Saturday 17 August 2019

John Greene: 'Let's return to the GAA's core principles'

Putting the club back at the heart of the Association must be the first objective of structural change

'The county league is over and the championship has been on hold since April.' (stock photo)
'The county league is over and the championship has been on hold since April.' (stock photo)

John Greene

Our club pitch is probably in the best condition I have ever seen it. The summer has been kind to it. So too has the GAA - by keeping it idle.

Last Wednesday night our men's team played a competitive game on it for the first time in four and a half weeks. In fact, it was their first game in four and a half weeks - and the last time they will play a competitive home game this year. The county league is over and the championship has been on hold since April. The team is guaranteed just two more games this year, unless they get out of their group in the championship, and the first of those is next weekend.

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Over the last few weeks, the GAA's recently-formed calendar review task force has been seeking submissions as part of its work to generate solutions to the problems John Horan (pictured) says we all know about. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Over the last few weeks, the GAA's recently-formed calendar review task force has been seeking submissions as part of its work to generate solutions to the problems John Horan (pictured) says we all know about. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

During February, March and April the pitch was battered into a quagmire, such was the volume of games for men and women, boys and girls. On one occasion it had to be closed for almost two weeks after a particularly frantic weekend of games. But as the weather dried up, so too did the matches - at all levels. The men's team resorted to challenge games to keep active over the last six weeks.

Our club has a relatively small pool of players. In that respect, we are no different to many other clubs. The age profile is young, so we have a lot of players away in college and the glut of games we were fixed to play from the end of January to the end of March put a huge strain on the club.

To make matters worse, A League and B League games were fixed on the same weekend on several occasions, despite repeated pleas from small clubs like ours that this made life even more difficult given the overlap of players on both panels. We failed to field in two of our first four games in the B League and so were thrown out because of the two strike rule - miss two and you are out. In the early rounds of our B League division, over 50 per cent of the games were conceded as clubs struggled to field two teams on the same weekend.

We need the B League. It fulfils three very important functions: firstly, it is a useful development path for young players emerging from the under 17 grade, helping to expose them to adult competition for the first time; secondly, there will always be a pool of players who are keen and enthusiastic but who are on the fringes of the first team and need more game time to improve; and, thirdly, in every club there is a cohort of players who are only interested in playing the odd game and having fun, social footballers and hurlers if you like, who are barely catered for these days.

Now the summer is stretched out before us with an endless supply of dry pitches and daylight hours and there's nothing happening.

How has it come to this? How have we allowed things to drift so far into the realm of the ridiculous?

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Over the last few weeks, the GAA's recently-formed calendar review task force has been seeking submissions as part of its work to generate solutions to the problems John Horan says we all know about. An online survey was also circulated to counties to be passed on to clubs. This is an opportunity for rank and file GAA members to articulate their concerns and to offer some ideas as to the best way forward for all.

In principle, the idea of assembling a high-powered committee to look at how the GAA year is structured is a good one, but the notion it could take a blank canvas approach was shown to be a hollow one by two key decisions: moving the club finals from their traditional St Patrick's Day slot to January, and calling a special congress in October to vote on two separate proposals to introduce a tiered championship in football.

In his Irish Examiner column on Friday, Paul Rouse observed that "the idea that the B Championship should be introduced in isolation, rather than as part of a wider programme of reform of funding, coaching, and structural form of the calendar, is a complete nonsense".

Why were these rushed through before the new review committee even had its first meeting?

Furthermore, the make-up of the committee does not inspire confidence. Horan could have expanded his search further beyond the GAA's established committee rooms to find fresh blood and some new thinking. Hard decisions need to be taken, and those who hail from outside the establishment are less likely to be bound by the chains of tradition. Instead, we are left with an inescapable feeling that the committee is not just working with one hand tied behind its back, but that it contains too many links to the biggest obstacles to change.

And what are these obstacles? Well, chief among them is a provincial structure that is outdated and is holding the Association back. The fact, for instance, that the football championship remains wedded to the four provinces is the single biggest thing preventing it from becoming a more meaningful competition.

Next we have an inter-county game which is becoming increasingly self-serving. If, as many believe, the GAA is at its core a socialist organisation, then the argument repeatedly put forward that the revenue it generates is too important to forsake is a red herring. It's my view that many people who are at the coalface of day-to-day club activity don't feel any ownership of the inter-county game - or even any real financial benefit for their parish - despite claims to the contrary.

Ordinary members feel disenfranchised although, to be fair, this is not something exclusive to the GAA right now. But the GAA is supposed to be different and, more importantly, its motivations are supposed to be different. The GAA is about social good and community and it is this which separated it from the rest and allowed it to become embedded in the fabric of Irish life, perhaps like no other sporting organisation in the world. And because of this, it cannot turn its back on its very raison d'etre simply because of commercial considerations.

Changes in society, population shifts, urban versus rural . . . these are concerns facing all facets of Irish life, not just the GAA. At times, the GAA has shown fantastic leadership in facing up to these challenges. There have been many excellent programmes devised at national and local level which have been driven by the GAA and which have inspired change and renewal. There is a team in Croke Park dedicated to social well-being - which is as it should be. As other pillars of the State have fallen and lost the trust of the nation, the GAA at least has remained constant.

There is an even greater battle to be fought now, however. A period of introspection and clear thinking is needed. The focus should be on two words - structure and culture.

The calendar of games is a mess. There are too many competing interests and the inter-county game has grown way beyond what anyone could have envisaged. It is sucking huge energy and attention (and of course money) from all other aspects of the Association. And it is the club game which has suffered the most.

In an interview last weekend ahead of The Open at Portrush, Pádraig Harrington lamented the fact that golf's amateur game was being forced to pander to the pro game. The comparison here with the GAA is striking. The club scene is being forced to pander to the inter-county game.

Nobody believes that there is an easy fix to the problems being experienced by clubs. Clubs are being presented with new challenges and keeping players - even the very young ones - motivated and interested in Gaelic games is not easy. It is a huge burden for the army of volunteers across the country, as it is for those in every other sport.

The GAA has proven itself adept over the years at reacting to change in society. It is constantly striving to design programmes to attract children into its games and to combat alarming drop-off rates as they get older. But it has not found a solution to the great conundrum: How to provide a programme of meaningful games for club footballers and hurlers from, say, the age of 16 on. There is no consistency across the 32 counties. There is no uniformed approach from county boards, no single, unifying vision about how to manage the club game.

Every county is different and there is no one practical solution to fit all. That much is obvious. You cannot design, at national level, a single programme of games that will work in every county. What works in Longford and Leitrim cannot succeed in Dublin or Cork.

What you can do, however, is have a vision. And this is where 'culture' comes in. It is time to ask the question: What sort of an organisation do we want the GAA to be? Do we want to pander to the inter-county game, or to look after the greater good, the broader membership?

To grapple with this problem, the committee must be bold. Yes, there are terms of reference which focus on the timing and structure of inter-county competitions and how all the rest of the GAA's activity fits in around that, but this committee must be given some leeway. And they must grasp this opportunity.

Horan said recently that "we know what the problems are", adding "what we want to focus on are the solutions". There are many who believe that not alone does the upper echelon struggle to fully grasp what the real problems are, but they are not prepared to accept what the real solutions might be.

In my submission to the task force this weekend, I have made the following 10 proposals:

1 Run both the football and hurling championships on a league basis, and play the provincial championships in spring instead of the league. The details can be worked out, but there may be an argument to incentivise provincial winners when making the championship draws. Under this model, the traditional pre-season competitions would be scrapped. I have not put forward one specific format, but there are several worthy proposals doing the rounds, including one from the GPA which merits consideration. In any event, the Super 8 format should be abolished.

2 Despite arguments to the contrary, condensing the inter-county season has not worked to the benefit of clubs. This is largely because the GAA at central level has no real control over county boards and could not force them to play club games during the gaps in the season. The inter-county and club seasons should run alongside each other, similar perhaps in ways to the club and international scene in soccer. Players would remain club players, joining up with the county team during recognised 'windows'. Rules should be introduced to back this up and prevent any abuses. So, if a player declares himself injured for a club game, he is automatically ruled out of county training and games for a minimum of, say, 14 days.

3 New, strict guidelines should also be introduced which make county boards more answerable to the GAA's central authority. Where clubs can show that they are not being provided a proper games programme, county boards should face heavy sanctions, including financial penalties and other deterrents.

4 County boards should also face greater scrutiny. Fundamentally, they need to undergo reform and culture change so that their primary purpose is reinforced - abiding by the GAA's ethos and community spirit, and showing leadership and a duty of care to all its members, not just pandering to county managers and squads.

5 Discussions around a two-tier championship in football should be parked until a new championship, run on a league basis with seeding and so on, has been properly tested, for at least three years.

6 With the exception of third-level competitions, the months of January and December should be declared as the GAA's off-season at all other levels. So, the club and inter-county season would be 10 months, from February 1 to November 30.

7 There should be more oversight of talent academies and development squads. They are serving to reinforce elitism, fostering it at a far younger age, and are distancing teenagers from their club environment. This is not healthy for the individual, especially for those who are eventually cast aside and deemed 'not worthy' of a county place. Perhaps consideration needs to be given to abolishing them completely until a player has turned at least 16.

8 The tinkering with age grades does not appear to have worked so restore minor to under 18, and under 20 to under 21. Consideration should also be given to abolishing the junior inter-county competitions.

9 Set up a new national committee to monitor the well-being of clubs in every county. This committee should keep a close watch on playing numbers and move to help those clubs who are encountering difficulties fielding teams. This committee should also have the power to relax certain rules - on a case by case basis - which are having an impact on clubs struggling to field. I'm thinking in particular here of two strikes and you're out and also some of the age restrictions currently in place.

10 Although not directly related to the calendar, it is important for the future of the GAA that ladies' football and camogie become fully integrated. Those clubs around the country - and ours is one - which operate the one club model are showing the way forward. It's a no-brainer.

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