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Hard-hit players turning to GPA in hour of need

The Gaelic Players' Association extended its counselling service to include a 24-hour hotline for members who may have been struggling with the extra pressures and anxieties that the festive season brings.

At the end of a year that saw 2,600 international GAA transfers sanctioned, the GPA is acutely aware that there are many players facing difficult situations in their work and family lives. "The counselling service has been in existence for the past year but the uptake was so great in 2011 that we decided to maintain it on a 24-hour basis for the Christmas period," said GPA communications manager Seán Potts.

"We're still waiting for feedback on the service, which is similar to one provided by the Irish Rugby Union Players' Association, but the bottom line is that our members wanted it and we felt it important to maintain such assistance over the holidays."

The ESRI estimates that outward migration will reach 100,000 by April, and it's safe to assume that many of those leaving the country will be hurlers or footballers.

There is little the GAA can do to prevent jobless players from leaving; they have introduced various employment initiatives and other schemes but these have only enjoyed limited success, leaving them to set up clubs in cities where the players have gone.

London is proving the most popular destination with 682 transfers in the past 12 months, Perth and Sydney had 253 each, while New York had 205. The other main US cities players transferred to were Boston (125), San Francisco (61) and Chicago (38).

Clubs have been the worst hit with many all over the country being forced to join up with neighbours just to field teams.

According to Potts, the figures are not as damning at inter-county level.

"In 2011, we had 26 inter-county players out of 2,500 who permanently left the country," he said. "I'm not trying to downplay this problem which is haunting clubs, but from a county player's perspective, the figures are not as shocking, although counties like Monaghan, Clare and others along the west coast might not necessarily agree with this view.

"Having said that, we're doing all we can to help players stay on. We issued 500 scholarships last year and we helped fund around 200 players on their return to education."

In total, 1,600 players have taken advantage of this hardship fund since it was set up two years ago. Players can receive a maximum of €800 over the course of one year.

"What the fund offers can vary," Potts added. "Over 200 players availed of one-on-one career service work with our advisor Mairéad Griffin and went into employment. We had more members working by the end of the year than at the start.

"The stigma attached to this service has been eliminated because so many members availed of it, from helping with their careers, to insurance, to more minor requirements. But, not surprisingly, career and education were the two areas that were catered for most.

"We have reps all over the country feeding us with information and I suppose the emigration figure would be higher if we included those inter-county players who take off at the end of a season but come back two or three months later."

Potts says that creating medium to long-term opportunities for players remains the GPA's biggest challenge. In Laois, for instance, almost 150 GAA players have left the county since the end of the 2010 championship, an average of four players per club.

New Kerry chairman Patrick O'Sullivan feels players who leave these shores could be allowed play for two clubs. "We have sanctions for people who play in New York," he said, "but if we could get a proper sanction to bring them back from a club in London, it would keep the identity of their home club and their parish alive. If, say, the London club is his home club, maybe the player could get a weekend sanction to come home and play with his club in Ireland. It would definitely help to keep clubs here alive.

"I don't think people realise that the west of Ireland is being cleaned out, with all the young people leaving. In Kerry, for example, when the summer season goes a lot of people don't have work. We have no major industries at the moment."

Sunday Indo Sport