Saturday 15 December 2018

Martin Breheny: 'Being a 'county man' is losing its appeal for players - and it's hard to see a solution'

 

Decision time: Kildare’s Daniel Flynn is considering his involvement with Lilywhites for next year’s Championship. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Decision time: Kildare’s Daniel Flynn is considering his involvement with Lilywhites for next year’s Championship. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Johnny Byrne had a decision to make and it didn't work out well for Kildare. Daniel Flynn has a decision to make and only time will tell how it works out for the Lilywhites.

Wing-back Byrne won't be available next year, citing "new challenges I'll face in the coming months and goals to fulfil that will require 100 per cent from me" as the reason for his departure.

Flynn, who scored 4-11 from play in this year's championship, is "thinking things over" and "hasn't decided either way" for next year. Manager Cian O'Neill said that he was "still having conversations with players" as he assembles the 2019 panel.

Other managers - especially in football - are similarly engaged at present and many don't like what they're hearing. The attraction of being a 'county man' isn't what it once was, with an increasing number of players declining invitations to sign up.

That's a worrying break with tradition when a call to the county squad was the ultimate honour. And when a player made it at county level, he stayed there for as long as possible. Very few walked away and fewer still opted against becoming involved in the first place.

That's not the case anymore. As a Division 1 and 'Super 8s' player, Byrne's exit from the Kildare panel attracts national attention, whereas departures further down the rankings go largely unnoticed except at local level. It's happening though, and at a worrying rate too.

Obviously, there are always going to be some departures, but when there's an increase in opt-outs, it's clear that a more general problem exists.

It takes no great insight to understand the reasons. The commitment required of all inter-county squads has reached unprecedented levels and, by all accounts, is still rising.

For what? The majority have no chance of winning anything and while that was always the case, the difference now is that the divide between the various tiers is wider than it has ever been.

Hurling has regulated itself to cater for that, but not football. Hurlers operate at their own level in the championship, moving up or down depending on how they perform.

Wicklow or Longford won't face Kilkenny or Galway in the Leinster Championship, but Wicklow and Longford footballers faced Dublin this year in painful experiences where they were beaten by a combined total of 44 points.

Players from lower-ranked counties are expected to put in as much effort as their counterparts from top powers and for what? So that they can be humiliated on a summer Sunday?

The more success a team enjoys, the greater the resources they generate. That, in turn, enables the top counties to cater for their players in a manner the rest can only look at with envy.

The wider the divide becomes, the less incentive there is for players from lower-ranked counties to subject themselves to the effort required to have a chance of being anything other than a speck in the rear-view mirrors of the privileged. Any wonder more of them are opting out?

The recent ESRI report, which showed that players can devote anything up to 31 hours per week to inter-county commitments, underlines how ridiculously demanding the modern game has become.

It must be remembered too that outside of those 31 hours, players' lifestyles are impacted by being a county player. Of course it's a privilege to represent your county and the claim, which is regularly trotted out, that players make sacrifices is over-indulged. They play because they enjoy it, as indeed the ESRI research showed. But now, it seems that an increasing number of them don't believe it's worth the effort. The long-term impact of that will be serious.

And the solution? I have no idea, but I do hold a suspicion as to where it's heading. New director-general Tom Ryan said in an interview with this newspaper two weeks ago that the GAA needed to reflect on where it wanted to be in 10 years' time.

"Do we want to keep pushing players to invest more time? And for what? When you have a situation where the time devoted to an inter-county career almost corresponds to a full-time job each week, you have to ask if that's right. Rules won't fix it. This is a about a collective decision to do things differently," he said.

A noble aspiration but that's all it can ever be. After all, if counties break the autumn training ban and ignore the restrictions on extended camp sessions before the championship, what chance is there of getting them to radically overhaul the preparation process? Zero comes to mind.

My hunch is that it's all leading to some form of professionalism. Ryan said that a country-wide professional model would be utterly unsustainable and would lead to a small number of teams with every county feeding into them. "I don't think anyone wants that," he said.

Perhaps not, but there's no enthusiasm either for the current model where the better-resourced top counties surge further ahead of the rest. Despite the concerns, it's gathering momentum, leaving the rest disillusioned. And the reality is that nobody appears to have a clue how to stop it.

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