Tuesday 15 October 2019

Tomás Ó Sé: 'Elite GAA teams are professional - they eat money'

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Dublin and Tyrone line out for the GAA’s showpiece final but how much is it costing to get teams there? Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin and Tyrone line out for the GAA’s showpiece final but how much is it costing to get teams there? Photo: Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

It's 89 years since Dick Fitzgerald died, 105 years since he wrote his book 'How To Play Gaelic Football'.

I suppose those figures make him kind of unknown to the GAA player of today, a blurred ghost of our history. But the man who Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney is named after was exercised by something a century ago that is, plainly, just as relevant today.

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Warning against the threat of professionalism to the GAA in 'How To Play Gaelic Football', he expressed a hope that, while the game might "keep developing on the scientific side, it will never become the possession of the professional player."

If Dick is looking down on us today, I wonder what it is he sees?

It's a thought that struck me over in the home place last weekend, dropping in for Comórtas Peile na Gaeltachta, an annual four-day football tournament held every June Bank Holiday weekend for Gaeltacht teams. We were hosting it in Gallaras and just soaking up the atmosphere, I remember thinking, "This is the best of what our sport is about.

"This IS the GAA!"

The whole community came together for this unique celebration of Irishness and one thing that really struck me was an interview given at the end by our Kerry county player Brian ó Beaglaoich.

Himself and Tomás ó Sé were given permission by Kerry manager Peter Keane to head down after Saturday night's win against Clare and play for half an hour in Monday's final against Kilcar.

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That final went to extra-time, Dara ó Cinnéide having to put in a call to Keane for permission to let the two boys play on. In fairness, he gave it.

But I was really taken by Ó Beaglaoich's observation of how he'd cherished the experience, from pulling pints in the marquee on Saturday night, to meeting people from the four corners of Ireland, to playing against kindred spirits.

"That was my first one," he said on TG4. "And I loved every minute of it!"

You know, when I was playing, Páidí used pull us from this tournament because of its proximity to championship. I look back on that with regret now. Because I'm honestly not sure you could get a purer sense of the true GAA community than that gathering on the western tip of Dingle Peninsula last weekend.

Like, I respect a lot of what the Gaelic Players' Association does, but I've been struggling to get a recent newspaper interview with Paul Flynn out of my head. The one in which he was open to the idea of a semi-professional GAA.

My heart actually sank when I read that. Because I'm totally and utterly opposed to it.

Being honest, I'm not entirely sure where the GAA is headed today. The elite level of our games just seems to be moving relentlessly forward, while a lot of what's happening underneath gives serious cause for concern.


Certainly, the spending on inter-county teams is a red light flashing relentlessly here.

Now I know full well how some might see this as leaving me open to a charge of hypocrisy. After all, I'm making money by putting my name to this article, as I am by appearing tomorrow on 'The Sunday Game'. I'm not blind to any of that.

But I have a responsibility in this role and it's one of being honest about the GAA I see. And, right now, it strikes me as an increasingly unnatural world.

In May of last year, Kerry county board's treasurer for the last decade, Dermot 'Weeshie' Lynch, warned about 'a train coming down the tracks' that needed stopping, one in which 'a blind eye' was being turned to spiralling costs in the GAA.

In 2011, the cost of running inter-county teams was e18.5 million. Last year, it was over e25m.

Like, it costs Mayo alone e1.5m; Leitrim less than e300,000. Something is seriously wrong.

In 2017, Limerick treasurer Liam Burke spoke of the "unsustainable" costs of running the county's flagship teams, likening it to "a race to the bottom".

Around the same time Roscommon treasurer, Seamus Maher, described as "frightening" the fact it cost e15,000 a week just to keep the county's senior footballers on the road.

In January 2017, Connacht Council secretary John Prenty warned of counties "living beyond their means".

Pointing out that just short of €5m was spent on county team administration in the province in 2016, he asked, "Are we mad?"

It sounded a fair question.

Look, we go on ad nauseam about championship structures and the glaring disparities of a current system that gives Kerry or Cork far easier access to the 'Super 8s' than, say, Cavan or Armagh. It's not fair. The dogs in the street understand that.

But there's a more fundamental issue to be worried about here.

The modern-day cost of preparing inter-county teams is clearly out of control. Remember, Croke Park had to send an interim finance committee into Roscommon to effectively rescue the county. Kevin McStay spoke of the personal embarrassment he felt when professional people brought in to Roscommon GAA on his invitation ended up not getting paid.

Now if we accept that Roscommon are maybe the ninth- or tenth-ranked team in the country, what does that tell us about the expenditure of those above them?

The Dublins, the Mayos, the Kerrys, the Corks have huge earning power, I understand that. I mean Dublin have AIG sponsoring them, but are backed by 12 other official partners, too.

When you look at the figures they rake in, what honest chance have the Leitrims and Wicklows?

Like, Kerry built this e7m training centre over in Currans, a state-of-the-art facility. Magnificent. Patrick O'Sullivan, the former chairman, did trojan work to help get it funded and built, this Centre of Excellence now serving Kerry GAA teams. But basic maintenance costs on the place are e200,000 a year. That has to be found somewhere.

Yet, just a few weeks ago, Simon Coveney was down in Kerry, opening a e19m sports academy at Tralee IT. Why couldn't Kerry teams have looked at using that? It just seems to me that they've exposed themselves to serious financial pressure. Great, if they can meet that pressure. But the reality is it will require constant fundraising.

Like, last Christmas, Paul Geaney, David Moran and James O'Donoghue were all dressing-up as Santa Claus out in Currans to raise funds for its upkeep. A host of different clubs are renting out the facility.

And there's a certain irony at play here. For years the county board begged off the clubs. Now they have their own place, they need those same clubs to rent it out. I'm not having a go off anyone here. Just highlighting the pressure getting the best facilities can put on a county board.

Don't get me wrong. It's a magnificent facility, brilliant to have. And I actually love the fact that it's Kerry's.

But my suspicion is that Kerry can't quite afford it. I mean there's so much traffic going through the place now just to keep it from sinking into debt, Kerry essentially need a separate committee just to mind the place.

Yet, I find it interesting that Dublin, the most modern, advanced set-up in the game, didn't feel the need to build that kind of facility. And, mark my words, Cork GAA will soon move to CIT and use the facilities that Munster rugby were using. A place that's empty for three months of the year because of college holidays, why wouldn't they?

So they'll have their Centre of Excellence, essentially built and paid for by somebody else.

It isn't rocket science to surmise that a county board really stretched by those kind of costs will have to cut corners elsewhere. Corners that will be way down the food chain, down at grassroots.

Servicing inter-county teams is killing some counties. But it's even happening with clubs, training costs gone through the roof. Managers wants stats people, strength and conditioning people, doctors, physios, dieticians, life coaches even. I don't blame them. I'd want them, too. To compete on an even playing-field, that's the level of detail you now need.

There's broadband in every GAA county ground in the country now to facilitate, not the media, but the stats people.

So I have so much respect for the likes of Leitrim who ran all their county teams last year for something like e298,000. A phenomenal achievement when you look at what they did in the last league.

I saw Joe Brolly giving out last Sunday about Mayo fundraising in New York. Why wouldn't they?

Go on Cavan's Twitter account and the first thing you'll encounter is a fundraising video for their proposed Centre of Excellence with 'the life-changing prize of a e375,000 house in Dublin'. This is happening right across the board.


Everyone is scrambling. I mean the West Kerry board recently had a church gate collection, gathering pennies. Clubs are doing the same, because gaps are opening everywhere.

We can be very ageist in our GAA commentary sometimes, but it strikes me that this kind of scenario is precisely what a lot of older members have been warning against for years, going all the way back to Dick Fitzgerald.

And I suspect, if Dick was still alive, he'd see a lot of elephants in the room now.

Like the reason I support a tiered championship is I believe that too many games are one-sided.

That said, I do see a logic in the opposition to it, a logic communicated last week by Laois manager John Sugrue, in his sarcastic observation that, outside the top eight, 'let everyone else play in back fields around the country'.

Look, he has a point. What kind of profile and resources could a 'B' championship honestly expect to get?

That's what made my blood boil when I saw that quote from Flynn about semi-professionalism. At a time when so many county boards are being pushed up against a wall, I think it spoke of an elitism now all but out of control.

County boards today need to be run like commercial companies and, in that scenario, if you've a bad CEO, you're going to be in trouble. But that's the rub. There's only a handful of full-time GAA secretaries in the country. Most do the job on a voluntary basis. It's honestly scary what we expect of them.

Because elite GAA teams today are, basically, professional sports teams. They eat money.

And, unfortunately, the genie is out of the bottle here. I'm not sure what the GAA can do about it now because, as Lynch surmised, that train is already on the track. It scares me the more I think about it.

Just look at that increase of e6.5m in spending on inter-county teams from 2011 to 2018. Do you imagine that increase was broadly based? Not a hope.

It's the big counties just getting bigger. A one-way street to trouble.

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