Pat Spillane: 'All the signs indicate the GAA is following the same path as rugby... we need to shout stop'
What have top Gaelic footballers Gary Brennan and Jamie Malone (both Clare), Kieran Martin (Westmeath), Michael Quinlivan (Tipperary), Ben McCormack (Kildare), Dara McVeety (Cavan), Connor McAliskey (Tyrone) and Mark Griffin (Kerry) all got in common?
Apart from the fact that they would be the bones of a decent team, each of those lads has indicated that he will be taking a break from inter-county football in 2020. Some of them have plans to travel, the rest just want a rest.
In blunt terms, they want to get away from the near full-time carousel which has become the lot of the 21st-century county footballer.
Last year two other top footballers – Kildare's Daniel Flynn and Odhran MacNiallias from Donegal – opted not to play inter-county football. So there is a pattern of behaviour here.
Frankly, I'm not in the least surprised that players want to take a break. In fact, it's a minor miracle that the number isn't far greater.
Certainly, I don't blame them for stepping away temporarily from something they once loved doing.
Taking account of the time spend travelling, the majority of county players spend as much time involved in their sport as do the vast majority of professional sports people in this country.
The big difference, of course, is that GAA players have to juggle their hobby with either their studies or a day job.
The end result is that they get previous little time for rest and recovery, which is just as important as the time they spend on the training field. As for an 'ordinary' life outside football – forget it.
Joe Brolly once likened the life of a county footballer to that of an "indentured slave".
I wouldn't agree, because the footballer can always walk away. But I can see where he is coming from.
What amazes me is that so many players continue to be so willing to make all the sacrifices and demands placed on them. Luckily for the GAA, the lure of wearing the county jersey supersedes everything. I could fill a dozen columns with stories about the pressures and demands faced by players.
The following is just one example of the nonsense that goes on. Two players from clubs that won county titles for the first time this season rang their county team manager after the finals seeking permission to have a celebratory drink that night. The answer in both cases was an emphatic 'no'.
In fact, they were both summoned to a gym session the following morning – a Bank Holiday Monday – at 10am.
And just to further illustrate the ludicrous nature of the instruction, the county wasn't playing in the championship for another five weeks. You couldn't make it up.
And please don't peddle the line that this is an isolated case. Every empirical study supports the anecdotal evidence.
A recent GPA report, which examined the well-being of third-level students who play county football, was another reminder of just how their lives are shaped by the football commitments.
The statistics in the report ought to send alarm bells ringing in the GAA. Essentially, these students face a juggling act during college term. Here's some of the starker findings:
• 54 per cent of the participants regularly feel overwhelmed by their commitments.
• 80 per cent feel that being student-athletes put financial pressure on their family.
• 65 per cent believe their training load impacts negatively on their academic performance. As a result 35 per cent have had to repeat a college exam, while 11 per cent repeated an entire year.
• 78 per cent felt stressed at least once a month.
Eighty per cent of the participants play for at least three teams while 69 per cent of the respondents travelled back to their home county at least three times a week for training.
The wasted hours third-level students spend driving – or being driven – across the country to attend training sessions is one of the biggest scandals in the GAA.
There is absolutely no reason why this issue could not be addressed. All it requires is a modicum of common sense and a less dictatorial approach from managers.
Why students are not allowed to do their gym sessions in college is just plain daft. The problem lies in the fact that the too many managers want to be in total control. They want their pound of flesh, by insisting on players travelling home to train.
Perhaps the most worrying statistic is that less than half the respondents said they felt confident enough to talk to their county team manager about a reduced training load.
This report comes less than a year after a 2018 ERSI study which found that county players spend up to 31 hours a week preparing for games.
Of course, inter-county games are the GAA's flagship product. They raise the profile of the association and generate the vast bulk of the revenue. But the training regimes of county teams are completely out of control.
It fuels elitism which, in turn, has eroded the role of the club. Anybody who still suggests the club is the cornerstone of the association is living in cloud cuckoo land.
It's now 'club Dublin', 'club Kerry' etc. All the signs indicate the GAA is following the same path as rugby where the club game is floundering.
The cost of running inter-county teams is now close to €30million annually. It is absolutely crazy and not sustainable.
At least 10 counties are spending over €1m per annum on team preparation.
Two years ago Kevin McStay revealed that the weekly cost of training the Roscommon senior squad was €15,000 – even with costs being pared back to the minimum.
Some inter-county managers continue to be paid – though not to the same extent as during the height of the Celtic Tiger. Much of the costs nowadays are soaked up by bloated behind-the-scenes management teams.
Current All-Ireland champions, Dublin and Tipperary, both had close to 30 people involved in their back room teams this year. Of course, there are still volunteers involved but many are professional who have to be paid.
The bottom line is that the current model is unsustainable in all but a handful of the leading counties.
The rest will slip off the radar and will spend the rest of their days campaigning in the backwaters of the Tier 2 championship.
Introducing training bans, restricting the number of collective training sessions or putting a cap on spending all sound good in theory. But the Irish have a peculiar attitude towards rules and regulations. Our default position is to find a way around them.
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So team managers, aided by weak and subservient county boards, will ride a coach-and-four through any new regulations – they have already done so with regard to the winter training ban.
And I don't see players from teams in Division 3 and 4 of the League bothering too much about the Tier 2 championship.
In the 1960s journalist John Healy wrote a seminal book called 'No One Shouted Stop' about the decline of his native town Charlestown in County Mayo.
Likewise we need the GAA to shout stop before this current out-of-control juggernaut crashes.