Saturday 21 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Don't deny Irish players their big chance, gaelic football doesn't offer them a living'

Jeremy McGovern of the West Coast Eagles marks during the 2018 AFL Grand Final against Collingwood Magpies which was played in front of 100,022 spectators. Photo: Ryan Pierse/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Jeremy McGovern of the West Coast Eagles marks during the 2018 AFL Grand Final against Collingwood Magpies which was played in front of 100,022 spectators. Photo: Ryan Pierse/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

In 1951, Eamon de Valera gave a speech in which he claimed 50 Irish workers were living in one house in Birmingham, 15 to a room, and men and women on shift work slept in the same bed by turns. The Irish Digest newspaper ran reports headlined, 'Irish girls found living with coloured men and Poles' and 'Irish boys living in illicit association with their landladies and divorced women'. Priests warned that Irish emigrants were going to dance halls which were "the haunt of spivs and barrow boys".

1950s Ireland didn't have much to offer, but those in a position of power liked making those who left feel as though they'd committed a form of treachery. In reality, as Clair Wills wrote in her magnificent history of post-war immigration to Britain, Lovers and Strangers, "The Irish weaved their way through with everyday sense and tact".

The current hysteria about young Gaelic footballers being lost to Australian rules football brings those grim warnings from the past to mind. Once more Irish people simply trying to better their lot are being made to feel as though leaving the country is an immoral act. Yet like '50s Ireland, the GAA can't offer a living to the young men involved. The AFL, being a professional league, can.

Among those departing is Sligo's Red Óg Murphy who's signed a two-year contract with North Melbourne. I've been keeping an eye on young Murphy for a while and he is undoubtedly a prodigious talent. Last year, the Curry man hit 11 points, four from play, against Derry in the All-Ireland minor quarter-final. The year before he scored 3-10 when St Attracta's Tubbercurry won the Connacht Junior League final against St Jarlath's Tuam.

I'd been looking forward to seeing how this wonderkid would go at senior level. But now I'm looking forward to seeing if he can make it in the AFL. Should he or any of the other 13 Irish players currently in the league emulate Jim Stynes and Tadhg Kennelly, it would be a magnificent achievement. We're talking, after all, about the game whose grand final this year attracted over 100,000 spectators.

Murphy and lads like him would be mad not to jump at the chance of going to Australia. For starters, it gives them the chance of becoming a professional sportsman and earning money doing the thing they love most. I don't know anything about the educational prospects of the current wave of Aussie recruits but I do know that there are plenty of GAA stars whose career options were adversely affected by the way they'd focused on football from a young age. Some top players are professionals in all but remuneration. Why not get the proper reward?

But a move Down Under isn't all about money. It also represents a huge personal challenge, something irresistible to the kind of driven and gifted youngsters who show up on the radar of the AFL scouts. Why not find out exactly what you're made of by taking on the toughest task possible? Adding to the attraction is the fact that Australia seems to possess the same mystique for youngsters now as England did for their predecessors in the '50s and America did for my generation in the 1980s.

The economic push factor has always been accompanied by the pull factor represented by the opportunity to live a different kind of life in a new place. Home and Away will always seem that bit more glamorous than Fair City. The beach always trumps the rain.

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This departure of a relative handful of players has prompted some ludicrous apocalyptic rhetoric. I've seen it suggested, for example, that Mark O'Connor's move to Geelong cost Dingle victory in last Sunday's Kerry county final against Dr Crokes. Seriously? Crokes won by six points. O'Connor is a very good player but his reputation will grow inordinately every year the Kingdom fail to overthrow Dublin. If the Dubs make it seven in a row, he'll become Jack O'Shea and Mick O'Connell rolled into one. That's always presuming O'Connor isn't back home by then.

The prophets of doom seem to forget that the majority of Irish players don't make it in Australia. Only around half of those who've travelled over have even played a first-team game. Of the 21 who achieved that feat, less than half enjoyed a successful AFL career. Stynes and Kennelly top the list, while Zach Tuohy, Pearce Hanley, Seán Wight, Setanta Ó hAilpín and Martin Clarke can all be considered to have made it in Australia. Tyrone's Conor McKenna, who signed a new four-year contract with Essendon last year, looks well placed to join their ranks.

Some exceptional talents have found the AFL a step too far. Paul Earley, Brian Stynes, Dermot McNicholl, Tommy Walsh, Anthony Tohill, Chrissy McKaigue, Colm Begley, John Heslin, Brendan Murphy and Michael Quinn among them. That's a reflection on the immense difficulty of the task involved rather than on the ability of the players. The chances of an enormous and lasting exodus of the GAA's best young talent are slim because the competition is just too tough.

For all the superficial similarities between the games, Australian rules is a very different game from Gaelic football. The Irish player taking it up at 19 or 20 is trying to win a pro contract ahead of guys who've been dedicated to their native game since they were kids and who are bound to have an instinctive understanding of the game which he lacks. For all Red Óg Murphy's talent, the comments of North Melbourne general manager Cameron Joyce were tellingly cautious: "We feel that he has the right foundations to enable him to have a real crack at playing in the AFL and we will give him every chance."

Yet there are still calls to make it more difficult for the Australians to sign young Irishmen. It's been said we should threaten to call off the International Rules series which would be a somewhat hollow threat as the series has always mattered more to the GAA than the AFL.

Tomás Ó Sé suggested last week that the Australian clubs should be made pay a fee. But apart from the fact that this would be unenforceable, it seems completely unethical for the GAA to try and prevent a young man making a living the way he sees fit. Given the failure rate among Irish recruits, it's unlikely AFL sides would fork out big money to secure an unknown quantity. Irish players are a big enough gamble as it is.

Ó Sé's criticism of Tadhg Kennelly for acting as a scout also seems unfair. Knowing how well things worked out for himself, Kennelly is merely giving other youngsters a crack at the Australian dream. The possible loss of Mark O'Connor is something Kerry should be well able to absorb as they absorbed that of Kennelly, winning three All-Ireland titles in the eight years he spent with the Sydney Swans before he returned in 2009 and helped them to another.

Red Óg Murphy will represent a considerably bigger loss to Sligo, yet his departure comes at a time when the GAA are preparing to consign smaller counties to the basement of a two-tier championship. Denied the chance to test himself against the best his own game has to offer, why wouldn't a talented youngster go to Australia instead?

Seventeen years ago, Bernie Collins left Castlehaven for the Western Bulldogs. Bernie was a big loss to Haven yet during the two years he spent in Australia I never heard anyone say, "I hope he fails because then he can come back and play for us." People were thrilled he'd got the opportunity and rooting for him to make it out there. He almost did. When Bernie came home, he won a county senior medal and played a valuable role in the club.

So when their disappointment over losing Red Óg Murphy fades, I'm sure his friends and neighbours in Curry will be intrigued by the prospect of seeing one of their own succeed on the other side of the globe. Imagine how exciting it would be to see a Sligo man or a Kerry man or a Laois man or a Mayo man in the Grand Final. And imagine what a tribute it would be to the sport, the club and the county which produced him.

Talk of making life more difficult for Australian clubs to sign Irish players misses the point entirely. The Aussies would move on and look elsewhere. The people we'd be hurting would be our own. Bewailing the good fortune of an infinitesimal percentage of the GAA's players is an extremely petty and parochial reaction.

It's not Van Diemen's Land they're going to.

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