Sport GAA

Thursday 20 June 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Time to tackle mass player exodus from the game'

GAA and GPA must take action as many counties left without their best talent

Laois hurling boss Eddie Brennan, with his players on Sunday for the game against Dublin, has discovered the O’Moore jersey doesn’t appeal to every hurler in the county. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Laois hurling boss Eddie Brennan, with his players on Sunday for the game against Dublin, has discovered the O’Moore jersey doesn’t appeal to every hurler in the county. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

BREHENY BEAT: Martin Breheny

We don't hear much about it from the GAA's power brokers or, perhaps more surprisingly, from the GPA, but lack of acknowledgement doesn't disguise a disturbing feature of the modern inter-county game.

It's most noticeable at this time of year as the new season sets off on its giddy way, bounding through the pre-season action, en route to the start of the Allianz Leagues.

Having been without county action for so long, the public are responding as they always do, turning out in large numbers to look for early indications of what the year might hold for their particular teams.

That's where reality asserts itself. Everyone accepts that standards will always vary between counties, but over recent years a worrying trend has emerged, with many players of inter-county standard declining to become involved.

It applies mostly - although not exclusively - to lower-ranked counties, where not all players are prepared to put in the effort demanded.

There was a time when a call-up to county duty, even for a challenge game, was celebrated as a major personal triumph, proof that the player involved really had arrived.

That still applies in the initial stages, but is no longer guaranteed to hold every player's undivided attention. The massive commitment which comes with being a county player just isn't for everyone anymore.

And while it's easy to accuse those who opt out of wasting talent, there's a wider dimension to all of this.

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If, as last year's ESRI report indicated, inter-county commitments take up an average of 31 hours per week, the obvious question arises as to why involvement in an amateur sport requires nearly as much time as full-time work.

However demanding it is, players from the top-end counties are happy enough to give that commitment because they enjoy the success and the trappings that come with the high-profile scene.

But what of lower-ranked counties? That's where players are querying if it's worthwhile making as much effort as their elite counterparts for a system that's structurally and geographically loaded against them.

New Offaly football manager John Maughan was surprised by the number of players who weren't interested in coming aboard this year.

"There's a lot of guys that I asked to play and, for a combination of reasons, haven't got the desire, the commitment, the passion or the time to commit to inter-county football at this level.

"I've noticed that it's totally different with teams in the upper divisions as regards the whole philosophy, the whole ethos of inter-county football," he said.

New Laois hurling manager Eddie Brennan was equally perplexed when he discovered that some players whom he wanted on the panel declined to join.

"It's something I just do not get. I just can't understand why lads would not want to hurl for their county. To me, if you excel with your club, there should be a drive and a grá to do that (progress to county level)."

As a Kilkenny man, his attitude is understandable, but then he enjoyed many years of glory in the black-and-amber. Would Eddie have remained as committed if he were born in Laois or some other county outside the top tier?

In an Irish Independent interview, Wicklow footballer John McGrath, who played inter-county for 12 years prior to retiring last November, gave a clear insight into the changed mindset that has developed.

"Over the last five years, an average of 13 players have left the (Wicklow) panel every year. Others don't want to play in the first place," he said.

As Wicklow's GPA rep for five years, he knew what was going on in other counties too, several of whom were having the same experience.

"Even Meath don't always have their best players. Counties like Wicklow are looking at them and thinking: if those problems are there, what chance have we got?"

McGrath is convinced that unless greater incentives are provided (he's a big fan of a Tier 2 championship as a starting point) even more players will ignore the county call.

"If that happens, it won't be the GAA as we know it. Some counties could end up like Kilkenny (football)," he said. That might appear alarmist, but players like McGrath are perfectly placed to assess the mood in lower-ranked counties.

A decision on a Tier 2 football championship will be made later on this year but even if introduced, it won't automatically end the drift of players away from the county game.

The immediate challenge for the GAA is to acknowledge that a genuinely serious problem exists and that it will get worse unless addressed..

The GPA should be on the case too - after all they are supposed to represent all inter-county players - but, so far at least, they haven't said or done a whole lot about it.

As things stand, a substantial threat to the inter-county scene as we know it is hiding in plain sight of the GAA and GPA. It's time to wake up to the obvious implications.


Beware of the propaganda war

We are being openly bombarded by claims that limiting the handpass to three as part of the experimental rules is reducing goal chances.

Tales of flowing moves taking players into goal-scoring areas, only to be thwarted by not being allowed a fourth or fifth handpass are being peddled so loudly that those of a suspicious disposition might get the whiff of collusion.

After all, if the new rules can be portrayed as evil goal-killers, it will greatly strengthen the case for those who want them scrapped before the start of the Allianz League.

Hopefully, the transparent stunt will be seen for what it really is: an attempt to spark a panic reaction based on a small number of games with below-strength teams.

If the handpass experiment is to be meaningful, it must be retained for the 116-match league programme, after which a fully informed  analysis of its impact can be made. This is no time to bow to managers and their vested interests.


Rebel plan needs to be good after dramatic slump

When Cork won the 2010  All-Ireland senior football title, it was generally assumed that the future on Leeside was bright.

The U-21s had won two of the previous four All-Ireland U-21 titles and six of the previous ten Munster titles, while the minors had won four provincial titles in ten years.

What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, as it happens. Since then, Cork’s only senior success was in the 2012 Munster Championship. Neither the U-21s (now U-20) nor the minors have won an All-Ireland – indeed the minors haven’t won a provincial title since 2010.

As for the seniors, their only two championship wins over Division 1 opposition in the last eight seasons were against Down (qualifiers) in 2011 and Kerry (2012 Munster semi-final).

All of which goes to show that however high a county’s stock is, there are no guarantees for the future. Cork launch a five-year football strategic plan today and, judging by recent experiences, it had better be good.

Irish Independent

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