Tomás Ó Sé: Greed has turned the GAA calendar into a farce
Top players are facing organisational chaos because the Gordon Gekko gospel has taken control and managers must lead move to change
You know that scene in the movie 'Wall Street' where Gordon Gekko is preaching the beauty of greed to stockholders?
Where he puts the boot into what he calls the "bureaucrats" at the top table and a culture of "survival of the unfittest"? Well, it's Michael Douglas's face I see when I think of the best inter-county managers at this time of year. It's his voice I hear, telling players "greed is good, greed is right, greed works, greed clarifies..."
You see, everywhere you turn in the GAA today, people are giving out about inequality.
I was listening in the car to 'Terrace Talk' on Radio Kerry last Monday night and Tim Murphy, Kerry county chairman, suggesting that one of the biggest problems the GAA is going to have to tackle over the next 10-15 years is the decline in rural GAA clubs, specifically those along the west coast.
On the same programme, the chairman of Valentia told how they still have a 51-year-old togging out as they try, desperately, to keep fielding a team. The natural movement to urban areas through a lack of broadband, never mind work opportunities, is devastating a lot of GAA clubs in the West.
The GAA is the most powerful sports organisation in Ireland and Tim Murphy's view is that it should be flexing its muscle on this very kind of issue. Joe Brolly makes the same kind of argument, suggesting that the new director-general, whoever it proves to be, basically needs to oversee a dramatic change in direction for the Association, focusing more on club than county.
They're both right, of course. But they're also selling a Utopia.
I mean are you telling me that Páraic Duffy, as outgoing director-general, hasn't been sincere in trying to tackle these very issues? I believe 100 per cent that he has.
But change has to start in the mirror. It has to start with people parking self-interest when, deep down, they can see a player is being run into the ground. If that doesn't happen, the path to change just isn't navigable. And, deep down, I suspect that that's precisely what Duffy has discovered.
The thing is there's no magic wand here. Everybody has a cup they want to win.
And I can absolutely understand county managers feeling the need to be ruthless. We all saw what Jim McGuinness achieved in Donegal by absolutely dictating to the county board when they could and couldn't have club activity. Donegal won the All-Ireland in 2012, only the second in their history.
Would they have won it with a county board 'yes-man' at the helm?
Eamonn Fitzmaurice's only job in Kerry this year is to get his hands on Sam Maguire. Do you think he gives a fiddler's about third-level colleges or clubs? And who'd blame him - he has about 40 of the most talented footballers in the country at his disposal, which means he's got a real shot at the biggest prize of all. No more than Jim Gavin or Stephen Rochford or Mickey Harte then, he can justify whatever demands on players that he makes.
And, trust me, those counties are putting in every bit as much training time today as the professional rugby players of Munster and Leinster.
But in the weaker counties? That's where the real cracks are beginning to show now in the GAA. Look at Waterford not being represented in the Munster club football championship this season because their county championship wasn't finished in time. In fact, I read this week that three of the eight Waterford county football championships for 2017 have yet to be completed. The week before that, the story was told of how last year's South Tipperary final was only played on January 7, four months after the semi-finals.
This is embarrassing.
I played with Kerry seniors from age 18 to 35, always knowing I had a chance of winning. Not a hope would I have stayed around for so long if that chance of winning wasn't there. In the bulk of counties today, it palpably isn't.
And the squeeze on players is becoming unsustainable. Now nobody applies that squeeze intentionally; nobody's in the business of wilfully causing damage. But self-interest kicks in at every level of management. Selfishness takes over.
Greed becomes good.
So you can tinker all you like with the calendar, you can ring-fence your month for club activity, you can warn against player burnout, but none of this is worth a fart in a church if the people at the coal-face, in other words the managers, don't put a player's long-term well-being ahead of their own short-term interest.
At its most basic level, a young inter-county footballer has at least three masters to keep happy now. County, club and college. Take Brian ó Beaglaoich from my neck of the woods, An Ghaeltacht. He's got National League with Kerry, then championship.
He's got league with club, county championship, county club championship, local league and local championship. So he's, potentially, got five competitions to play with An Ghaeltacht alone. Then he's got the third-level colleges league and Sigerson Cup with UCC. Think about that.
Okay, realistically, he's not going to play in the West Kerry League. And he probably won't have trained with his club any more than once or twice before a championship game, albeit the fact they're in the All-Ireland intermediate semi-finals might mean he's been freed up a little more.
But beyond their All-Ireland involvement? The club might see him another ten times before the business of the county is finished, which we're all hoping in Kerry will be early September. Theoretically, ó Beaglaoich could be asked then to play in nine different competitions this year. And who is going to shout stop?
I can understand Brolly's concern that we're heading down the same road as rugby here. I'm no big rugby expert, but I do remember when the AIL was a competition that drew in huge crowds. You'd see Thomond Park thronged for a Shannon-Garryowen derby, even though the game might be on RTé.
Now? All the best young players flood into the provincial academies, their club connections nothing more than a convenient name in brackets. Put it this way, I've no idea what club Jamie Heaslip is connected to. Or Simon Zebo? And even if I did, I'd ask when was the last time that club saw them?
Elitism has taken over and the clubs are just pale shadows of their former selves. Still great people involved, still volunteers putting in endless hours, but - by and large - nobody giving them the support they need. Nobody caring.
I was reading Nicky English's comments last week about the importance of Fitzgibbon Cup hurling in his life. It was largely his experience with Canon O'Brien at UCC that prepped him for inter-county hurling. But, in recent years, English has been in charge of UCD and he's been watching the competition become slowly undermined.
And I thought Nicky made one very important point. We have all these bursaries and scholarships being offered for players to go to these colleges, yet every roadblock imaginable is then put up to stop them playing for the same college.
Why? Because the county manager is God.
About five years ago, I took charge of a Freshers team at UCC and it was a real eye-opener to discover how the college exists so far down the food chain. And, trust me, it's ten times worse today. Trying to train a college team now for Fitzgibbon or Sigerson has to be a nightmare. I was involved with Billy Morgan in UCC last year and the first time we had all of our elite players together last year was on the Sigerson weekend itself. Club and county always took precedence until then. Now I was at every single UCC training session in that time and, without fail, Billy's first questions to every county player on arrival were "Are you ok to train?"
"What have you done this week?" "How tough was it?"
How many inter-county managers ask those questions? Trust me, players don't want to turn anybody down. These UCC players are desperate to play for Billy, a legend of the game. But the man's respect for these lads is too deep for him to take advantage of that desperation. Unlike other managers, he walks the walk when it comes to work-life balance for young players in his care. Seems to me that others just talk out both sides of their mouth, droning on about player welfare when, in actual fact, their way is to run these young fellas into the ground.
The end result is that nobody is getting 100pc out of these players. Everybody's getting a skeleton.
There was a big fallout in Kerry last year to not winning the last ever All-Ireland U-21 title. For a county that's now stitched four minor All-Irelands in a row, maybe we thought it was our God-given right. So Jack O'Connor is feeling the heat now in charge of the U-20s. What do they do? They go training in November for a competition that starts in June. Now I'm not specifically picking on Jack here because others are doing exactly the same, but this sums up for me so much of what is wrong with the GAA today.
When you have county U-20 management teams warning college managers against training their players too hard - and they themselves have started training them eight months out from a competition - can we really take any of this seriously anymore?
And the bad news is this isn't going to change. When you think of how naturally fit these young players are, is it not absolute madness to be training them in November for a competition starting eight months later? And the fact an U-20 tournament is even scheduled to throw in around the time the Leaving Cert starts? Ah Jesus, spare me.
Look I'm not beating the college drum just because I was involved last year with UCC. And I absolutely understand that competitions like the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon are nothing more than a pain in the rear end for county boards. They've zero interest. I get that. But, as a football man, I can tell you Sigerson is some competition where you get to watch top inter-county players play a more open brand of football.
I would love to see these players at their best in every competition, but everything's too squashed for that to be ever possible. And if people don't want the Sigerson, scrap it I say. But don't be giving it half-hearted approval. Our GAA calendar is a farce as it stands.
What I'm saying is that the top players are facing organisational chaos and, no matter what the GAA's efforts are to free up the calendar for clubs, nothing will really change until and unless all county managers buy into the idea.
The point is the only reason we're not seeing top players at their best for club and college is because of needless time spent training at inter-county. And that's a serious challenge for the new director-general.
I say that knowing, hand on heart, I was totally selfish as a county man. If I'm honest, I didn't give a damn about Mary I or An Ghaeltacht for a long time. And I sometimes think, had I been a very good servant to the college or club, I wouldn't have been the player I was for Kerry. You see, I had a strong enough personality to make myself unavailable to both when it didn't suit me to train.
In a sense, my ability to be a b****x probably worked in my favour long-term. But a lot of today's players don't have that ability. They spend their time trying to humour too many people, so much so I'd say it almost becomes a relief when they arrive into their mid-20s and no longer have Fitzgibbon or Sigerson to worry about. But you're just replacing one stress point with another then because they're probably now trying to push on with their careers.
Look, there's no simple solution here, but there are some pretty obvious tweaks to be made.
I mean what in the name of God are we still doing with the McGrath Cup in Munster, now that only three teams are participating? At least when colleges were involved, you had about a dozen teams involved at one stage. Today? It's a farce. Get rid of it. Let the league be the start of the inter-county season.
And why is there a two-and-a-half-month gap between provincial club finals and All-Ireland semis? The weather? You're not exactly solving that problem by resuming in February are you?
I'd love a radical overhaul of the GAA, but it's just not going to happen. If Páraic Duffy couldn't do it, I doubt very much there's anyone out there who can. Because the culture of Gordon Gekko prevails. It probably always will. The big bosses get whatever they want.
And the rest just pick up the broken pieces.