Sunday 20 January 2019

Pat Spillane: 'Glass half full in my new year toast to football'

Read Pat Spillane every week in The Sunday World

'We should be revelling in the brilliance of David Clifford'
'We should be revelling in the brilliance of David Clifford'

Pat Spillane

During Christmas I somehow ended up watching the Queen’s Speech. It’s a nice tradition where Britain’s Head of State delivers her annual message to the nation.

Seemingly, it is one of the few occasions where the Monarch is entitled to speak freely. So it gave me the idea that yours truly should deliver some sort of State of the Nation address about my beloved Gaelic Football and the organisation that runs the game.

So what approach should I take? Is the glass half full or half empty? Should I say ‘there’s no problem here’ or will I take the great Irish pessimistic approach that faraway hills are greener?

I’ll begin my wide-ranging address by taking a leaf out of the book of another leader, Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Once a problem begins to lap up at his shores, Vladimir stirs something. He starts attacking rivals and other countries over their behaviour, so I’m going to begin by pointing out that while the GAA has problems, lots of them, its fellow sporting bodies in this country are no better off.

Take rugby, the current ‘sexy’ sport in Ireland, the one beloved by the print and broadcast media in this country. Dig down and the sports has its issues.

For openers, the club game is dying, with matches now being watched by two men and a dog.

Rugby also has huge health and safety issues, with three players dying in France last year as participants become fitter, bigger and faster and the hits, both legal and illegal, increase in ferocity.

The word on the ground in south Dublin, the sport’s heartland, is that many parents who once aspired to seeing their sons playing on their school Junior and Senior Cup rugby teams are now steering their lads to other sports.

Soccer, meanwhile, is really struggling to coach its elite players sufficiently well to get them into full-time football.

The result is that every player being mentioned as boosting the Irish team anytime soon seems to be one whose granny left this country some time over the last 50 years.

Domestically, it’s an uneven playing field, with three clubs being full-time – Dundalk, Cork City and Shamrock Rovers – and thus galloping miles ahead of their part-time rivals as they pocket European appearance money every year.

Speaking of galloping, horse racing is another one of Ireland’s top sports, one we are also good at internationally.

It’s a sport that excels, like rugby, at selling itself. So there are no hard questions asked about falling attendances or small trainers leaving the game at an ever-increasing rate, as Ireland ends up with a small number of elite trainers and wealthy owners dominating all the major races.

In their search for even more money, racing’s bosses have put most Irish horse races behind a satellite paywall. That’s hardly going to increase popularity!

What about hurling, the good-looking sister compared to the ugly duckling that is Gaelic football.

Yes, the old year was a great one for hurling and you could argue that nine teams have a chance of winning the 2019 All-Ireland, way more than in football.

But what about those 20 counties where the game is either struggling or very close to non-existent. That famed entity, ‘A Great Hurling Man’, is very quiet about those 20 counties.

There you have it. You may say I’ve gone for the man, not the ball, but other sports have their problems and, when you think hard, there is plenty to be positive about in the world of Gaelic football.

Here are a few reasons why I could raise a glass during my address to the nation.

Dublin are playing Gaelic football the way it ought to be played and are one of the greatest teams of all time – a team that is not getting the credit for what it has achieved.

And tiny Mullinalaghta, the best club football team in Leinster, have proved that size doesn’t matter. Never again can any club team moan that ‘we haven’t got the numbers’.

We should be revelling in the brilliance of the likes of Brian Fenton, Ciarán Kilkenny (right) and the budding genius that is David Clifford. These guys are as good as anyone that went before them.

But now I have to get serious, There are things that need to be fixed for 2019. The first is the over-training, indeed downright flogging, of our players. When will someone shout stop?

The ESRI recently revealed that inter-county players are spending 31 hours a week at the game. Christ, 31 hours every week on a hobby on top of their day’s study or work?

Yes, I accept that GAA players are not paid and thus can walk away any time they like, but the harsh reality is that those who want to be inter-county players put their lives on hold.

Is it any wonder that players in weaker counties are walking away, seeing no chance of success? Offaly manager John Maughan has said six players he wanted for his team this year who opted out.

And when you see a lad like Kildare’s Daniel Flynn, one of the best forwards in the country, walking away from a year’s inter-county Gaelic football when at the peak of his powers to do a Masters in accountancy, you have to stop and think.

A second massive issue staring the sport in the face is the out-of-control spending on inter-county teams.

I’m including senior hurling teams alongside senior football ones here, but Cork lead the way with a cost of e1.7million.

Then, in descending order, come Dublin, Mayo, Galway, Limerick and Tipperary, with Kerry the last county to breach the million-euro barrier.

The figures are mad. Galway spent e1.8m in total, when you throw in their minor and U-21 sides, while Kevin McStay revealed it costs e15,000 a week to keep Roscommon’s senior football team on the road.

Those numbers are only going to rocket for 2019, especially if Mayo footballers and Tipperary hurlers have better summers than they had last year.

Remember, too, that those figures only cover the agreed expenses. What about the money, lots of money, disappearing under tables? And what about the manager rumoured to be in receipt of e100,000 this year from a donor? And he’s not from a county that could actually win something!

The daft thing is that there is no cost-benefit analysis of what counties are getting for this money.

Then there’s the state of the game itself. It is now a bastardised version of what Gaelic football should be, with dollops of basketball, rugby league and Olympic handball thrown in.

I’m not too sure what effect the rules currently being trialled will have on the game, but at least we are trying something.

And finally there is the apathy around our game. Read these words carefully Dublin supporters, I’m not knocking your team here, but the Sky Blues’ success is definitely a double-edged sword as other teams cower in their shadow.

As this is the last line of a serious address, I’m going to end it with a quotation from a serious man, John F Kennedy.

“There are risks and costs to action,” the American President said. “But they are far less than the long-range risk of comfortable inaction.”

Let’s heed that advice as we need to address our problems now.

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