Tuesday 20 August 2019

Paul Flynn: 'We must listen to stakeholders before a simple yes or no vote'

Paul Flynn: 'I understand the frustration that both county and club players have around fixtures'. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul Flynn: 'I understand the frustration that both county and club players have around fixtures'. Photo: Sportsfile

Paul Flynn

The purpose of the Gaelic Players Association is to represent the interests of all of our players, protect their welfare on and off the pitch and support their development as people. I have been in the role of CEO of the GPA for nine months and I'm delighted to say we are making great progress in delivering on our purpose.

However, the demands on our players have never been higher. And players' need for the GPA programmes and services has mirrored this. Every day I hear from players about their daily balancing as they try to juggle work, county and club commitments. Like many in the GAA community, championship structures and fixtures are at the top of their agendas now.

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This is why we are enthusiastic about the newly-formed fixture review task force. It is made up of stakeholders from every unit in the GAA to review the fixture calendar for both hurling and football.

The task force aims to deliver a report later this year that will lay out a road map to remedy the long-standing fixtures and structural issues that are impacting player welfare and the enjoyment of our games. The hurling league and championship structures in Leinster will be key components of these discussions, but the one with the most significant momentum is the proposal for a second tier in the football championship.

This is why the GAA's Special Congress in October on this proposal concerns us.

Why push through structural changes when a dedicated committee, comprising representatives of the GAA, GPA, CPA, third-level institutions, and other stakeholders has been established to address exactly this?

From a player's perspective, I fully empathise with the need for a structured programme of games during a clearly-defined season. I understand the frustration that both county and club players have around fixtures and championship structures, which is why the work of the task force is so important.

This committee needs time and space to review the overall structure of our competitions and the fixtures calendar. And time is needed to listen to the views of players, and other GAA stakeholders, before putting the question to a simple 'yes' or 'no' vote.

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While 60 per cent of players supported a change to a tiered football championship, a number of concerns were raised. Namely that the current proposals differed to those presented in 2018.

Our members had agreed that the objective of any second-tier championship should be to facilitate more championship games for teams in Division 3 and 4 while also providing sufficient assurances of promotion and TV coverage of championship games.

We have been open with the GAA in our willingness to work together to influence positive change for players, administrators and wider supporters of our games. This must be done without damaging the integrity, popularity and commercial appeal of our flagship competitions.

Through the fixtures task force, green shoots of change are finally emerging, and this is all the more reason why we must avoid perpetuating any existing problems with an isolated solution.

There is clear evidence that many counties are already running an efficient programme of league and championship fixtures for club players in both hurling and football. For example, playing with my own club Fingallians in Swords, I'm experiencing a comprehensive league schedule that runs simultaneously with the inter-county schedule, as is the case in many counties. In other words, as a player, I know when matches will be on.

These structures need to act as a model for other counties where club leagues are held up as the inter-county season continues. Delays should be the exception, not the norm. The responsibility lies with the clubs in each county - through their representation at county board level - to guarantee that an appropriate programme of games is in place to meet the needs and ambitions of their county players and teams.

The relationship between the GPA and Club Players' Association is vital in this regard. We've had a number of positive engagements in recent months, and it is clear that there are areas of mutual interest that can be harnessed to drive positive change. Again, we need time to do this.

The GPA previously put forward proposals for a revised Champions League-type football competition. The changes we proposed were aimed at improving player welfare by tightening up the calendar, improving the games-to-training ratio and enhancing the playing experience at club and county level. Many of the principles proposed then remain in place today.

We are currently working with a group of player representatives to review the original proposal and make this more relevant to the playing environment of 2019. This would consider the integration of a potential second tier championship, while also allowing lower division teams an opportunity to compete for Sam Maguire. All of the players' ideas will be shared with the task force.

Structural reform is clearly required, and although it won't be straightforward there is a great opportunity with the fixtures task force to make recommendations that lead to positive change into the future.

The inter-county player, who often gets the blame for the fixtures issue, is the one who needs to be protected the most.

As it stands, inter-county players are under extraordinary pressure from demands placed on them by the GAA's master fixtures calendar. All GPA members are proud club members first and foremost, and with 35 per cent currently full-time students, many represent their college too. The ESRI report on the realities of being an inter-county player, published last year, highlighted that games are at a tipping point as players face increased risks to their physical and emotional health and wellbeing.

Our members are investing on average 31 hours a week into their preparation while making huge sacrifices. They're honoured to do this for the privilege to represent their county and community.

Sometimes this is lost amidst all the commentary. This is why the GPA programmes and services are critically important to all players. We help them to find that balance, to maintain focus on their careers and support them in their development as people first and players second.

In many cases it is only the 70 minutes of game time that people see of our great players. When the lights go out and the supporters go home these guys need to be supported to develop as people and professionals too.

Cracking the fixtures issue will be a big step in the right direction. Let's not rush to a quick fix for a long-term problem.

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