Sunday 19 November 2017

I'll play by the Rules -- Oz agent

TRUST me, because I'm a lot more up-front than the Aussie Rules club scout who turned up, completely unannounced, at the home of an Ulster minor footballer yesterday!

That was the message from the top Australian sports agent who freely admits he has already compiled a detailed recruitment dossier on 100 of Ireland's best young Gaelic footballers and actually rang a third of them, from Dublin, yesterday, to invite them to an assessment camp here in August.

Sitting just 200 yards from Croke Park yesterday, sports agent Ricky Nixon knew many GAA people see him as the sporting equivalent of the child-catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

A 45-year-old former PE teacher and AFL player who has run Melbourne's 'Flying Start Management' agency since 1994, he is setting up an annual camp here intended to service the whole AFL with recruitment data on Ireland's best youth talent.

He says five AFL clubs have already signed up for it at €18,000 a pop, with another "probably signing next week".

Nixon is currently in Dublin for a week to suss out potential camp venues, talk to his Irish contacts and approach players about joining the AFL where senior players can earn €200,000 average a year at a sport he colourfully likens to "running a half-marathon every seven days while someone jumps out from behind a tree every 30 seconds and belts you!"

Yet Nixon insists he has had a lot of support here too and approaches from many top GAA people, including several county minor coaches.


"I had over 180 emails from people in Ireland saying they wanted to help. I only had two that were either threatening or negative," Nixon insisted.

A 'contact' has already got him a ticket for the Dublin versus Westmeath match tomorrow.

Next morning he'll be going through Croker's front door for a 9am meeting with GAA President Nickey Brennan and Director General Pairic Duffy who have, grudgingly, decided to hear out his plans first-hand.

Nixon can't understand why people are getting their knickers in such a knot, seeing that he, at least, is up-front.

"I don't lie. I don't jump out from behind trees and bash people over the head with a sledgehammer. I tell them what I'm doing. I understand some people here won't like it but what I can promise you is that it'll be 30 times more professional than what's going to happen if they don't," he warns.

"In the last three days, two AFL clubs have arrived in Ireland, unannounced and rung players. Two players told me this today," Nixon said. "One kid one told me that one of them just turned up at his door in Northern Ireland! That's unprofessional."

Nixon says there are several reasons why the GAA should not be panicked by this so-called rush Down Under.

"The average lifespan of a (senior) AFL player now is really only about three to five years. People are getting way too excited about losing Johnny Murphy from Ireland at 18 years when he could be back here by the time he's 22 or 23 and playing for his county for another 10 years," he said, suggesting that the GAA/AFL could even introduce a rule that Irish players could only play in Australia until they're 25.

Nixon is certainly doing things differently than the cloak-and-dagger stuff that has characterised Aussie Rules recruitment here in the past.

And he actually offered yesterday not only to let the GAA sit in on his recruitment camp but offered to let them also give a talk to players there arguing why they shouldn't go Down Under.

But he is adamant on one thing: World sport has changed, so has the AFL and so will the GAA.

"When they played test cricket 50 years ago they said there'd never be one-day cricket," he argued. "They said the soccer World Cup would be bigger than the Olympics everyone laughed but that's all happened and that's what the GAA faces -- change."

"What's the difference between the 100 or more kids who leave Ireland every year to play soccer in Europe?" he added. "We are only talking about a very small number of Gaelic players and when people come to Australia and take kids to play baseball or basketball in America, or soccer in Europe, we don't sit there and whinge and bitch and cry about it. We say good luck, pat them on the back and wish them well.

"I'm hearing how ingrained Gaelic football is in the community and I understand that people are upset if a young player leaves, but it's a choice they make for themselves, not one made for them by administrators."

A few of his ideas, that the GAA/AFL might organise financial compensation for clubs and counties, or that Australia could send players over here for a few years' experience, betray a complete lack of understanding of the GAA's amateur ethos and community culture.

He was also unaware that Gaelic players had their own union and was somewhat surprised to see a Dublin player plastered all over a billboard on Jones Road in a GPA car advertisement.

"Listen, if someone marched into my town in Australia and suggested that my kids suddenly played baseball, not AFL, I tell you what, I'd be getting pretty annoyed and I'd be worried," Nixon said.

"I'd wonder who this bloke with the funny curly hair is as well but at the end of the day, too, you've got to take a step back and say is this best for the future or not?

"If, on Monday, the GAA are adamant that this is such a bad thing, then I might just walk away," Nixon insisted. "But, guess what! On the next plane from Australia there's going to be 16 clubs doing it behind your back. You can't build the Great Wall of China and stop them jumping over it!"

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