Sunday 20 October 2019

Joe Brolly: If we don't give our GAA players games, we will lose them to soccer

A golden age for soccer beckons if the GAA doesn't radically change it's calendar, writes Joe Brolly

Corofin, All-Ireland club football champions
Corofin, All-Ireland club football champions

My old Derry team-mate, Eamonn Burns, tells a great yarn about a match being called off.

In 1992, his club Ballinascreen were due to play Castledawson at 1pm on a Sunday. Burns was to bring Paul Hickson and Mickey Boyle to the game. He stopped at Boyle's first. Boyle came out to the car and told him he'd just got a phone call to say the game was off. Someone had died. (In the GAA, someone always dies.) Boyle, who is full of divilment, had a plan. "We'll pick up Hickson. Say nothing."

They called for Hickson, who was none the wiser, and they chatted about the big game as normal. Who were the danger men. What they needed to do to beat the Dawson. As they were passing the Hogan Stand Bar, Boyle winked at Burns and said, "Jesus Burnsy, I'm wild nervous. I wouldn't mind a drink." Burns agreed most enthusiastically with the proposal.

A flabbergasted Hickson protested. "For f**k sake Hickson, lighten up," said Boyle. When they got into the bar, Boyle called for a half pint and a Bush. Burns the same. Hickson, horrified, ordered a diluted orange.

"For f**k sake Hickson," said Boyle. "Take a drink and calm yourself."

"Right enough Paul," said Burns, county man and team captain, "have a drink and stop being such a baby."

"Ah go on ahead," said Hickson. "I'll have a wee Bush."

God be with the days when the death of a Gael was the biggest threat to club football. The county game is now a sprawling commercial entity that dwarfs the club game, forcing club players to feed on the scraps. It is an out-of-control juggernaut. The lucrative county season now runs from January to September. It is a multi-million-euro business that results in club members and club players, who make up 99 per cent of the GAA, being screwed. A nine-month season? The NFL runs off theirs in five, from mid-September to the Super Bowl at the beginning of February.

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Just last week, the Down County Board (who are one of the better ones when it comes to their responsibility to club players) called off today's entire first round of football league games. The reason? Because the Down county team is playing in the Division 2 league final next Sunday. The postponement affects all Division 1 and 2 games. That is 32 teams (16 in each division), with an average squad size of 25, leaving 800 adult footballers seething with frustration.

I spoke to four different coaches or managers from affected club teams. They, their players and supporters are all seriously pissed off and have been making that discontent clear on social media. The games have been rescheduled for May 10, by which time county men will no longer be available for club duties, a highly damaging, interlinked problem.

County players are, in essence, no longer permitted to play club football. Club championships are routinely run off in many counties in four to six weeks, concertinaed in at the end of the county team's championship run.

In 2013, Tyrone's club footballers twiddled their thumbs until Tyrone were beaten by Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final at the end of August. Then they ran off their entire championship in 26 days. Donegal's 2014 championship was run off in a month, with the finalists playing three games in 10 days. Over the last five years Dublin's championship could be billed the Annual Dublin 15-a-side Blitz, with matches squeezed in day and night to get them played. St Vincent's played three games in one week during their great 2014 campaign.

In the last two years, Glenswilly (Donegal) and St Vincent's (Dublin) played their provincial first round within a few days of winning their county championship. The net effect is that clubs have become increasingly disenchanted and participation has come under severe pressure.

In Páraic Duffy's annual report, released in January, he wrote: "Since 2008, we have now had five major reports that, from varying perspectives, have addressed many of the same issues concerning club fixtures, the needs of the club player, inter-county competition structures and player welfare." He goes on to set out in strong words the "unacceptable distortion whereby the vast majority of our players do not have a planned and fairly scheduled set of fixtures, fixed and known in advance."

Liam Farrell from Rostrevor, Co Down tweeted last week: 'Down club football suffers yet again, no wonder players starting to prefer soccer.' It is a very real threat. Gaelic club footballers train very hard, often four times a week, and often with no game in sight. There are big fixture gaps during the season in most counties. If, however, they choose to play soccer, they get a game every Saturday, come hail or shine and train around once a week. It's a guaranteed 25-game season, run off weekly, allowing players to plan their lives. In modern Ireland, the old ideals of parish and cradle to the grave apply less and less. As the young population moves east, to Belfast and Dublin, lads simply want to play regular games. If we cannot offer them that, they will play soccer, which can.

The priority for county boards is to follow the orders of all-powerful county managers. They say 'postpone those games' and it is done. They let the board and clubs know when county players will be available. The boards, which are mostly craven, duly comply.

There is a simple enough solution to the problem, even if it means less money: Abolish the subsidiary county competitions (McKenna, O'Byrne, FBD Cups etc). Start the leagues in January and finish them in March. Start the championship in April and play the All-Ireland finals in July. There is absolutely no justification for four- to six-week gaps between county games, which are filled by training, training and more training. We could then start the club championships in June/July and play the All-Ireland club final in October/November. Alternatively, the club championships could begin in September, to give students a chance to earn the money during the summer that is vital for their upkeep.

This would have many good effects. It would restore the health of the game by rebalancing it in favour of the clubs. It would enhance players' overall welfare by reducing the overtraining that is endemic, thereby significantly reducing the risk of burnout and injury. The shorter season would ensure regular games and a drastic reduction in training.

Mike McGurn, who coached the Irish rugby union squad from 2005-2007 and the All-Blacks in their 2009 Tri Nations year, is currently working with the Queen's Sigerson team and Antrim footballers. He says, "most inter-county teams have a bigger training load than the All Blacks". Just think about that. He sent me the raw data for his time with the All Blacks and Ireland. They were training a maximum of seven-and-a-half hours per week.

Add to that the fact that they are professionals, so they are able to recover properly. McGurn points out that there is no comparable sport in the world with a training-to-game ratio like ours. The ratio in inter-county GAA is 12 to 14 training sessions per game. Compared to say professional soccer, basketball or American football where the ratio is three to four sessions per game. It is a staggering fact.

Páraic Duffy recently met me in Belfast, where we had an encouraging discussion on this critical issue. He is working on a radical fixtures masterplan that he hopes to have ready in the next few months. The five previous reports on fixtures and burnout (the first was in 2007, the most recent 2013) led nowhere, save for a rule forbidding Freshers from playing Sigerson football. This one must be radical and it must be implemented. Either that or a golden age for Irish soccer beckons.

Read more: Joe Brolly: In the name of winning, everything is now justifiable, including cheating

Read more: Joe Brolly: There is a culture within county squads of control and fear

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