Friday 18 January 2019

Pat Spillane: 'Most inter-county managers say very little, but when Brian Cody raises concerns, we need to sit up and listen'

Brian Cody
Brian Cody

Pat Spillane

I never grow tired of listening to county managers being interviewed.

Granted, they rarely say much, but it’s how they approach the task which fascinates me.

Jim Gavin is calm and measured, he throws in a bit of military and business jargon – and says precisely nothing.

Former Kerry boss Eamonn Fitzmaurice usually reverted to his teaching tone. He was dull and certainly didn’t rock any boats.

In contrast, fellow Kerryman and current Wicklow boss John Evans puts himself in the centre of the story by constantly referring to himself in the third person.

Tyrone’s Mickey Harte always has an agenda. He invariably has a pop at somebody, but is cute enough never to personalise the criticism by mentioning any names.

However, the manager I most like to listen to is Brian Cody. He is straight-talking and pragmatic, calling things as he sees them. He has no agenda, so when he speaks on a topic he’s worth listening to.

His recent warning about the elitist nature of the inter-county GAA scene ought to make decision makers in the association sit up and take notice.

The Kilkenny boss made valid points about the growing disconnect between club and county, which is leading to club players becoming second-class citizens.

He referred to the anomaly of club players having no games and consequently not training during the summer months, which has resulted in vacant pitches.

Former Kilkenny star Tommy Walsh has made the same point. He’s warned that unless club players are involved in meaningful games during the summer months they will go off and play soccer.

Of course, it is a crazy situation when club players are often left wondering when they play their next championship game – or maybe even their next match.

Every county deals with these issues individually. In the case of the Kerry County Board they are well organised.

All league and championship fixtures are set in stone. This year they managed to get the bulk of their club championship games played in April, the designated ‘club only’ month.

Two issues arose, however.

First, there was an element of box ticking about how quickly the championships were run off.

Secondly, Eamonn Fitzmaurice didn’t exactly embrace the ‘club only’ concept. He only allowed members of the county squad to train with their clubs during the first week of April. They then returned to the county squad training.

Furthermore, on the third Sunday in the month the county players couldn’t feature for their clubs in league matches as they were away with Kerry on a bonding weekend.

For the rest of year the scenario in Kerry was no different to most other counties.  We witnessed county players decked out in their county tracksuits watching from the sidelines as their club mates trained and played.

There was a surfeit of meaningless games featuring half-strength sides, because first-choice players were either involved with county squads or had gone to America for the summer.

I agree wholeheartedly with Cody that it’s not a healthy situation.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, county players are being flogged into early retirement.

The ESRI study published early this year revealed that, on average, county players devote 31 hours a week to the game.

Think about that for a minute.  Playing football or hurling – even at inter-county level – is supposed to be a leisure time hobby.  The GAA is copying the rugby model where the provincial sides have all but obliterated the clubs.  Essentially the IRFU has abandoned their grass roots in pursuit of elitism and money.

I fear the GAA are following a similarly destructive path. County teams have become the be-all and end-all. 

County players are largely peripheral figures when it comes to their clubs. At best they play a few important games at club level every season.

A  club player I know is still waiting to play alongside the club’s county player, even though he  has been playing with the club’s senior side for two seasons.

Striking a balance between the inter-county game – which is the GAA’s cash cow – and the club scene which caters for the vast majority of players, is exceedingly difficult.

Still, there are enough bright people in the GAA to come up with a workable solution.

For starters, there should be a national calendar incorporating inter-county and club fixtures, which is set in stone and supervised by the Croke Park authorities.

All counties should be obliged to play at least two, if not three, club championship games in April. Furthermore, additional club matches must be scheduled during the summer months regardless of what county managers want.

Finally, once a county exits the All-Ireland series the club championship should resume the following Sunday.

We had the ridiculous situation in Wicklow this year where, despite the footballers being out of the Leinster and All-Ireland in early June, county champions St Patrick’s were forced to line out in the Leinster championship less than 24 hours after winning the county title in a replay in October.

The raging elitism needs to be addressed as well. Financial resources should be weighted in favour of the counties with smaller populations and scarce resources.

Counties like Dublin are big and rich enough to generate their own income without being subsidised by Croke Park.

However, I profoundly disagree with my Sunday Game colleague Colm O’Rourke, who has been banging on for years about splitting up Dublin.

A big population doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. Kerry, the country’s 15th most populated county, have just won five All-Ireland minor titles on the spin, whereas Dublin have won one minor title in the last 34 years.

Likewise in hurling. Kilkenny, with a population of 99,118, has won 25 All-Ireland titles since Dublin, the country’s most populous county, last won the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 1938.

It’s a similar story in other sports. Ireland, the No. 2 ranked rugby team in the world has just over 25,000 registered rugby players. In contrast, England has over 131,000 male players, while France has 124,000.

What matters more than the population is how resources are utilised. 

Proportionately the weaker counties have to devote more resources to coaching than the bigger ones, which explains why they need more help from HQ.

For years I have advocated the development of some form of transfer system in the GAA under which players who are not wanted by their native counties could be drafted to weaker teams.

Barry John Keane, Dáithí Casey, Fionn Fitzgerald and Jack Savage, who were left out of Peter Keane’s winter training squad in Kerry, would make the cut in at least 28 county squads.

Think of the positive impact they would have on the weaker teams.

The bottom line is that the inter-county scene needs to be sorted. Right now it resembles a runaway train which if left unchecked will inevitably end in a spectacular crash.

It is time to heed Cody’s timely warning.  The GAA can ill afford to ape elite sport in the USA, where only the superstars get to play while the rest of the population turn into couch potatoes.

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