The club. The club. The club. There is always plenty of talk in the GAA about 'The Club'. But when the talking is done, the feeling persists that very little of substance follows it.
The decision by Central Council last weekend to reject a motion from Roscommon County Board calling on the GAA to conduct a full review of club and county fixtures only served to strengthen the view that clubs have lost their voice.
Despite protestations to the contrary, there is little doubt among many seasoned observers that the role of the Club Players' Association in bringing that motion forward played a big part in its demise. There was little or no discussion at county board level around the country on the motion, and even in the small number of cases where clubs made their support for it known to their county executive, they were ignored.
This is what club men and women talk about when they say they have no voice, that they are being increasingly pushed to the margins of the Association. The CPA is just one manifestation of that frustration, and for those who are involved in the day-to-day running of their local club, the list of mounting concerns is alarming: not enough money; not enough players; too many players; not enough pitches; not enough volunteers; increased demands in the form of regulations and governance; and so on. On the ground, patience is wearing very thin.
When GAA president John Horan took office earlier this year, he set up a working group which he simply called the National Club Committee to look at the problems facing the grassroots. This is the kind of committee which tends to slip gently away into the night - but not this time, it seems. Horan appointed Roscommon man Mick Rock as its chairman and made it clear he was serious. He wanted to know what the scale of the problems was; and he wanted solutions.
Over the last six months, the committee has worked quietly in the background and has successfully completed its first objective: to undertake the most comprehensive survey of clubs in the GAA's history. A total of 853 clubs, over half (53 per cent) of the clubs in the country, took part in the survey. Around three-quarters of the clubs in Connacht responded, while almost 60 per cent of those in Dublin took part.
"I think it's unprecedented, to the best of my knowledge," says Rock. "Surveys of clubs in the past have elicited only a fraction of that response.
"We've been talking a lot about what clubs want and what would be good for clubs and everything else, this is the voice of the clubs. We asked them, they have told us."
And the results are a wake-up call. It's natural that finance would feature prominently in their worries, and fixtures too. The struggles of rural clubs to hold on to players and volunteers versus the struggles of Dublin clubs to cope with their growing membership shows the complexity of the issues confronting the GAA. Then, there's a myriad of pressures brought about by changes in society and the growing number of obstacles hindering volunteerism.
Fixtures, too, remain a bugbear. Clubs are frustrated and say the free month in April did not benefit them. They want championship games during the summer. The survey identified that an irregular frequency of games and the lack of availability of county players are the greatest source of annoyance.
The bottom line is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution that will begin the process of bringing clubs back in from the cold. The committee noted in its report, the full details of which will be revealed on Saturday next at a special forum in Croke Park, that it could detect in its dealings with clubs so far a huge plea for assistance to help empower them because they feel they are becoming less relevant.
The forum on Saturday will mark the next phase of the committee's work. The event, says Rock, will give clubs "an opportunity to express their views and their challenges, and to be listened to by the higher levels of the GAA, who will be in attendance". Over 220 clubs have so far committed to attend, and that number will increase as the week goes on. (Any club wishing to send a representative can do so by contacting their county secretary to be registered and the GAA is urging clubs to grasp this opportunity to take part.)
Rock says the forum will not be a talking shop, but rather a step in the right direction to address the problems clubs highlighted. He stresses that they will be listened to. "We will tease through those things, the areas that they identified as their particular challenges," he said. "We will have workshops where they will be able to join in, build on what they have already told us, talk to people of like minds and otherwise from other clubs around the country in a non-confrontational sort of atmosphere - which they don't always get because clubs very often meet in situations where they are at loggerheads with the opponents!"
He believes the results of their deliberations on Saturday, and their work over the next year or so, will be instrumental in influencing GAA future policy.
There is a lot of lip service paid to the value of the club, but here, at last, are signs of a meaningful response. Rock agrees. Because clubs have so willingly engaged with this committee - something unusual in itself - he says that if they do not see action arising from it, the old inertia will return. "It's up to us to build on that, build our relationship with clubs, let them know who we are, get out there among them and that's what we plan to do."
He added: "I'd say nobody ever set out to do the clubs down but the way things have evolved, perhaps over the last few decades in particular, they have taken on a momentum of their own, as a result of which maybe we took our eye off the ball a little bit with regard to our clubs and the result is that they are finding themselves more neglected, of less influence and importance within the Association, and feeling that their relevance and power has been eroded. Really they're crying out for a bit of help and attention.
"I think we are only waking up to where we are. I think there will need to be a deep debate in the Association about where we see it going in terms of inter-county and club and the interface between them. That's a very fundamental question; an ideological question. It is only when we get some sort of consensus on that within the Association that I think we'll be able to deal with the issues of where they fit in with each other."