Sunday 18 March 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Don't waste this chance to make a difference

'If delegates believe in looking after our best young players then they must vote in favour of these proposals' Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
'If delegates believe in looking after our best young players then they must vote in favour of these proposals' Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

The GAA army marches on Carlow next weekend for the annual congress of the Association.

The officers, the delegates, the men of importance . . . and of course a good gathering of those who are there for the enjoyment of meeting like-minded people from all over the country and from abroad too.

Mind you, there's nothing wrong with giving the footsoldiers a bit of rest and relaxation before they head back to war with games to be fixed, referees to be protected and warring factions to be appeased. In other words, heading back to normal GAA business.

Yet while most ordinary members regard Congress like the bubonic plague and would prefer anything to being forced to attend, it is still the central decision-making forum and so it should grab everyone's attention. There is no point complaining about big decisions if you do not make your voice heard in advance. Edmund Burke once said that for evil to prosper all it takes is for good men to do nothing. That is hardly a concern for a GAA Congress, but democracy only works when people engage.

A few motions are going to test the commitment of ordinary men and women to protecting underage players from excessive demands. The first real test will be on the vote to reduce minor from its current under 18 to under 17. This goes against the grain of all traditionalists who looked at big minor matches in Croke Park to see the stars of the future. Nothing stays the same and this is a necessary first step in bringing order to the chaos of underage football.

Changing from under 18 to under 17 brings a couple of major advantages. First of all it takes the new grade away from the Leaving Cert for the vast majority of students. Whatever about the rights and wrongs of the Leaving Cert being an event of such importance, it certainly shifts the emphasis away from football to exam preparation in spring time. Leisure activity and training of any kind is very useful in promoting good health and improving grades - as shown in many studies - but I have seen plenty of good young men who become so obsessed with the county minor team that it damaged their results. This change would also benefit second level schools football as again there would be less of a clash with senior schools football and the new under 17 grade.

Secondly, and at one stroke, it would immediately mean that setting fixtures for adult football would become a lot easier as under 17 players are not now eligible for this grade. It simply means the activity of a minor player could not hold up an adult league or championship match, as has been happening all over the country when a county minor team is going well. I thought this proposal was very sensible so I was amazed to read about opposition from Kerry to it. Coaching officer and minor selector Eamon Whelan was quoted as saying that because under 16 players will now be involved and that they will be doing the Junior Cert it is a reason not to change, and he also argued against it on the basis that 18-year-olds will not have inter-county football. Well first of all you could hardly equate the Junior Cert and Leaving, and yes the precise idea is not to have 18-year-olds playing county football.

There was similar opposition to making under 21 into an under 20 competition to be played in June, July and August not involving players who are on the senior county panel. This is a compromise from abolishing under 21 altogether and again makes perfect sense. If delegates believe in looking after our best young players then they must vote in favour of these proposals.

There is no downside. Sadly, however, there is a danger of delegates sleep-walking through Congress and not seeing the obvious chance that's there to start the process of protecting players from mental and physical burnout. The mental burnout for these players from too much training, travelling, playing and trying to cope with exams is a very real issue. Often delegates vote down proposals when they don't bother either listening or looking at the benefits. This is a time to pay more than lip service to 'Mol an oige agus tiocfaidh siad'. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to look at these two proposals as the beginning of something. The reality is that there is a huge amount more to complete in this area.

It is not surprising that there is almost universal opposition to a senior B championship. If teams are portrayed as the runt of the litter then they are not going to accept it. In many ways people may find it strange that a three-tier competition is acceptable in hurling but not in football. Where no incentive appears, counties will always stick to the status quo. And it's hard to blame them either.

Having said that, there is an inevitability about a properly constructed B championship. How it is run, the rewards for finalists and who is in it is the hard bit. Certainly there should be more than eight counties involved but the different counties won't bite until they see that it could give them a lift both competitively and financially.

That is why the invitation for all units and interested parties to send in their proposed championship structures to Croke Park was a cop-out. There was never going to be anything other than complete chaos with so many differing viewpoints and vested interests at play. It seems unlikely that any motion on the championship will get through Congress but there is an opportunity there now for the GAA president to put a high-powered committee in place who will come back with a recommendation for next year that stands a chance of winning the support and understanding of counties.

Remember, I was on the original committee which proposed the back door and we had two attempts at it before we got the current system through. It has served a purpose but I have often argued that it is time to move on again.

There is enormous capacity to improve the football championship by making it more attractive for every county. I also believe there is greater scope to create a bigger pool of money for counties. And, importantly, I think all this can be achieved without interfering with the club scene at all. Who has the vision to get a few good men and women together to put all the moving parts in place?

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