Westmeath board to tackle Athlone numbers game
Soccer 22. Gaelic Football 2. Hurling 1. That's the scoreline that will send tremors through the GAA world in Westmeath -- and, indeed, beyond.
It refers to the relative team numbers in Athlone, a town with a population of around 20,000.
Gaelic football is catered for by the Athlone and Garrycastle clubs while Southern Gaels look after hurling, but, according to the Westmeath County Board's Strategic Plan (2010-2015), there are 22 under-age soccer teams vying for available talent in the town and its immediate environs.
The county board intends to launch a major drive to promote Gaelic Games throughout the county, with particular emphasis on Athlone and Mullingar, which have a combined population of around 40,000.
"Rather than being negative about the competition, should we not be copying their modus operandi and developing Gaelic teams based on large estates and districts to feed in at a higher level to the established clubs," asks the report.
It points out that there are several estates in Athlone and Mullingar with house numbers ranging from 200 to 700, while many of the strong rural GAA clubs don't have that number in their entire catchment area. Yet, while most rural clubs have excellent facilities, many estates are largely uncatered for. The report notes that it is not necessary to have ultra-modern facilities to accommodate younger age groups and points out how soccer has managed to thrive using green areas and town facilities.
"Games can be arranged (by any sport) at U-8, U-10 and U-12 level on greens within estates while also using town facilities."
The dramatic increase in Westmeath's population -- much of which has occurred in Athlone and Mullingar -- is presenting a huge challenge for the GAA. The population has increased by 16,000 to almost 80,000 in 14 years. Despite housing 40,000 people, Athlone and Mullingar have only six GAA clubs between them.
As well as targeting the two big towns as areas where more work must be done, the report also challenges rural clubs to be more creative in how they promote themselves.
"Clubs themselves must decide if they can keep going by only being able to field on an irregular basis. Realistically, if you can only field 10 players at U-12 level, how many do you expect to field at U-16 and minor level?
"This is a difficulty and, no doubt controversial, issue but it is a topic that must be addressed in the lifetime of this plan," says the report.
It is part of a comprehensive strategy across a wide range of areas which the Westmeath County Board hope to implement before 2015. All counties have been asked to draw up similar plans in line with the national strategy, which was published in late 2008.
Westmeath Chairman Tom Farrell said that every effort would be made to ensure the plan was fully implemented inside five years.
"The challenges are there for all to see and it's up to everybody to help themselves rather than relying on somebody else to do it. We will liaise with the clubs on a six-monthly basis to make sure that the plan is being implemented. If we follow the outline of what's proposed right across the various areas and activities, we can make this work. We have to, because it's the only way forward," he said.