Sunday 26 January 2020

Way beyond the call of duty

There are exceptions but players don't need to be fundraisers also.

‘Players already generate money for county boards by winning matches, reaching Croke Park. They shouldn’t have to add to it by being wheeled out as promotional gimmicks’
‘Players already generate money for county boards by winning matches, reaching Croke Park. They shouldn’t have to add to it by being wheeled out as promotional gimmicks’

John O'Brien

IN his column in Gaelic Life magazine last week, former Armagh captain Jarlath Burns neatly encapsulated for many the timeless qualities that make the GAA the unique institution it is: an archaic championship structure, rigid demands on players few sporting organisations could rival, a menagerie of little foibles and head-scratching customs you would do well to find anywhere else. But that was the thing. There might be glaring imperfections. But they remained our imperfections.

Specifically, Burns drew attention to two recent and heart-warming stories. The previous weekend Down defender Kevin McKernan had visited 44 clubs in the county, taking a penalty at each stop, to help raise funds for his cousin Mark, who suffers from a brain tumour. At the Burren, his final stop, McKernan was joined by a cast of hundreds, including most of his county team-mates, for a concluding pre-moonlit walk, an entire county rallying around a hugely worthy cause.

Also that weekend, a Nathan Carter concert was staged at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh, partly organised by the senior players themselves who also provided much of the hospitality services on the night, pulling pints behind bars, serving grub to hungry revellers. In the event they helped raise thousands for a county board with a sizeable debt hanging over it due to the redevelopment of the stadium.

For Burns, there was an irrationality about these events which, at least partly, explained the GAA's unique charm. He explained how every morning he would see Armagh centre-back Ciarán McKeever work in the school gym where Burns teaches and then head for training that night. And there he was again, with his Armagh colleagues, putting their shoulders to the wheel in aid of the county board. "This sort of behaviour is not logical," Burns noted. "Fantastic, unselfish, generous, but not logical."

Nor is it confined to just one or two counties. At a time when more and more counties are running up ever more unsustainable costs and spiralling into more serious debt, players all over the four provinces are being increasingly asked what they can do for their county rather than the other way around. And in ever more imaginative ways, as with McKeever and his team-mates in Armagh, they are obliging and assisting the bailout any way they can.

So next month when Kerry host their annual night at the dogs in Tralee, with the Sky cameras in attendance, the players will be there to smile and greet punters, pose for pictures and generally put on a good show. Ditto with the Waterford hurlers in two weeks. When Laois held their greyhound night in Newbridge last month, the senior hurlers and footballers went one step further and actually sold the tickets for the event themselves.

You don't hear them complaining. At least not publicly anyway. When a prominent hurling county had their mileage rates withdrawn this year, the players probably wouldn't have liked it, but none of them rushed to the local press to vent their anger. When Tipperary players were asked to man the phones for a telethon in aid of the county board in Lár na Páirce last August, none of them refused even though it was a week before they were due to face Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Many might wonder what they have to complain about in the first place. Aside from ambitious capital projects, county boards face no greater expense than the preparation of senior teams for the All-Ireland championship and if the players can help alleviate that financial burden, then maybe it is simply their duty to do so. If they expect holidays or weekends away as a bonus, then time to get the fundraising cap on.

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And this is how it has always been. Five years ago, the Croke Park museum acquired a wonderful collection of documents detailing how the Laois County Board had launched a sustained fundraising drive when the county reached the 1914 All-Ireland hurling final, pleading with patrons to help the team meet the cost of preparations. "It would be too much for the players to bear," the board explained.

Gradually, that burden shifted as much towards the players as the board. Weeshie Fogarty remembers the Kerry players in 1970 hawking bingo cards in order to fund a trip to Australia. Back in 1999, Seán óg ó hAilpín told of how the Cork players had to sell team photos to pay for their holiday after winning the All-Ireland. Nobody was up in arms about it. It's simply how things were. No county seemed immune from the hard sell.

And now it has become such an ingrained feature of the GAA landscape that it scarcely merits a second glance anymore. White-collar boxing nights, fashion shows, Ready Steady Cook rip-offs. They've become a ubiquitous presence on the GAA calendar now, seeming to dominate the closed-season winter months, creeping ever closer towards summer. A ready-made platform for inter-county stars to happily make eejits of themselves and all in a good cause.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. Except we're already worn out hearing how the demands on the modern inter-county player are so enormous that the onus of fundraising seems like a further unwelcome imposition. Players touting for cash a week before an All-Ireland semi-final, for example? That doesn't explain Tipp's dire performance, but it can't have helped. Try to imagine the reverse: Kilkenny players fundraising a week before the game. Impossible. You know it would never have happened.

We should draw a distinction here too between the noble, selfless gesture made by McKernan and the Armagh initiative to raise money for the county board coffers. It's not that their efforts don't reflect well on McKeever or his colleagues, just that the energy they expended organising and helping run the concert would have been better spent on something else other than helping bail out a board which, it could be argued, should not have dug itself such a financial hole in the first place.

Players already generate money for county boards by winning matches, reaching Croke Park, being visible in the media. They shouldn't have to add to it by being wheeled out regularly as promotional gimmicks. And it surely goes without saying that in counties which run no deficits and are flush with cash, the players will, by and large, be spared the rigours of the fundraising whirligig.

So it's unlikely you'll see a Dublin player out selling raffle tickets or taking to a stage in fancy dress any time soon. The Kilkenny hurlers held a raceday at Gowran back in March and that's pretty much their lot for the year. Beyond that it's more likely to be the mundane stuff: visiting schools, promoting the game, helping their clubs. Or conserving their energy for the most important task that confronts them: the business of winning All-Irelands.

One county in particular bears close scrutiny. As captain in 1986, Eugene McKenna led Tyrone to an All-Ireland final where they lost by eight points to Kerry. At one stage in the second half Tyrone had led the reigning champions by seven and the sense of a missed opportunity grated with McKenna. What truly disgusted him, though, was how the players had been forced to fundraise just two days before the game. That mentality, McKenna believed, had to be eradicated.

Over the following few years a group of people evolved that, ultimately, segued into what became known as Club Tyrone, a wing of the county board that looks after fundraising and has just completed the building of a centre of excellence a few miles from Omagh. One of Club Tyrone's core principles revolves around the inter-county player. "Our job is to raise money," says spokesman Mark Conway. "A player's job is to play."

A simple concept. For Conway, if a board is doing its job efficiently and has its house in order, there should be no need to call on players to help them out, thus harking back to McKenna and his frustration in the mid-'80s. The players live their lives, serve their clubs and, for the county, their job is simply to be the best they can be, a philosophy that has helped deliver Tyrone three All-Irelands in 10 years and will sustain them for a decade more at least.

Here's the thing, though. What happens in Tyrone should be a common enough GAA story, rather than such a glaring exception.

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