I WAS honoured to line out with great players during my Kerry career and privileged to be tutored by Mick O’Dwyer, the greatest manager of all time.
Hand on heart, though, my favourite GAA memories come from my involvement with my club Templenoe.
Charles Kickham’s famous ‘for the credit of the little village’ line taken from his novel Knocknagow has always resonated with me.
Remember, in the early years of the All-Ireland football and hurling championship clubs represented their counties.
Commercials from Limerick won the first All-Ireland football final, while Thurles Sarsfields from Tipperary won the first hurling decider.
Kerry’s only All-Ireland hurling title was delivered by Ballyduff in 1891.
The GAA’s mission statement reads that the club ‘binds us together’. However, over the last couple of decades and particularly in recent years, the pursuit of elitism has resulted in a diminishing role for the club.
It’s a similar, if more dramatic, story in rugby.
The club has almost disappeared with the provincial sides taking precedence since the game turned professional.
The GAA is following the same disastrous route with Club Kerry or Club Dublin getting first priority – while the clubs scrap for the crumbs that fall their way.
One of the few positives things about the pandemic was that it forced the GAA to rejig their fixtures programmes.
So for the next two-and-a-half months the GAA’s spotlight will shine on the club. It is a long overdue and positive development.
Let me explain via a short backstory.
There was a lovely piece recently on RTE’s Six One programme about the efforts of farmer and vet Feargal Ó Cuinneagáin to conserve the corncrake in Ireland. He is creating a natural habitat for the bird along the Mullet Peninsula in Co Mayo.
With only an estimated 162 of them left in Ireland, the corncrake is an endangered species. A secretive bird, they live in hay meadows but are very difficult to see.
In the GAA we have our version of the corncrake. He’s called the inter-county player. They’ve become a protected species as well, rarely spotted in their club grounds.
They are wrapped in cotton wool, following a series of diktats issued by their county team manager.
They occasionally show up at their club grounds during the summer months, invariably wearing the county team tracksuit top.
They’re there purely to observe because they spent most of their waking hours either training, rehabbing, pre-habbing, doing a gym session, playing a behind-closed-doors challenge game or heading away on a bonding weekend – all, of course, in the company of their county team-mates.
Finally this summer the all-embracing power of the county manager has been clipped – though I’m sure they are already dreaming up ways to get the players back under their direct command.
In the meantime county players are back training with their clubs which, from a GAA prospective, is the best thing to come out of Covid-19.
To an outsider it is hard to explain just how important this is. The presence of the county players means the intensity of the training is automatically higher, because they bring the professional standards they are used to in the county set-up.
It is a win-win scenario for everyone. Long may it continue.
For the first time in the modern history of the GAA the club game is the focus of everyone’s attention at the height of summer.
David Whelton of Castlehaven is tackled by Alan Jennings of Carbery Rangers
This day week it’s the Galway showdown between the All-Ireland senior (Corofin) and intermediate champions (Oughterard), while next month’s meeting of Kerry’s two most successful club sides, Dr Crokes and Austin Stacks, in the first round of the county championship is another one to saviour.
There has been a noticeable increase in the number of players attending club sessions since the resumption of action.
Apart from the county players being involved, players based in the big cities are back working from home, as are third-levels students who were unable to go on J1 trips to the US this summer. And, with a definite fixed timetable of matches, players who had drifted away have returned.
For the first time in their careers they know exactly when they will be playing and that they won’t be training for months before playing a meaningful match. Matches will be shown live on TV and streamed by the county board.
Hats off to the often-maligned Cork GAA Board which, to the best of my knowledge, is the only board streaming their games free of charge.
The televised matches will raise the profile of players and demonstrate just how high the standard of club football is in many counties.
Furthermore, it gives players a unique opportunity to showcase themselves in front of the county team manager, and possibly secure a coveted place on the county panel.
Of course, form players should automatically be invited to join the county panel. But in the real world it doesn’t work like that.
There used to be a joke about the Irish rugby team: it was harder to be dropped off it than be picked for it.
County GAA teams are no different. Nowadays players’ careers can be determined by whether they make the county U-14 development squad.
The guys that progress through the ranks to play at U-17 and U-20 level, and in either the Sigerson or Fitzgibbon Cup at third level, will almost certainly get an opportunity to play at senior county level.
Unfortunately late developers get precious few opportunities to break through this glass ceiling. So I’m not holding my breath, waiting to see how many rookies Peter Keane calls up after the Kerry club championship.
Staying parochial, Kerry’s absence from the All-Ireland winners’ enclosure in recent years – one win since 2009 is our version of a famine – can be traced back to what’s happening at club level. Back in the halcyon days of the seventies and eighties, county players stood out a mile at club level. Not any more.
Save for David Clifford, Sean O’Shea and Paul Geaney the rest are pretty anonymous at club level. We have an awful lot of players of a similar standard.
Everything about this mini-revolution is not positive, however.
The scheduling is awfully tight. There is virtually no room for a game to be rescheduled and the GAA has yet to address what happens if a club is hit with a positive Covid-19 test on the eve of a scheduled championship game.
Dual players will struggle with the workload. There was a fascinating interview with brothers Mikey and Paudge Boyle in a recent edition of the Kerryman.
They play hurling with Ballyduff and Kerry; junior football with Ballyduff and are eligible to play in the Kerry county senior football championship with Shannon Rangers. They could be in action every single weekend between now and Christmas.
The scheduling issue is compounded by the decision of the majority of County Boards not to avail of the full club-only window.
Only two county finals, the Meath hurling decider and the Carlow football final, are scheduled for October 11, the last designated date for club action.
Ten county championships will be finished by mid-September – a month ahead of schedule – while the majority will be done and dusted by the end of September.
Then there is the case of the Wexford hurling and Waterford football club championships, which will be completed by the end of August.
In recent weeks we’re being asked to believe that county team managers have had a Road-to-Damascus-like conversion on the importance of club football and hurling.
Frankly, I have my doubts and I detect their influence in the decision of so many counties not to take full advantage of the club-only window.
We have read stories about their strength and conditioning teams giving advice to clubs and the managers, participating in webinars for their club counterparts.
Believe me the majority of these gentlemen are only really interested in the well-being of their elite county players. The fate of clubs is not high on their priority list. And don’t believe all that nonsense that they have surrendered all control.
The vast majority of county players have been supplied with GPS units, which allow the county team management to monitor their training loads.
Big Brother is watching as players get caught between two conflicting training regimes. Their club training is focusing on getting them sharp for forthcoming matches, whereas at county level they’re expected to do heavy pre-season stamina work.
I spoke to a club manager during the week who decided to give his players a break from the normal routine last week. He allowed them to enjoy a kick around at training, because he thought they looked tired.
However, the county players on the squad had no option but to do a rigorous physical session because they wanted to keep their GPS stats in order. And when a county player picks up a knock, guess who decides when he is fit to resume? The club doctor or the county team’s medical team. No prizes for guessing it’s the latter?
Trust me, county team managers are still pulling a lot of strings. My message to all clubs, players, officials and supporters is to enjoy your time in the spotlight. I fear it is not going to last.
Come next year, and provided the coronavirus is gone, the old order will be restored and the club will be back at the bottom of the pile yet again.