Saturday 21 April 2018

Tommy Conlon: Tear up ethos to liberate victims of geographical lottery

Counties should be allowed to recruit talent from beyond their own borders.
Counties should be allowed to recruit talent from beyond their own borders.

Tommy Conlon

The virtual ink hadn't dried on last Sunday's column when we realised that the argument it contained was woefully incomplete.

It was a game of one half. I'd run out of road as the referee blew for the interval tea and oranges. So this week we make a belated return for the second half, after a revitalising jab of EPO and a deep-tissue rubdown from the resident Thai masseuse.

We'd spent most of the first half discussing a current preoccupation with the GAA's calcified championship structures. We suggested that the issue is deeper than this; that even a major reconfiguration of the system would only be superficial in effect. We concluded that counties should be allowed to recruit talent from beyond their own borders. Basically we argued for the free movement of players within the GAA.

It's a proposal that demands more elaboration than it got seven days ago, given that it challenges a core value of the Association.

This core value has been sacrosanct for 130 years. It is enshrined in Chapter 6 of the GAA's Official Guide, under the sub-heading Transfers and Declarations - Association's Ethos. "As the Gaelic Athletic Association is community-centred, based on the allegiance of its members to their local clubs and counties, the transfer and declaration rules in this Official Guide and in county bye-laws reflect that ethos. A player is considered to owe allegiance and loyalty to his home club and county, as defined in these rules."

And there is the rock upon which the GAA has been built. But maybe the rock has always been something of a millstone too. Maybe this cherished ideal, engraved into scripture over the generations, has concealed a profound unfairness at its heart. It has undoubtedly permitted an unquantifiable waste of sporting potential.

To take the unfairness issue first. Essentially this argument boils down to the rights of the individual versus the greater good of the community. The GAA clearly has been a remarkable engine for social solidarity throughout Irish life. But this community ethos has thwarted the talents of many hurlers and Gaelic footballers throughout its history.

These are the players stunted by geographical lottery. The prevailing ethos insists that no matter how talented they are, they must sublimate this talent into the service of their home team, no matter how hopeless it is. In GAA, the best rise to the top only if they happen to be born in the top counties. The rest of the best must remain where they are, condemned by place of birth to their station.

It is a testament to the power of its social consensus that this ethos has rarely even been questioned by these same players. Instead they accepted their lot and measured out their careers in fatalistic frustration.

The list of exceptional talents from weaker counties might be measured out in hundreds. But then there are the thousands of good footballers and hurlers from top counties who were never quite good enough to make their native team. But they would've been good enough to make many other teams: highly respected club players who could have made a difference to counties operating at the tier below. In fact they could have made the difference.

The GAA's history is littered with the hard-luck stories of teams who just fell short of a long-desired breakthrough. The Limerick and Fermanagh football teams of the 2000s immediately spring to mind: once-in-a-generation sides that came together, stuck together, and pushed as hard as they could against the brick wall of their own limited resources. But ultimately they couldn't do it, maybe because they were lacking just one good forward, or one imposing central defender.

Imagine if their manager was able to shop around during the close season for that missing player or two who could've made all the difference to a county starved of success?

Counties like Cork, Dublin, Kerry and Kilkenny have between them hundreds of good club players who could fulfil their personal potential with other counties while also energising the teams they join. It would be a chance too for some players to re-invent themselves in a new environment; many get labelled with a negative reputation in their home county that becomes a self-fulfilling verdict upon them.

The point is that the GAA should give its players every chance to go as far as they can, or wish, within their chosen sport. And in the process it would help to spread the talent pool more evenly across the country.

At present, Dublin-born players with a parent from another county are permitted to play for that county. It's a dispensation that few have availed of so far. The GAA could shake the system up much more vigorously than this; in fact it could smash it wide open.

One abiding concern for weaker counties is that they would lose their few star players to a stronger team with a higher profile. But maybe it's time to let them go if they want to; maybe it's just no longer sustainable to confine them in perpetuity to a level that is well below their talent. And anyway, these weaker counties might be able to compensate by bringing in five or six good outsiders.

All of which begs the question: why would they bother? Well, we won't really know until they're asked. One way or another, the core value of "allegiance and loyalty" needs to be interrogated anew for the 21st century.

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