Ewan MacKenna: The club game represents everything the GAA has lost in pursuit of Super Eights and Taylor Swift
It was in the summer of 2000 that a gangly 19-year-old was handed a baggy white jersey and joined what was the best team his county produced this side of the war.
Ronan Sweeney and Kildare won a Leinster title that summer but, across his career, his sport changed and then changed a lot more. It meant Sweeney spent his adulthood with a shoulder to a wheel that would and could never budge. Now 37, for a long time it’s only his club that's given deserved openings at provincial level and, on Sunday, Moorefield provide him with what’s likely his last chance.
John Heslin has much road to travel before that reflex of peering back at what was and what might’ve been. Just 25, he's a behemoth and a direct and ruthless joy to watch, ticking many superstar boxes. But crucially there are a couple of blanks as it's wrong place and wrong time, what with him being from Westmeath in an era when inter-county belongs to the chosen few. Unlike Sweeney he's only reaching his peak; like Sweeney for so long, and despite his All Star-level talent, already his club St Loman’s is the only place he can and will ever truly triumph.
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring we will arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
The likes of those two have already been deprived of much to the point this weekend is a sanctuary from the plutocracy. For the masses getting dirty by shoveling coal into the association’s whistling engine, that’s also the case. However there’s a problem.
Depending on who you are, your club is your only chance. But because of who you are, that only chance is an afterthought in a scheme for the grand. This ought to be the most wonderful time of the year – the epitome of our national games which the majority can relate to and revel in. You just wished those that decided on the direction of the GAA realised, even if that isn’t good for business.
There's a sentiment that makes up many a marketing campaign and tells us the GAA is really about the parish and revolves around the smallest building blocks. That’s good rhetoric, but like so much else in the seedy realm of sales it has never been introduced to the reality. Back in November, for instance, when the club game was quietly blooming in the cold and the dark, much news was about Colm Cooper.
It was down to his testimonial that was estimated to have brought in €250,000 and of course that deserved inquisition and serious scrutiny. Yet so many focused on it for the wrong reasons, lambasting the Kerry man’s greed when he was no more than a microcosm of his sport. He wasn’t going against the GAA ethos; instead he was representing the new millennial version of that ethos.
It’s a sport of elitism on top of elitism. Within inter-county teams, there are guys like Gooch profiting, and then the rest.
Within the highest level of the game there are Dublin and a couple of others, and then the rest.
Within the adult game there is the minority at inter-county, holding up the rest.
At underage there are development squads, dictating to the rest.
Running beside this is a huge amount of income going to a particular section, with the remainder divvied up amongst the rest. On each occasion, it’s the club at the bottom of the food chain. Let them eat cake.
In a sense it mirrors the unseemly church model of handing out a collection plate to those worst off. A friend who coaches underage described it differently.
“The mafia model,” he said, implying the route of finance rather than any criminality.
“Money is collected at the bottom and makes its way up.”
As Michéal Briody, president of the Club Players' Association told me just this autumn: “The gulf between the volunteer and the money-driven GAA is getting wider and the rot in the GAA is all about money. If this continues it's going to be like oil and water.”
Or the aristocracy and the proletariat. Last year, while representing a measly half-a-per-cent of all players, the GPA managed to get €6.2m per annum from the GAA, 15 per cent of the GAA's commercial revenue, and another €6.9m across three years from the government. As for the CPA and its 25,000 members, it has no bank account for fear that would become the focus. Of course there’s the need for a symbiotic relationship, a two-way street that benefits all, but square that utopia with what has happened.
Little wonder Briody added: “Sorry if I sound despondent. Since we started, we’d 10 meetings with the likes of [director-general] Pádraic Duffy, [head of games] Fergal McGill and [president] Aogán Ó Fearghaíl. Nine were token… We wanted an input into the master fixtures and got an email from the CCCC saying we were entitled to a one-off, like any crackpot who has an idea on his own… The GAA have 10 paid officials and could only meet us, guys with jobs, at 10 in the morning. That's the respect and it hurts them that we're amateurs, that our concern isn't money.”
Like so many other parts of society in Ireland, these days everyone pays into the jar, but fewer and fewer get to actually put their hands near that jar. It begs the question to those in charge - what is it that you want your GAA to be and who does that benefit? As of now, the silence and supposed directionless gives us an uncomfortable answer.
Back in the summer, one county team had the cost of a single training session top out at €5,000, with the average coming in at €3,000. Where does that bill get sent? In Kerry, for instance, there was anger at a €10 increase in the price of All Ireland tickets while their club championship prices were pushed up due to the centre of excellence. Based in Currans, and with a €8m price-tag, the area has only one coach, meaning he gets to a school there for a half-day every two weeks. Everyone pays for the few but the few gives little back.
And Kerry is far from alone. Tyrone clubs continue to pay for a €6.7m centre of excellence for the best, but didn’t even have pitches with their club championship games moved to Armagh.
Nor is it just the cash, for time and control are hoovered up from above as well. This season preparing for a club championship match, with a county reserve keeper listed out the field, that county's manager rang the club manager and told him the player had to be given the number one shirt.
Another player was part of an extended county panel and decided to go to America but was told by his manager he should be preparing for the 2018 league. A student, he stayed, making money teaching at cúl camps only for the furious manager to make him stop as he "should be resting”. It's no surprise that one player with an elite county quit as, on the bench, “I wasn't even allowed play with my mates in the club”.
Recently an under-14 development squad thought they'd have time with their clubmates with the county schedule showing no training but instead were given serious gym programmes to fill the space. Those same players are already on diet plans to the point that a parent on the way home from a game offered to buy her son a McDonald's but was told it wouldn't be good.
That same parent is among many that gets a call every Saturday from the trainer to make sure “they're [the son] okay”. Elsewhere an underage fixture maker this year got a forceful call from the county minor manager and was told when questioning a request that hurt the majority of young club players: “Do you know who you’re dealing with?”
While ordinary members worry about rural depopulation, club fixtures and the game dying around them, the GAA hierarchy have come up with Super Eights, Sky Sports and Taylor Swift. That says all you need to know about how we reached here and about how there might be no way back. And if you think Congress is a vehicle to put the blame on everyone, let us dispel that myth. Many key decisions don’t make it that far and those that do become stage-managed politics with the well off taking care of each other. Democracy is the fig leaf of this elitism.
It all means that the club game has never held more importance, because it has never had less importance placed on it. This after all is the final trench before the sport becomes all about business, the last crumbling wall before the great and tragic collapse. And it means this is the most wonderful time of the year for the purity of its fixtures remains untouched by higher-up interests, dictates and demands.
Sweeney and Heslin can revel in that but so should we. That’s because where once such finals represented the essence of the GAA, now they do the opposite.