Friday 23 August 2019

Marie Crowe: 'Players just won't want to play in two-tier structure'

Veteran Offaly footballer Niall McNamee feels players from top counties must speak out against creation of a 'B' championship

Niall McNamee fears players will simply focus on the league and then play with their clubs
Niall McNamee fears players will simply focus on the league and then play with their clubs

Marie Crowe

Offaly's Niall McNamee cuts a relaxed figure in the July sunshine as he reflects on a long and adventurous career on the Gaelic football field. He's not quite done yet but after close to two decades of inter-county football, he has plenty to reflect on.

Life experience and maturity has made him realise the value of the GAA away from the pitch. He knows and appreciates what it means to people and communities and is conscious of its value. He wants to see that value protected, the very essence of what makes the GAA great, its social impact.

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Niall McNamee. Photo: Sportsfile
Niall McNamee. Photo: Sportsfile

When he was in the despairing depths of his gambling addiction he turned to friends, family and treatment to help him overcome his demons, and the GAA provided a comfort blanket during the darkest of days. Without it, his life would be an emptier place.

The GAA has been a constant on his road to recovery. His own career may be in its twilight, but his sense of belonging in what he sees as a great organisation which has always been there for the greater good will in no way be diminished by the fact that he will some day soon be hanging up his boots.

And yet, he admits to being worried about the future of the game he loves so much - and even of the Association and the direction it appears to be heading. A game that was a constant through his gambling addiction and his ongoing recovery.

Over the last few months he's observed, with mounting concern, as GAA president John Horan has driven forward with plans for a two-tier championship. McNamee says he's worried about what's coming down the tracks.

"I don't know where it is going, is it being pushed down to semi-professionalism - the top eight teams playing for themselves," he says. "I don't know if that's the case, that the GAA want that, but if it is then that's fine. But we need to have a conversation about it instead of bringing in a two-tier competition and not really telling anyone why it's being brought in.

"Do they just want to let the players play away down in the bottom tier and not have to worry about them?

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"If the game goes professional it will ruin it," he continues. "If I was 17 or 18 and I was starting out and someone said, do you want to be a professional inter-county player, I would say 'yeah, absolutely,' because you are a professional athlete so it will be brilliant. But as you get older you see that the GAA is more than that, it's a part of the community and gives people so much.

"If it went professional I think you would lose that. Is there a plan that we don't know about it? It's very frustrating."

McNamee's Offaly team were unlucky to lose to Meath in the championship this year, but they went on to beat London and then Sligo in the qualifiers. Under John Maughan, they progressed to the third round of the qualifiers for the first time since 2010, eventually losing to Laois. For McNamee, who returned to the panel after a break, it was an enjoyable and somewhat successful season.

If a second-tier competition comes in next year, though, he feels the good work of this season for the squad will have been a waste as their Division 3 status would relegate them to the B competition.

He knows from his experience in the Tommy Murphy Cup that players don't have the interest in playing in a secondary competition. "I played in the Tommy Murphy Cup back in '07 and I'll be honest, I didn't want to play in it," said the 33-year-old. "We probably had half a team turn up to play against Wicklow.

"John Horan has said that everyone wants this, but the vast majority of people I know and have spoken to do not think this is a good idea and do not want it. I feel players won't play in it. They will set their sights on league, try and get promotion through the league and then go back and play with their clubs or else lads will go to America.

"The GAA are talking about second tier All Stars and promotion of the second tier games, I could be wrong on this but I don't think there is any appetite for that. I think players in the lower divisions already feel they are being treated like second-class citizens and then to give them a second tier All Star - I wouldn't want one.

"I was nominated for an All Star in '06 and if you don't win one you get a medallion saying you are a nominee. It's still at home in my mother's house, it's tangible, it is the principal competition in the country and you are striving to be in that. When you are a kid growing up you are striving to be the best, to play in big games on big days, you want to pit yourself against the best.

"That would be my fear that players won't want to play in it and there will be a fall-off in counties, that they won't be producing players, and they will just continue to play with their clubs. They won't want to play with their counties."

McNamee made his senior inter-county debut as a 17-year-old in 2003 and has played in all four divisions of the League. He knows what it takes to be successful at the top level, but also how easily things can unravel and how a team can slip down the ranks.

"You learn from playing those top teams, analysing and seeing where you would need to improve week on week," he says. "I haven't played against Dublin since 2007, we don't get exposed to that level anymore.

"I feel the people running competitions at the moment aren't looking at that gap and wondering why is that gap there and what can we do to close it.

"Instead they are focusing on thinking there is clutter here at the bottom . . . What are we going to do to keep them there and continue with the best games that are going to drive commercial revenue, drive attendances? I don't blame the likes of Dublin, Mayo Kerry, Tyrone - they all have their house in order for the last number of years.

"They will always be ok. They will make it work and be fine no matter what the competition structure is like, but as far as I'm concerned since the League structure changed back in 2007 the gap has got wider and wider and wider. We ended up in Division 4 in 2008 after being in Division 1 in 2006. I'd like to see the old League system brought back in.

"There are loads of changes you could make but there has to be a plan. I can't understand why there has been a committee set up to look at overall championship fixtures but then they throw a tier two competition and say work around that. There has to be something better."

The Offaly veteran believes that a consequence of moves to rush in the two-tier championship could see it become a tipping point - something that will focus minds of the broader membership, and of those counties who will be affected, and motivate them to act.

"Players have a responsibility to come out and say what they think about this. The further this goes the more players will come out and talk about it. I think players will take a stand against it and players in Division 1 and 2 need to make their voices heard because they may not be affected by it at the moment, but that's not to say they won't be in the future.

"It's going to have serious implications on the game. You want as many people as possible playing the game at the highest level and as many footballers as possible playing.

"The players from the top counties need to row in behind the lower division teams and say this isn't for the benefit of the game. Everyone realises there needs to be a championship restructure but this doesn't feel right."

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