Saturday 24 March 2018

Colm O'Rourke: 'Club players are the dirt under the nail, the stone in the shoe'

Games have reached a tipping point as lavish elite structures are taking vital funds from grassroots

The situation in most counties is the county team are constantly training, even after the end of the league, and still months away from the championship Stock photo: Sportsfile
The situation in most counties is the county team are constantly training, even after the end of the league, and still months away from the championship Stock photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Some players might ask "is there life after county football?". "Is there a life with county football?" is a more appropriate question. And what about the club player?

If you are a club player you are the dirt under the nail, the stone in the shoe. Your lot will be discussed at every level, each presidential candidate will speak about the need to improve things but the reality is that clubs are treated worse, much worse, than even 10 years ago.

The reason is that the county team has become a monster. The county man is not a club player anymore, at least not until the county side are out of the championship. Then they return to their club where they have been nurtured but now need name tags to know who their teammates are.

This is not an issue of club fixtures. I have spoken to a lot of club managers from a lot of counties over the last couple of months. There are plenty of games but most are being played without the club's best players because they are training for the championship. Club players are released for short windows. Dublin, for example, have a few weeks with their clubs at present and strangely enough seem to train less collectively than far less successful counties. In other words, everyone else.

The situation in most counties is the county team are constantly training, even after the end of the league, and still months away from the championship. Players are told not to play with their clubs apart from championship games, or in some cases where counties have designated particular club league matches where county players must be available. What is happening in practice is that an unelected group involved in county management, which includes trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, dieticians, psychologists and an assorted range of other gurus, are dictating to clubs when they can have their players. Not only that, but it is done by the silent acquiescence of county board chairmen and executives. They may want to bask in the reflected glory if the county team win something, but the price is high. That price is the widespread disillusionment among club managers and officials who have no access to their players. County management groups are allowed to dictate who plays where and when.

Worse than that, clubs are levied by the board to boost finances which are being spent on county sides who have no chance of success. The ratio between the income of counties and what is being spent on county teams is way off the mark. The best information is that most counties spend between €3,000 and €5,000 per training session for county teams. This is made up of food, travel and all the paid employees who now assist the manager and selectors. So the most bizarre thing is that most management teams and all the players are involved for the right reasons and are being guided by a paid army of extras.

Even worse than that are the foreign training camps which cost huge money, although it appears some counties are being called to order. Why not just ban them? Strange that Dublin and Tyrone do not get involved in this practice and Dublin in particular don't seem to be suffering as a result. Again, club levies may not be used directly, but the money ends up in the same pot. And unfortunately there are not many of the old-style club delegates who used to hold the top table to account at county board meetings. Now, most business is done by sub-committees and nobody knows what is going on.

County football is not a sport anymore, it is a full-blown industry for some and while there is a role for specialists, particularly in the medical and physio end of things, there are bluffers involved as well. Teams are being trained five or six times a week by people who talk about rest and recovery and the importance of career advancement. Yet with this sort of time commitment between travel, training, eating, meetings etc it must take close to 30 hours per week. There is no time to rest and overuse injuries are prevalent. The only ones who can play in many of these counties are students, teachers or the unemployed and unemployable. If you have a job which finishes at six or seven, work shifts, or have a family, you cannot join the merry-go-round. In that way county football has become more like work than work itself.

I could not think of anything worse than the prospect of collective training five or six times a week. Imagine going home almost every evening and having to get your bag and head off training. It would fry your brain looking at the same ugly faces every night. I am glad I played in an enlightened era under Seán Boylan when we trained about four times a week and I did a bit on my own as well. But the tension release was to go back and play with the club. The breaks away playing club league matches kept players fresh and enthusiastic. Is it any wonder now that so many players are walking away from county football? In the majority of cases it is a guarantee of having no life outside football and no success either. If someone told me when I was playing that it was going to involve almost all of my spare time I would have said "no thanks".

What is even more disappointing is that players don't seem to have minds of their own anymore. They follow the lead like sheep. In the past there would have been healthy debate about the extent, duration and intensity of training.

Of course Páraic Duffy has tried to free up weekends for club activity. That is all very well but unless county boards ensure all players are released to their clubs then it is a waste of time. At every Congress there is a lot of talk about clubs. It is mainly bluff and bluster, especially when presidents are being elected. We have all heard those speeches. Why does the president and ard stiúrthóir not call in every county executive individually and ask them what games county players are available for their clubs.

County boards are failing clubs in many counties. They need to rein in county training, ensure players are released to their clubs and reduce the amount of money that is being spent on county sides, namely the senior football team. If that means there is not money to do some things with the county team then so be it. The man who stands at a gate and collects money at club championship matches does not realise that a big portion of this money is paying for weekends away or foreign holiday camps or paid employees of county teams. The flow of money should be going the other way, back to clubs.

County players need and deserve to be treated well as they are the main promotional tool of the game. However, we now have a monster which needs to be tackled from the top down. A good start could be made by returning the players to their clubs. It is hardly a radical idea.

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