Inter-county game the wrong target
In July 2002, the Irish Independent ran a banner headline 'GAA MAY HAVE TO FACE A WHOLE NEW BALL GAME' over an interview where it was suggested that the GAA's inter-county model could have run its course.
"It might, at some time in the future, be advisable to move back totally to inter-club rather than inter-county competitions. It was the original basis for all GAA activity and there is no reason why it couldn't be hugely successful again.
"We have seen a massive growth in the popularity of the provincial and All-Ireland club competitions, so a solid basis is in place and could be enhanced," said the interviewee.
The comments weren't uttered by some publicity-seeking grandstander, but rather by the GAA president of the day, Seán McCague. His surprising analysis called for a John McEnroe response so I put it to him straight: "You cannot be serious. Do you really foresee a day when it will be club games only?"
"I don't know. No one does. Things change," he replied.
McCague's concerns about the inter-county model weren't based on the present-day controversies over its impact on clubs, which is becoming a dangerously divisive issue. Instead, it centred on population imbalances and their likely impact.
"It's fairly obvious that if a pattern develops where up to 50 per cent of the population are going to live in the Leinster area, structures will have to change," said McCague.
The numbers now living in Leinster have passed 55 per cent, but there's no appetite for associated competition adjustments in the GAA.
Indeed, any suggestion to have more than one county team in Dublin (population 1.4 million) is met with derision in the capital and apathy elsewhere. County boundaries are sacrosanct in the GAA, where tribal loyalties run deep. Still, as McCague said, 'things change.'
While his doubts about the long-term viability of the county model centred on population imbalances, a different threat has now emerged.
It arises from the growing unrest among club players over erratic fixture schedules and has found expression through the CPA.
They are now balloting members on a range of issues, including whether it's time to 'escalate the situation.' There's discontent that the so-called 'free April' is not so free after all, amid complaints that county training is allegedly impinging on club championships. I use the word 'allegedly', since many counties never wanted to pack April with club championships in the first place, preferring instead to play them later on. Still, it's now being presented as a shock that relatively little mainstream club action is taking place.
We're reaching a stage where if you make a case for the inter-county game, you're an 'elitist' who doesn't care about club players. Say it often enough and even the middle ground believe it.
And who's to blame for all this? 'That crowd in Croke Park' of course.
Over the weekend, I heard an interview that Liam Spratt of South East Radio conducted with Tomás Codd, manager of St Martin's senior hurling and football teams in Wexford. He was unhappy with how club players were being pushed from 'pillar to post' and when asked if it would ever change, he offered an unequivocal answer.
"No, they won't be listened to because the people who make the decisions in the GAA are generally not involved with their own clubs - they're stuck up in Croke Park in dark rooms.
"When advisory committees asked them not to have quarter-finals in the (hurling) league, all the grey suits and the grey heads decided they wanted to have traditional quarter-finals. It took another week away from the clubs," he said.
Tomás, an All-Ireland medal winner with Wexford in 1996, is still putting his heart and soul into the GAA so his views are worth considering. Indeed, they are reflected around the country, even if perception and reality are often different.
It was the Central Competitions Control Committee ('grey suits and grey heads'?) who proposed scrapping the Allianz League quarter-finals, only to have it rejected by Central Council, which is made up of county representatives.
And who chooses each county representative? The clubs! Did Wexford clubs instruct their Central Council rep to vote against scrapping the league quarter-finals? Did clubs from other counties?
Presumably not, since the CCCC proposal was beaten quite comfortably. It's easy to blame others for the fixtures problems but the reality is that clubs themselves cannot be absolved from all responsibility. Local power is there to be taken, if clubs go for it.
Meanwhile, the inter-county game is being portrayed as an evil, elitist monster, destroying the GAA landscape as it goes. What next? A proposal that it be scrapped altogether?
McCague's reasons for examining its efficiency were well thought-out, although always unlikely to get much support. Sixteen years on, the county game takes the blame for something that's not its fault, certainly not to the degree portrayed.
Squeezing the inter-county season ever tighter won't serve the GAA well in the long run, which is why the search for a better club schedule needs to be conducted in a calm, measured fashion rather than the confrontational approach that's gathering momentum at an alarming rate.