Tuesday 21 November 2017

Presidential hopefuls play the club card

All five promise to address fixture problems but will anything change?

Frank Burke (Galway) Bidding to become the first president from Connacht since the late Joe McDonagh in 1997-2000, he has chairman’s experience at county and provincial level and is current National Games Development Committee chairman. A member of the Loughrea club, he is aged 63 and a retired primary school principal. Picture credit: Sam Barnes / SPORTSFILE
Frank Burke (Galway) Bidding to become the first president from Connacht since the late Joe McDonagh in 1997-2000, he has chairman’s experience at county and provincial level and is current National Games Development Committee chairman. A member of the Loughrea club, he is aged 63 and a retired primary school principal. Picture credit: Sam Barnes / SPORTSFILE
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It's the same before every GAA presidential election when candidates almost invariably place improving the lot of club players at the top of their agenda, promising to address it a meaningful way if they get into power.

Advocating on behalf of clubs always goes down well, but what does it actually mean in an organisation where power is vested in so many groups and committees?

Robert Frost (Clare) The O’Callaghan’s Mills man is seeking to become the first Clare GAA president since EM Bennett held the position for a year in 1887-’88. Frost has served as Clare chairman and later as Munster Council chairman. Aged 66, he is a self-employed businessman. Picture credit: Piaras Ó Mídheach / SPORTSFILE
Robert Frost (Clare) The O’Callaghan’s Mills man is seeking to become the first Clare GAA president since EM Bennett held the position for a year in 1887-’88. Frost has served as Clare chairman and later as Munster Council chairman. Aged 66, he is a self-employed businessman. Picture credit: Piaras Ó Mídheach / SPORTSFILE

In fairness to the five candidates who are going before the Congress electorate in Croke Park tonight, they are, no doubt, genuine in their statements of devotion to clubs but then the same has applied to all the other runners over many years.

Yet, the situation has become so dysfunctional that over 20,000 players have joined the newly-formed Club Players Association over the last six weeks alone.

They did so because they are deeply frustrated by what they regard as a serious governance malfunction, both locally and nationally.

If they read recent interviews with the presidential candidates, they would be greatly encouraged for a better future but will it amount to anything? Here's a sample of what the candidates have been saying about the club problems and their commitment to fixing them.

John Horan (Dublin) He completed his term as Leinster Council chairman last month and is now bidding to become the first president from Dublin since Dr JJ Stuart in 1958-’61. A member of the Na Fianna club, he previously served as Dublin Central Council representative. Aged 58, he is a secondary school principal. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
John Horan (Dublin) He completed his term as Leinster Council chairman last month and is now bidding to become the first president from Dublin since Dr JJ Stuart in 1958-’61. A member of the Na Fianna club, he previously served as Dublin Central Council representative. Aged 58, he is a secondary school principal. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Frank Burke: "The challenge is to find the space and have the steely commitment to ensure there is a meaningful programme of games and regular games for our club players. And I think the Association should be a strong voice for the cause of rural Ireland."

John Horan: "We need to see if we can make our rule book or our organisation more effective to make clubs' survival easier. Do you always have to have 15-a-side? Do you always have to play in this competition? We have a lot of rules but are they helping or hindering our rural clubs?"

Robert Frost: "The GAA are moving in the right way but there has to be a calendar for club players. I would like to see players get a minimum of 20 matches per year. You can't expect players to train for months on end and not play any games."

Martin Skelly: "For the first time ever, I believe GAA units in rural parishes are under threat. Clubs along the western seaboard are facing decline. Young people are gravitating towards the major urban centres, particularly on the east coast, so the problem for the east coast GAA clubs is accommodating the influx."

Martin Skelly (Longford) Attempting to become the first Longford man to be elected president, he previously served as Longford and Leinster chairman and has served as national Féile chairman for the last two years. He is a member of Cashel club. Aged 61, he is a farmer. Picture credit: Barry Cregg / Sportsfile
Martin Skelly (Longford) Attempting to become the first Longford man to be elected president, he previously served as Longford and Leinster chairman and has served as national Féile chairman for the last two years. He is a member of Cashel club. Aged 61, he is a farmer. Picture credit: Barry Cregg / Sportsfile

Seán Walsh: "The CPA has been formed out of frustration because there is not a structured games plan for club players. The reason there isn't is because there are fellow club players on county teams playing in qualifiers and taking up Sundays. Until we get that right, we will still have frustration."

Arisen

If the club issue had arisen over the last few years, the candidates' commitments to sorting out the problem would be particularly interesting but, of course, it's not like that, as current president Aogán ó Fearghail and his predecessors can testify.

The conundrum is multi-layered and so entangled that assurances from presidential candidates, however sincere and well-intentioned, usually morph into aspirations.

If that weren't the case, the club issue would have been sorted out a long time ago. Instead, the problem has got worse - hence the launch of the CPA last month.

That raises the question of how much a president can actually achieve. Prior to the election, the impression is given that he can dictate policy in a really significant way. It's far from being that simple.

Seán Walsh (Kerry) The only candidate to have previously contested the presidency, he finished third behind Aogán Ó Fearghail and Sheamus Howlin in 2014. Current chairman of the National Referees’ Development Committee, the Moyvane man has held the various top positions in Kerry and Munster. Aged 61, he works at the SSE Tarbert power station. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Seán Walsh (Kerry) The only candidate to have previously contested the presidency, he finished third behind Aogán Ó Fearghail and Sheamus Howlin in 2014. Current chairman of the National Referees’ Development Committee, the Moyvane man has held the various top positions in Kerry and Munster. Aged 61, he works at the SSE Tarbert power station. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Granted, he can launch initiatives but, unlike the US president, he cannot sign executive orders that actually make things happen, and certainly not in important areas.

Yet, because the GAA presidency has such a high profile, not just within the Association but across the entire national sphere, the expectations are very high.

This year's field in bigger than usual, with five candidates trying their cases, compared with three in 2014 and 2008, two in 2005 and four in 2002.

There was no contest in 2011 when various candidates withdrew in the weeks before Congress, allowing Liam O'Neill to be elected unopposed. He had come second behind Christy Cooney in 2008.

Seán Walsh is the only one of this year's candidates who ran before, having finished third behind ó Fearghail and Sheamus Howlin (Wexford) in 2014. Such a large field makes the outcome very difficult to call in an election which will be carried out on a proportional representation basis.

Delegates will ballot one to five, with the lowest candidate being eliminated until such time as one gets more than 50 per cent of the vote.

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