Thursday 12 December 2019

Joe Brolly: 'Gombeenism, dishonesty and fear is killing the GAA - but at least lads are having yummy steak dinners'

Micheál Briody cut a frustrated figure at the CPA press conference in Dublin last week Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Micheál Briody cut a frustrated figure at the CPA press conference in Dublin last week Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

The Club Players' Association removed themselves from the GAA's Fixtures Farce Force last week, prior to the completion of its report, having concluded that it is a whitewash, designed to keep things more or less as they are.

All of the CPA's carefully considered proposals to restore a fair balance between club and county for players, and to support and sustain the communities that support them through thick and thin, were rejected. No wonder the CPA's Micheál Briody (CEO of one of Ireland's biggest companies) was outraged when speaking to journalists last week.

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Sitting beside him at that press conference in Dublin was Joan Kehoe, the brilliant chief of JP Morgan's Asia division. On the other side was Liam Griffin, one of the country's most respected entrepreneurs and a lifelong servant of the GAA community. As you might expect from such high-calibre GAA people, they had assumed the Fixtures Farce Force report would be compiled in good faith. Instead, they discovered it was a stitch-up job, leading them to announce they could not "in good conscience" continue to be part of the process.

The CPA's statement had this to say on the matter: "The task force is a Trojan horse designed to give cover to the GAA authorities to ratify the status quo, while having the appearance of consultation and thoughtful deliberation."

Basically, these serious, intelligent adults had the piss taken out of them, which is a humiliating and demotivating experience. I had warned them beforehand that this is precisely what would happen, but their view was that they would, in good faith, contribute fully and honestly to the process. Galling for their efforts to be dismissed so dishonestly.

It is this culture of laziness, old-school dishonesty, fear of people with good ideas, and cute hoorism that is slowly killing the GAA.

This can be clearly seen in Mayo, where the Mayo International Supporters Foundation is shining a light on the county board. An initial €150,000 was contributed by the Foundation to the board. When the Foundation asked for a breakdown of how that was spent, they didn't get any satisfactory answers. The Foundation are therefore holding back a further €250,000, refusing to release it to the board until proper, transparent governance structures are in place.

The Mayo board's response was typical of how the GAA operates. Basically, tell them to fuck off, who do they think they are, then go for a steak dinner. Yummy.

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The board proceeded to make fun of the Foundation, calling the chairman of the fund "a donkey", and playing the song 'Shoe the Donkey' at MacHale Park during the recent Mayo v Underdogs game. As the pressure on the board intensified, they responded by barring the media from board meetings relating to the crisis.

Rather than use this as an opportunity to revamp their structures, they closed ranks. The treasurer of the board even suggested that they should give the money back (this was leaked to the press, and the chairman of the board described this leak as "the lowest of the low".) Think of that. They would rather give back the €400,000 (between what has been given already and what is being held) and forego the possibility of many millions more in the coming years, than create a more transparent governance system.

The board went on to issue a press release saying there had been a resounding vote of confidence in the executive, carried by the clubs. The clubs responded furiously, branding this completely untrue and arguing that the media should not be excluded as they were simply highlighting long-standing issues of governance.

It has been reported that the Director General of the GAA is concerned with developments and that Central Council and Connacht officials have met with the Mayo executive to "scope the extent of the problem". This will of course lead to absolutely nothing, but at least they will all have had a lovely steak dinner after the meeting. Yummy.

We see the same sort of gombeenism in boards around the country, including Galway, and a very stunning current example in Meath, which John Greene writes about in today's paper. John's dad was one of the trustees of the GAA, both are keen volunteers, and it gives John and his family no pleasure to have to deal with these matters.

Another recent example is the way the Playing Rules Committees squandered the opportunity to revive the excitement, passion and core skills of Gaelic football. Everyone knows that the starting point for any serious attempt to revive the game is to accurately identify the problem. That core problem is zonal or blanket defending, where players drop off their men and take up a space inside the scoring zone. This is awful to watch and awful to play, but it is highly effective. The Rules Committee was stacked to ensure nothing was done and all of the many imaginative solutions put forward were dismissed before the members tucked into a hearty steak dinner. Yummy.

Look at the Ulster club semi-finals from last weekend. The province's premier teams are all set up nowadays with blanket defences. The game-plan is to grind each other down over the course of 60 agonising minutes.

First up, Clontibret v Glenties. Glenties (the home of the blanket defence) were hot off the back of a hard-won Donegal championship victory. They played Ghaoth Dobhair three times to win it, in three games that were systematic and unwatchable. After 60 minutes in each game the scorelines were 0-8 to 0-8 (no ET), 1-6 to 0-9, and finally 0-8 to 0-7. Last Saturday Glenties ground it out again against Clontibret, who are not up to speed on the full-on blanket defensive game (pundits now describe this as "naivety").

On Sunday, it was Derrygonnelly v Kilcoo, another blanket defensive game of interest only to anoraks and locals. By half-time the score was 0-4 to 0-2 for Kilcoo. I taped the second half, then played it forward at high speed as an experiment. Funny thing was it looked like the same thing repeating over and over again. Hand-passing. Holding possession. Making late runs through the blanket in numbers. Winning frees. Not fouling. Cynical holding and taking one for the team. Nothing remarkable or distinctive happened. In fast-forward mode, it was like watching worker bees in the hive.

The Ulster club final next weekend will be precisely the same. I was talking to a well-known coach last week, who is a genuine football lover. He said to me the last team he went to manage they started with a training match and the inside forwards were flying. He said they were the most naive team he had ever seen. After 15 minutes he called them over and said, "Lads, get a sweeper in there now. You'll not be playing that sort of football come championship."

As he said to me himself: "If we play like that we will be fucking murdered come August."

Last year's Ulster club semi-final provided an excellent example of this. Crossmaglen went man-to-man. The Ghaoth Dobhair midfielder Dara O'Boaill soloed through the wide open heart of the Crossmaglen defence (vacated by his teammates) for three goals. This season, bowing to the inevitable, for the first time ever I saw a Crossmaglen team playing a sweeper.

Because of the laziness, lack of competence and leadership, and associated fear of rocking the boat, nothing at all has been done to deal with this problem, leading inevitably to those mind-numbingly dull televised Ulster club semi-finals.

This is how it ought to work: Once a problem is identified, then people of good intent and high capacity should be invited to start to look at possible solutions. Instead, a pretence is maintained. Soon, when those people of good intent with a strategic vision realise they are having the piss taken out of them, they become disenchanted and decide to do something else in their spare time.

Various new playing rules were advocated. I was contacted by the committee and put forward several proposals:

1. The scoring zone should become an exclusion zone, where a defending player can only man-mark and no one can mark space there. There would be a semi-circle (marked in yellow) from the endline, 10 metres in from each sideline, running to 35 metres at its tip. Only man-marking would be permitted in this zone. This means that the attacking team dictate who goes in there. So, if their full-forward stations himself on the edge of the square a la Michael Murphy or Kieran Donaghy, then the full-back can be there with him.

If the attacking team decides to play two forwards in there on either side of the square or wherever, then there will be two defenders in there. For the others, they can only be in there if their man goes in there. This has a number of consequences. It means that an early ball can be kicked in. It means that a coach will be working on attacking strategies to take advantage of the man-marking rule. Crucially, it means that there is no point in a blanket defence since a) they cannot protect the scoring zone and b) an opponent will not be able to mark space and must man-mark since an attacking player can attack into the exclusion zone at any time. Ignored.

2. Three on-field officials: We already have four inter-county refs at county games, two doing the sideline and one assessing the ref. One ref should be used in each half of the pitch to police the scoring zone and ensure no zonal defending, which is how they do it in Aussie rules. The other ref could police the match as usual. Ignored.

3. The kick-out must go beyond the 45, and for the kick-out, the teams must form into their starting positions (just like we always used to). This would force teams to start with a full complement of forwards, make it very hard to set up a blanket defence, prevent short kick-outs designed to retain possession, and encourage contests for possession. Ignored.

4. No pass back to the keeper. This would encourage the attacking team to push up on the full-backs without them being able to release all the pressure by passing back to the goalie. Ignored.

5. No back-pass across the half-way line. This would enforce forward play and make it very difficult to see out games by holding possession for three or four minutes by hand-passing backwards and sideways. Ignored.

6. A proper sanction for a deliberate pull-down depriving a clear goal-scoring opportunity (red card plus penalty) and deliberate pull down depriving clear point scoring opportunity (yellow card and 21-metre free in front of the posts). Ignored.

Instead, the GAA packed the Rules Committees with their own sort. They pretended to listen to ideas but instead came up with proposals that do not deal with a single one of the problems that are ruining the game as a spectacle and for the players. Like the Fixtures Farce Force, it was merely designed to create the impression that something was being done, while doing nothing at all.

The same thing happens for the selection process for a new DG. A decade ago, Pat Gilroy, the CEO of a multi-national company, All-Ireland winner and communitarian, found himself down to the last two with Paraic Duffy, a schoolteacher. Gilroy's plan for the future of the GAA was radical, comprehensive, inspirational and modern. Pat arrived full of ideas and enthusiasm, and came away humiliated. It is the GAA way.

When Paraic Duffy retired, having allowed us to be galloped along the road to elitism because he didn't have a plan, another DG selection process brought us to yet another vast anti-climax. In one corner, a vibrant, independent candidate with an exciting blueprint to transform and sustain the GAA (Liam Sheedy) was brought along for the sake of appearances. Everyone knew they were going to give the job to the insider whose inspirational motto was "If it ain't broke, don't fix it'. Which they duly did. Who is he? What does he stand for? What are his plans for the multiple challenges facing the GAA?

I met Liam recently at the opening of the inaugural Mayo Hospice, where he had taken time out of his frantic schedule to be there for this massively important community event. "Oh well," I said, "I suppose our loss was Tipp's gain."

Last week, the CPA said of the Fixtures Farce Force's upcoming whitewash: "We are bitterly disappointed and frustrated that this is an opportunity missed . . . and that the proposals in the report do not address the concerns of players and teams." Which could be said of every report that comes from GAA committees.

Mind you, they do enjoy a lovely steak dinner afterwards. Yummy.

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