'Talking time is over - we need to face reality and do the right thing by all of our players'
In an exclusive interview with Martin Breheny, Páraic Duffy calls on Congress to accept measures to end ill-treatment of players
Páraic Duffy dispenses with the sugar-coating and imparts his message in clear, concise language.
It's a week out from a Congress that the GAA's director-general believes is faced with making decisions that are fundamental to the Association's future.
The concern is two-fold. Young players face physical, educational and psychological issues brought about by over-demanding schedules while club players are frustrated to the point of taking up other sports, due to the haphazard fixtures' schedules.
"It comes down to this. Are we going to say to our elite young talents: keep playing and playing and playing, we know there's a problem, but burn yourself out, we're not listening to you," says Duffy.
"Are we going to say to our club players: we accept that you don't have anything like a satisfactory fixtures' plan but the inter-county scene is far more important than you are so you'll have to put up with things the way they are.
"And are we going to say to all of them that we came up with proposals to make things better but threw them in the bin because we didn't really care."
Duffy's passion for change runs deep. Prior to joining the GAA as player welfare officer, he was principal in St Macartan's College, Monaghan, where he saw at first hand the pressures on talented footballers who were trying to combine Leaving Cert studies with county minor championship training.
In his time as player welfare officer, he dealt with third-level players who were stretched close to breaking point as they tried to juggle county, club and college commitments.
Prior to his appointment as director-general, he was involved in various committees that drafted proposals to ease the situation but little came of them. As DG, he has seen other committees make recommendations but they too have, largely, been ignored.
It's against that background that he devoted a lot of time last year to compiling a discussion paper on overtraining, burnout and fixtures' issues, drawing on no fewer than eight reports from the previous decade.
His recommendations, some of which were amended following consultation with counties before Christmas, are now in motion form and heading for Congress next weekend.
The four key elements are: reducing the minor age limit from 18 to 17 years; regrading U-21 football to U-20 (to be played in summer); playing extra-time in all championship games that finish level, except for provincial and All-Ireland finals; completing the All-Ireland club championships in the calendar year.
Already, there has been opposition to the age change for minors, with the Kerry county board voting 40-17 against it this week.
"I was disappointed with the Kerry reaction. One of the points made was that if we drop the age to 17, it will impact on Junior Cert students, rather than the Leaving Cert students who play minor at 18.
"There's no comparison between the exams. The Leaving Cert and A-Levels can be life-defining so students should be given every opportunity to give them full attention. They can't do that if they are part of a county minor squad that's training a few times a week for the championship.
"It's up to us to separate exam pressures from GAA pressures. In fact, we have a responsibility to do that. Just because the minor age has been 18 for nearly 90 years is not a valid reason to leave it. I've given the arguments why keeping it at 18 is wrong. I'd like if those who oppose it give theirs.
"Talk to parents and school principals and they'll tell you about the huge pressures on Leaving Cert students who are playing county minor," says Duffy.
Figures show that 16,366 boys sitting the Leaving Cert this year are eligible for minor at U-18, whereas the figure would be down to 2,991 if U-17 applied.
Reducing the minor age would also have a positive spin-off on club activity as U-17s are no longer allowed to play at senior level.
"As it stands, senior championships are often held up because a club has a minor involved with the county team," Duffy continues. His original proposal on U-21 football was to scrap the competition but there was a widespread reaction against it, leading to the U-20 compromise.
"I now accept that the majority want an age grade between minor and senior, which is where U-20 comes in. We play the U-21 in spring at present but the proposal is to move U-20 to the summer. Players involved with the senior squads wouldn't play U-20 because that would cause further fixture problems.
"Playing U-21 in spring - as we've been doing - puts enormous pressures on the very good players who are also involved with county senior and third-level college teams. Playing Sigerson and Fitzgibbon before Christmas isn't really an option and with colleges having different exam patterns around Christmas, we have to stick with the current time schedule. That's why if we introduce an U-20 competition, it has to be played later in the year."
Duffy believes that abolishing replays (except for provincial and All-Ireland finals) would ease some pressures on clubs. So would bringing the All-Ireland senior finals forward by two weeks.
That, in turn, provides leeway for completing the All-Ireland club championships by December.
In fact, the latter is reliant on the inter-county finals being played earlier.
"I can't see how it can be done otherwise. But if we had the football final played by the first Sunday in September, it would open up a lot of room. I'd prefer no replays in any game but the wider view was that we should have them in provincial finals and All-Ireland finals. With that in mind, we certainly need to examine how quickly we can replay All-Ireland finals. The hurling replays of recent years were three weeks after the drawn games, which caused havoc for clubs in the counties involved. We've got to look at playing them the following weekend. A three-week wait is crazy," says Duffy.
He is deeply concerned too by the treatment of club players, most of whom are frustrated over fixtures.
"More than that, they are angry. And understandably so. It's ridiculous that county players play so little with their clubs because of fixture issues. That annoys club players and the county players aren't happy about it either."
He believes that passing the proposals, as outlined, would have a hugely beneficial impact across a whole range of areas.
He is also convinced that if they are rejected, it will send out a worrying message to young players and the club scene in general.
"If we back off now, it will leave us in a very bad place with our players. We owe it to them to get it right. These proposals are very modest so it's not as if we're trying to change everything," Duffy says. "They are being made to protect our players and to make our games a more enjoyable experience for them. If we don't protect them, who will?"
Is he confident Congress will back the proposals?
"I think there's a good level of support but the bar is high in voting terms as we need a two-thirds majority. It's a lot but I hope, for the sake of our players, that we get it. We can't let this opportunity pass. The stakes are too high."
Páraic Duffy on: County funding
There has been a lot of discussion on how much Dublin receive since the publication of our annual report so it’s important to address it.
If you go back 15 years or so, there were concerns over the state of the GAA in Dublin and whether it could cope with the threat from rugby and soccer. It was an issue because the GAA needs to be going well in our capital city. The situation has transformed dramatically since then, much of which was brought about by investment. Dublin used the money well and the fruits are there for everyone to see.
Now, we need to look for a funding model that keeps every county happy. Our National Financial Management Committee are looking for a way of closing the gap between Dublin and the rest.
It’s not an easy process but we have to find a model that helps every county without threatening the hard-earned gains that have been made in Dublin.
Ideally, the problem would be solved by generating more revenue to distribute to all the counties. Alternatively, you take from Dublin and send it elsewhere. The answer lies somewhere in between. We’re conscious that this whole area has to be addressed. The fact that Dublin are going so well has drawn attention to the funding but it can’t be simply a question of cutting way back on Dublin. We’ve got to the get the balance right.
A proposal (introducing a ‘B’ championship for Division 4 counties) has been put forward by Central Council and is on the agenda for Congress next weekend.
The feedback from some of the counties, who would be involved, has been very negative so I don’t know where it’s headed. Central Council are due to meet on Friday before Congress starts and it may be discussed there.
There could be a proposal to withdraw the motion in light of the negative reaction but at this stage I genuinely don’t know what will happen. It will be up to Central Council to decide whether they want to let the motion go to a full Congress hearing or withdraw it.
On a broader point, it’s very difficult to find a championship system that suits everyone. It’s generally accepted that there’s no appetite to move away from the provincial championships as the starting point for the All-Ireland and there’s a limit to what you can do after that. I’m a bit surprised by all the negativity to the proposal to have a secondary championship for Division 4 counties, with the winners going into the qualifiers but that’s the way it has turned out.
It's very simple. If the Dublin motion (it proposes that future deals for the All-Ireland championship be confined to freeto- air channels only, which would eliminate Sky Sports) is passed, our hands will be tied in negotiations. Free-to-air channels can offer us as little as they like and we would still have to deal with them. There’s no getting away from that.
This is about allowing us the freedom to negotiate the best possible deal we can which is, after all, in the interests of the Association. Everyone wants competition in whatever market they are involved so it would be very foolish indeed for us not to operate on the same principle.
This is not about Sky or anyone else. It’s about putting ourselves in a position to line up the best deal possible and to get top value for what we think our games are worth. We would be failing in our duty if we didn’t do that. We have already given a guarantee that there will be no reduction in the number of games (31) that go to free-to-air channels in the next deal.
We’re at a disadvantage compared to other sports who have international outlets. They get a share of world deals which bring in a lot of revenue, irrespective of the size of the domestic market. We’re much more limited, why is why we’re trying to maximise our income. Keeping our options as open as possible is an important part of that process.
I’m sure other sports would be very surprised to see us bringing in a rule which effectively cuts the number of TV channels we could negotiate with. It just doesn’t make sense. I understand that some people have strong views about dealing with any pay channels, but the answer is not to tie our hands by rule when it comes to negotiating TV rights. If this motion is passed, the GAA generally will be the loser as we will bring in less revenue from TV and have less to share out as a result. That’s the reality of the situation and I sincerely hope that Congress takes it on board.
Our rules, as they currently stand, on the use of grounds were implemented in relation to Dromard – it’s as simple as that. If any club wants to change the rule, it can bring a motion to Congress and let it be debated by the entire Association. That’s how we conduct all our business.
For instance, Clare have a motion coming before Congress calling a change of policy on the use of county grounds. Any club can do the same if it thinks we should open up club grounds to other sports. I don’t think it would get very far but the option of having it discussed is there. But, as of now, we don’t allow our grounds to be rented for other sports. If the rule is broken, action has to be taken. Otherwise, why have the rule in place at all?
I know there was criticism of the fine on Dromard (the Longford club hosted the Jamie Carragher Soccer School last August), which came around the same time as the Bruce Springsteen concert in Croke Park was announced.
We had soccer and rugby in Croke Park for some years too but let’s be clear on this – we opened it up at the request of those sports and the Government at a time when Lansdowne Road was being redeveloped. We’re also happy to play our part in the bid for the 2023 World Rugby Cup because we think it’s right to do our bit to bring such a major event to Ireland.
Croke Park was redeveloped to the size and scale it is to help generate funds for the Association, which it’s doing all the time. Concerts are a big revenue generator. Having said that, we would not have gone ahead with the Springsteen concert if it involved moving the two Leinster Championship games to another venue.