardly rise through the roof either," Kavanagh points out. "Look, we're just outlining our upset at this matter. The highest officers in the Association know what's going on and by talking about it and getting it out in the public arena we are only highlighting the matter further.

"People might read this and say that it's a good thing it's only happening in Laois but sure it will be happening all over rural outposts before long. Players have always left clubs for city outfits but numbers are now increasing. It's another spin-off of the recession. Laois might be affected now but others will soon start to see the problem at first hand."

And you'd wonder what Dublin footballer Eamon Fennell makes of it all. He's beginning his second year waiting for a move from hurling giants O'Tooles to St Vincents but last week saw his request once again rejected at board level.

And yet there's scarcely anything to halt this rise of outside inter-county transfers. It makes no sense.

Sunday Independent