Joe Brolly: There has been no strategy, no radical action and hoping for the best won't save the GAA
Caolan McCrossan died last year, after only 13 years. His family rang me before the end and said the boy would like to see me. So I visited regularly at the Royal Victoria Children's hospital, spending time with him in the few weeks before he died.
One evening, I brought him one of my Derry number 13 jerseys. The last one I had. I searched the cupboards, wading through the jerseys of vanquished number fours from Dublin, Mayo, Down, Donegal and Tyrone and was delighted when I finally found it. He smiled when he saw it. "Help me to put it on da," he whispered. Wincing with pain, he raised himself up, wriggled into it, then lay back on his bed exhausted. He reached out his hand to me and I held it. "Is there anything I can do for you kiddo?" I said. He beckoned me closer. I leaned right in and he whispered "Could I see your All-Ireland medal?"
I got it off my mother, who keeps it in the bank in Dungiven. A reasonable precaution you may feel, unlike in Kerry where the girlfriends of All-Ireland winners wear them on their chains. Or Down, where one of the 1991 team was wont to wear it as a medallion on nights out. When I went up to the Royal with it, Caolan was still wearing the Derry jersey. "He won't take it off," said Kim, his heartbroken ma. I handed him the medal in its box. He opened it and I swear, whatever way the light hit it, it glowed. I will not forget that hour, where the stricken boy lay with that medal, clutching it to his chest, as though it might cure his cancer.
The Doire Colmcille club in Derry city have never won anything. You've probably never even heard of them. But like clubs all over Ireland, they are the hub of the community. Last Saturday morning, in beautiful sunshine, under 14 teams from all over the North arrived at the magnificent new Páirc Colmcille for the inaugural Caolan McCrossan Sevens. It was so hot at the top of the hill that Caolan's da, in a wide-brimmed sun hat, was going around with a hand-held fertiliser sprayer, spraying cool water on the boys between matches. All day long he did the rounds, only stopping for refills in the clubhouse.
I told the St Brigid's lads why they were there. Caolan's brother Eoin stood with them and chatted for a good while. Then his father Seán and mother Kim. What a day it was! Pure enjoyment and something more.
We played thrillingly and made it through to the semi-final where we played Newtownstewart from Tyrone. After some fist fights, some brilliant football and 20 minutes where the 14 players on the field poured their lives into it, St Brigid's were ahead, though the scoreline scarcely mattered. What a game of football! Afterwards, everyone shook hands and made up. The final of the cup was another classic. "I hope your boys aren't going to rough up our lads," said a woman to me before the throw-in. "I can't make any promises," I said.
As the cup final was being played, so the shield and plate finals were going ahead. The sidelines were packed around each pitch. The spectators shouted and applauded. The boys gave it everything. And when the McCrossan family gave out the trophies afterwards, no one cared one damn whether they were getting a cup or a shield or a plate. "You'll have to volunteer to be pelted with wet sponges Joe," Eoin said to me. "You're the champions so you've no choice." So, I stood there with my head through a hole in a board as 100 kids pelted me. I didn't mind that so much. It was the glee with which the adults joined in. And I forgot to take my glasses off. As I was leaving, Kim McCrossan hugged me and gave me a memorial card for her beautiful son.
Tournaments like this show us everything that the GAA can and should be. The principle of competition according to ability is built in. This is nothing more than a reflection of reality. Not one of the adults or kids there would think, 'Oh, we're too good to play in the shield'. In fact, if there was no shield and plate, we'd be saying, 'What the hell is going on here?' Yet Leitrim and Longford are lumped in with the Dubs and Tyrone for the senior championship and we say, 'Oh, we could never change this. Our lads are training and playing matches three times a week.'
None of the coaches are outsiders. The essence of the GAA, after all, is allegiance to place and people. No one has suggested (yet), that underage coaches should be paid. So at the sevens on Saturday, you could see and feel the vast pride and loyalty the coaches had for their boys and vice versa. There is a strong sense of togetherness, of everyone being in it for the right reasons. Everyone went flat out, expressed themselves, showed adventure and it was brilliant. Man-to-man contests all over the field showed us the best of the lads and the best of the great game we play. When the game isn't commodified, and the players aren't dispensable commodities, then it is deeply fulfilling.
The GAA hierarchy has been unable to deal with the huge problems facing us over the past 20 years. There has been no strategy. No radical action. The vacuum this inertia created was filled by capitalism. Capitalism always fills the vacuum. So for example, the GPA saw the gap in the market caused by the GAA refusing to deal fairly with county players, leaving us with a Frankenstein coupling of a wholly market-driven players' body and a supposedly amateur association. Instead of making hard decisions to drastically reduce the county season, introduce a proper competitive championship structure, look carefully at the relationship between commerce and the GAA and create a modern, fit-for-purpose, amateur GAA, the hierarchy just hoped for the best.
The money rolled in. Players became commodities, some managers went for the highest price on the black market, and the games were sold to the highest bidder. Whether Gaels would get to see them or not became irrelevant. The new philosophy became 'what's in it for me and how much can we make from it?' Somewhere along the line, the people went from being fellow Gaels to mere spectators.
The day after the sevens last Saturday, I was still basking in the glow of it all. The antidote came quick enough, in the form of Down v Monaghan, two highly professional, expensively prepared squads. One team playing crap football that was highly inefficient. The other playing crap football that was highly efficient. Not a single man-to-man contest. Just boring defensive, counter-attacking muck.
It used to be one of the great treats of the year, being in Munster with RTé to watch a blood-pounding hurling contest. I was there in 2004 when Waterford finally broke Cork in what was perhaps the greatest sporting contest I ever witnessed. But uber-professionalism is doing for the hurling as well.
So, Clare v Waterford was puke hurling. Full-time sweepers. Forwards left to forage on scraps. Goals impossible (the one goal scored was a freak caused by the goalie and three defenders getting on top of each other and the ball breaking kindly for Maurice Shanahan to poke home), forwards outnumbered. Short pucks to the corner-back. Handpassing up and down the field. The game decided by mistakes. Two sets of brilliant hurlers reduced to playing crap, highly efficient hurling. And woe betide the Clare hurler who sips a pint between now and whenever Davy and Dónal óg say he can.
I walked across the pitch beforehand where the Clare men were warming up, drilling the ball at each other with bewildering speed and accuracy. One sliotar went loose and I grabbed it. "Here Joe," said the Clare hurler behind the mask. "No," I said. "Finders keepers." "Ah for f**k sake," he said. I went to the VIP area where I spied Brian Cody. He signed the ball for my son Rory. "You're dead right in what you're saying Joe," he said. "It's madness. In Kilkenny, our lads play all their club games. We're only borrowing them. It's the whole point of the GAA. Club and community first. It's what drives us on. Keeps us rooted and fresh."
The great man told me that Kilkenny don't do training weekends or warm-weather camps. They don't even stay overnight in Dublin before the biggest games. John Fogarty went to interview Cody once before an All-Ireland. The training was well over and the boys had all gone. There was still no sign of Cody emerging. So the journalist went to the door of the changing room to see the great man mopping it out. Cody doesn't take a penny from the GAA. Like Jim Gavin.
The bleeding obvious was stated last week in a study published in The Physician and Sportsmedicine medical journal. The study, conducted by a team of experts from France and the Netherlands, looked at the problem of 'Common Mental Disorders among elite GAA athletes'. The report found that 48 per cent of the county footballers and hurlers studied had two or more symptoms of CMD, 80 per cent had experienced one or more severe injuries during their career to date. Critically, many of the participants reported unhappiness and disenchantment at their lives. The authors concluded that there is a significantly higher prevalence of CMD amongst inter-county Gaelic footballers and hurlers than in equivalent professional sports.
The day after this report was published, Laois footballer Gary Walsh revealed that he was summarily dismissed by phone from the Laois squad after "letting a few f**ks out of me after being taken off against the Dubs, which I was wrong to do but I was just frustrated." He went on to explain that he had begun training with the team in November last year and since then has had 150 training sessions with the squad. Which works out at an average of 19 sessions a month for eight months. "I have given up time with my son, girlfriend and family over those eight months, to be tossed to the kerb, it was like the phone call cost no thought, let's teach this lad a lesson. Nothing about the 150 sessions or years dedicated to Laois before and now I miss the qualifiers. It doesn't add up. Gutted to say the least." Dysfunctional isn't the word.
I was sitting beside Jarlath Burns in the VIP section in Thurles on Sunday. I turned to him and said: "Look around you. GAA grounds are the only VIP section you'll ever be in where there are no VIPs. Just ordinary GAA folk. There's still hope for us Jarlath." We can still save the GAA. But it must be a rigorous, strategic, radical process and it must start now.
As I drove away from Derry city on Saturday night, with a carload of delighted, exhausted boys, I had a vivid memory of Caolan's mother Kim holding a cup of water tenderly to her dying son's parched lips. On one of my visits, she had gone to Harry Corry's. She came back bearing furry blankets to swaddle her dying son. His big frame, all 6' 1" of it, was frail now and his body was painful to the touch. Kim carefully wrapped his pillows and his mattress and his body, soothing him. I wept in the car park afterwards.
We have already been invited back to the second Caolan McCrossan Memorial under 14 tournament, to be played next summer at Páirc Colmcille. I look forward to it. It is impossible not to be there and feel the presence of the flame-haired boy, dashing upfield to take the winning score.
Sunday Indo Sport