Sunday 20 January 2019

Transfer sagas leave bitter imprint

Parish Rule a critical factor in Dunbar's move to rival Wexford club

After Ballygarrett’s considerable investment of time and resources in the development of Cathal Dunbar (right), they will feel cheated and are entitled to.’ Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
After Ballygarrett’s considerable investment of time and resources in the development of Cathal Dunbar (right), they will feel cheated and are entitled to.’ Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

More power to him, some may say, but in this quarter at least, and I suspect a good many others, there is something disquieting about the transfer of Cathal Dunbar from Ballygarrett/Réalt Na Mara to Naomh éanna, given the close proximity of the two clubs involved. In the space of three phone calls to people in Wexford close to the case, two of them engaged directly, the distance between the player's reputed new residence and his old club was variously given as three, 15 and 20 miles.

If you find that level of disparity with a constant like mileage, you can imagine the scope for conflicting interpretations and entrenched positions. The differing calculations tended to reflect their stance on the transfer. If you were completely against it you were inclined to claim a distance much closer than if you were more sympathetic. A check on the AA route planner shows the distance from Dunbar's original residence to his new one in Gorey to be just five miles. The journey from Gorey to the Ballygarrett/Réalt na Mara pitch where he did most of his club hurling up to now is a bit longer, but still under ten miles.

Residency and the Parish Rule proved a critical factor in the decision to grant the transfer, as Dunbar was able to show Wexford CCC that he had settled in Gorey where his club, Naomh éanna, is situated. The case bears similarities to the one involving Donal Vaughan before Christmas, although the main difference is that Vaughan, at least, had given long service to his home club Ballinrobe, informing them of his desire to leave for Castlebar Mitchels only a few days shy of his 29th birthday.

Dunbar is a young player, a couple of seasons in the Wexford senior panel, and one of the most talented of the county's emerging hurlers. It is an unspeakably cruel loss for his home club, who were last year relegated to intermediate A, the third adult tier in Wexford. After Ballygarrett's considerable investment of time and resources in his development, they will feel cheated and are entitled to. To some it will feel like a betrayal. That is a valid feeling too.

Like Dunbar, Vaughan elected to join a club a relatively short distance from his native one, around 18 miles, although he has been living and working in Castlebar for three years. Both players are moving to bigger clubs with good prospects of winning a senior championship.

Shortly before he left, Vaughan's club was also relegated to the intermediate championship for the first time since 2002. The difference between the two cases is that Ballinrobe did not object. Ballygarrett did.

"It's the whole GAA ethos thing," explains their chairman Murt Fleming, a former Wexford senior county footballer. "If it is going to go like this it is going to go like soccer - there are no borders. If he went to Rosslare, the other end of the county, we would have less of a problem. It is totally against what we believe in. I played senior football in America for four years and came back at 28 when in my prime, we were intermediate at the time, and two senior clubs came to me and offered me a job.

"I took one of the jobs but did not go to them, I could not go to a senior club and then meet my team-mates the next day. Cathal's mother and father both live in the heart of our parish. I just can't believe he wanted to go in the first place."

The club made a strong case to Wexford CCC, chaired by Aidan O'Leary. When contacted, O'Leary said that he would have to defer to the county secretary Margaret Doyle. She explained that the committee had carefully listened to both sides, and had huge sympathy for the club Dunbar decided to leave, but the committee was ultimately bound by the Parish Rule. Ballygarrett disputed residency claims being made by Dunbar. When he was asked to provide documentation needed to support those claims, the CCC was satisfied he had been able to meet the standard of proof required.

Doyle said that not applying the rule and rejecting the transfer would give the player an avenue of appeal, as has been pursued by players in the past. But Murt Fleming feels the battle was lost months before, back in October, when Dunbar called to his house one evening and hit him with the news out of the blue that he wanted to leave.

They talked for an hour and a half. Fleming was told how this would benefit Dunbar's Wexford career, and in turn Fleming tried to argue that he was already established in the county set-up and the club tended to see little enough of their county players. But he knew that he was not going to change his position.

"There is no way I could change his mind. I said, 'I am begging you, give us one more year and after that we will have a meeting and maybe let you go.'"

Ballygarrett have spent most of their history in junior hurling and football. In 2004, the club made an historic leap from junior hurling into intermediate, guided by one of their most loyal and committed club men, Larry Doyle, who died from cancer before Christmas.

Last year, Fleming accepts, there were difficulties, with some hurlers not making themselves available in the latter half of the season. One more result their way would have saved them. With a player of Dunbar's calibre on board, they would stand a good chance of getting back up quickly. They are under new management, Larry Doyle's son Mark having taken over for the coming season, and the players who had stopped playing have returned.

All of this fell on deaf ears. "When you are down that is when you want a lad," says Fleming. "There are all sorts of heroes when you are going well. I tried my very, very best. I didn't want to lose him. He is a seriously good hurler. He would be the jewel in our crown."

But it is more than the benefit of having Dunbar on the field that they stand to lose. The impact on the club's morale of a player like him leaving is also hard to place a value on. The reverse is the case for the player of equivalent standing who decides to resist that temptation, who decides that his home club might not bring him a county senior medal in his career, but that it will offer him a connection to family, friends and tradition that could not be matched anywhere else to the same degree. It is a question of loyalty. The love is unconditional. The inherent value in that means more to some players than others. Thankfully, it appears to still mean more to most players in clubs all over the country.

Vaughan's transfer created a huge reaction with many condemning it. Why was this, some asked, when countless others went before him with far less furore? Take Dublin as an example. The traffic from club to club, where players have far less connection to the club they are going to, had been a hallmark of the city for years.

There were two streams of traffic at work; those coming in from the country, and those already in Dublin just hopping from one club to the next, usually one with better prospects. Around ten years ago Eamonn Fennell was caught up in a controversial bid to leave his club O'Toole's and join St Vincent's, about three miles away, where a grandfather of his had played. O'Toole's, the club he played with all his life, strongly opposed it.

They were initially successful but later the transfer went through, the player determined to play for St Vincent's just as much as he was determined not to play for O'Toole's having downed tools entirely in late 2008. That same year, St Vincent's won the All-Ireland club football title.

His second transfer attempt ended up in arbitration and while it didn't succeed in overturning the verdict, the case was sent back to the county committee for fresh consideration, citing misgivings over certain procedures. The outcome was the same; they rejected the transfer bid.

His first transfer request contained his expressed wish to play "at a higher level on a regular basis to improve myself". The O'Toole's club responded: "Our club believes that the GAA is based on parish and local loyalty. Allowing transfers to bigger more successful clubs would undermine the basic unit of the GAA - the club."

At that time Dublin County Board tightened its bye-laws relating to transfers, closing certain loopholes including where players who were idle for a year would be free to join another club the year after. There was a renewed emphasis at that time on maintaining allegiance to the home club. Under stricter regulations serious consideration would be given to the player's club and the role it had in developing the player and the likely impact on the club he was planning to leave.

The interest in Vaughan's case is down to his high profile and the understandable puzzlement over a move to a club so closely located to his old one. Of course it is more convenient for him to play for Castlebar than Ballinrobe. But does that justify the move? And of course he stands an infinitely better chance of winning a Mayo senior medal with Mitchels than Ballinrobe. And maybe an All-Ireland club medal. Does that justify it? If those principles of allegiance and loyalty still mean something then you are entitled to feel uneasy. Individual interest has supplanted the collective or community interest in this case. And in Dunbar's too.

After all, Ballinrobe need Vaughan a great deal more than Castlebar do. And Ballinrobe were undoubtedly proud to have a player of his standing in their ranks, that they could call their own. What do they call him now?

"All the kids, even my own young lads, I have three lads, 21, 20 and 19, they would be pushing now for places this year on the team. They did look up to him," says Murt Fleming of Cathal Dunbar. "Any time there were medals it was Cathal who would present them. I don't think it is good for morale in the club."

But he knew it was a lost cause; you just know. "I would have good respect for the chap. I was the first one he went to. I said,'Fair play, you had the balls to do it'. But I knew when he closed the door there was no way that man would change his mind. I said to the wife, I swear to God, if I couldn't turn him I don't think anyone else will. I actually sold him a car, I sell a few cars. I am friends with the family.

"I am not blaming anybody. At the end of the day, he is an adult. I am very friendly with the chairman of Gorey (Naomh éanna's) Nicky Stafford, I would not blame him in the least. They did not come looking for him. The CCC gave us a hearing, they were very fair."

The club decided not to appeal and take it further. "The club in general and the players got sick of the whole thing to be honest," says Fleming. "Even if he stayed he would be no good to us. He wasn't going to play for us. We decided as a club, enough is enough. Move on."

They are now discussing the possibility of bringing a motion to county convention that will offer clubs more safeguards when trying to keep their better players. That is as much as they can do for now.

They have lost a player they thought they would have for life and they don't feel it is right or necessary. "I am not going to fall out with families over it," says Fleming. "The day I do that is the day I give it up."

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