Tipping point . . .
How long more will lure of playing at inter-county level beat the sacrifices involved for most players?
"How can you justify training five or six nights per week for eight or nine months of the year, without a realistic chance of winning anything?"
Retired Meath footballer
For every Paddy O'Rourke, there is an Emlyn Mulligan. In the final stages of a nine-month recovery from his third cruciate knee operation, having turned 30 and due to marry later in the year, everything is conspiring against Mulligan extending his inter-county career. His job involves shift work that makes finding a balance with training an added challenge. People have said he is stone mad. And Leitrim have a damn sight less chance of winning anything than Meath.
In a Leitrim career that started in 2006, he has sampled only one win in the Connacht Championship against a team other than London or New York. That came at Sligo's cost in 2011. In the qualifiers, the final refuge of the damned, Leitrim have won only twice. They've never been outside Division 4 since the National League was restructured. In 2013, they suffered a humiliating 37-point qualifier trouncing from Armagh. Mulligan's career is a calamitous catalogue if judged in that manner but he has no intention of stopping. He will play as long as his legs allow.
O'Rourke, who retired while still in his 20s, claimed that many more county players feel like he does. But the lure of playing inter-county still beats the sacrifice for most of those out there.
"Like, everyone has different opinions on it," says Mulligan. "I can see 100 per cent where Paddy is coming from as well. I have been questioning it a good bit myself at times but I suppose it is different for me. I know no better. I have never been in a position where we ever won anything. We don't know any different."
He might have less sympathy if those reservations were expressed by an All-Ireland medal winner. "I mean that is something I would dream of, to be able to play at that level where you were competing for All-Irelands. I would give everything up to focus on that. To me, playing inter-county for players who have that chance is not a commitment; the enjoyment they get at that level must be incredible. I know I am not going to win anything. I still get enjoyment putting the Leitrim jersey on. Regardless of winning or losing, it is still an honour."
Before O'Rourke outlined his misgivings, Kieran Bergin, an All-Ireland winner with Tipperary in 2016, made open and frank admissions on the same theme. Pressed further, he agreed that winning an All-Ireland probably justified all the time and effort. But he seemed uncertain about going through it all again, if given the choice.
For every Kieran Bergin, there is a Richie Hogan. The seven-time All-Ireland winner quit his teaching post in 2016 but says that hurling was only part of the reason - he also wanted to look at different career options. Still, he admitted the added scope to train was a major incentive in taking time out. He now runs a successful teacher recruitment business sending candidates to the Middle East.
"The GAA is very clear to me," says Hogan. "If you want to play at an elite level, you play at inter-county level, and if you want to enjoy yourself off the field as well, to have a social life, well then you do that at club level. But being a county player opens doors for people and it is hugely enjoyable. I think the training is hugely enjoyable."
Hogan, a former Hurler of the Year, has been tormented by a back injury in recent years and is currently making his way back to fitness. He regards GAA players as better off than most. "If you go into any triathlon club in the country you will have training at 6 in the morning and at 7 in the evening and not only do they get nothing for it but they get no exposure. Could you name one triathlete in Ireland at the moment? I have a sister than runs marathons, she trains maybe 10 times a week, watches her diet, doesn't drink and she loves it and she doesn't whinge about the commitment.
"She plays other sports like camogie and handball and nobody forces her to do it. I think because we have such a huge profile in the GAA it can be overstated. I would say if you are questioning it, it is not for you; go back and play club football and hurling. That would be my view on it."
He admits that he is fortunate in playing for a successful county. "Hurling is a huge part of my life and my career as well. And it is something we do for a short period of time. To be honest with you, I don't have strong views on it either way. Some lads love that commitment, some don't. It is all relative. I play with a club, Danesfort, who haven't won anything in years. At the start of the year we are nowhere near favourites to win anything and I love playing in that environment as well. If the lads feel it is too much of a commitment that is their opinion and that's fine. That is the commitment that's required."
The GAA has made some efforts to intervene but the power of the county team is hard to circumvent. Ten years ago a ban on collective training for county teams in November and December was introduced which was later moderated.
The motive was to help tackle burnout, topical at the time, but the measure has been almost impossible to enforce, relying on county boards to act as watchdogs and run the risk of conflict with county managers who they've appointed to serve their interests. Despite widespread flouting of the restrictions, no team has ever been held to account. GAA intervention like this has little impact. County teams still train intensively over long periods of the year. The inter-county season, even with recent reforms, remains too long.
But more players appear willing to be heard and questioning the sacrifices required of them. Last October the Clare hurler Brendan Bugler retired at 32 after 11 years. He joined the dissenting chorus. The additional time needed to play inter-county had drained much of the fun out of playing county for Bugler although his circumstances had changed too, having become a father, and his patience invariably had started to wear more thin.
He spoke of a lack of "tailoring" to suit individual needs. The idea of drink bans, raised by Bergin earlier, also drew some sighs from Bugler. He said those controls were counter-productive and "silly".
Even if those who raise these issues don't change anything, they are useful in stirring debate. Having some feasible target to aim for, as O'Rourke alluded to, is an area where the GAA can have an input. While the Super 8s has created a platform for the stronger counties to gain more games and exposure, those down the ranks are still playing mostly for the sake of it. Previous efforts to have a secondary championship have been rebuffed but it is not an issue that is going to go away. Many, Mulligan being one, would welcome reform that introduces a tiered championship, properly marketed and supported.
On a broader level, Hogan says GAA county players gain enormous benefits for their health and well-being. "There is a huge enjoyment factor, in playing at a high level and competing at a high level, and you are in such good physical condition that I think that is something that people should appreciate, to have the facilities to be able to train which we don't have to pay for; I think we are incredibly lucky."
Seamus Hickey, the Limerick hurler and GPA chairman, is also trying to balance an inter-county career with work and a young family. He started playing for Limerick in 2006. "I would agree the volume is more than it has been before," he says.
"For me, regardless of what county you commit to or what code it is, there is a commitment required and a choice to be made. It is one of those things, inter-county hurling or football has to fit in with your life outside of it.
"But, you know, personally, and I know a lot of players are the same, you identify the commitment that is required and you tailor your life to suit. I found it much easier to do in my early 20s. There is work to be done. Especially on the scheduling of competitions.
"But regardless of what happens in that scenario it is still an amateur sport that you are passionately committing to. The vast majority of our (GPA) members state that their desire is to be the best they can be and that motivates them to play. And when that motivation is there you will make it work. Hopefully, the GPA can help you work with the work-life balance."
Hickey acknowledges the "incredible support" of his wife to enable him to continue playing. The GPA has had an increased focus on helping players find better balance in their lives. He says around half of their members have availed of advice services in education and career orientation. "The first thing we would do is have an informal chat, getting players to spend a few hours thinking about their lives, and it is amazing how relatively little time that players give to thinking about that. And what happens from that is there is an area of need identified and they are pointed in different directions."
Will players continue to do it though? Mulligan sees more who are not answering the county call now than was the case when he started playing for Leitrim.
Do the same values exist? "Culturally and societally, we have changed as a nation, no doubt about that," states Hickey, "and traditional values that were once the cornerstone of life in both urban and rural areas have changed. It would be surprising if that did not have an effect in our lives. I can see that in all sports. It is not unique to GAA and to Ireland. Change is inevitable and you have to adapt to that.
"From what I do get from talking to players in lower divisions is that there is a reason why they are doing what they are doing, why they are fielding teams. Where was Clare football five years ago? Where was Tipp football ten years ago? Limerick were much stronger as a force in Munster for the last 15 years than Tipp or Clare were. What I see in those counties is huge effort put on development. I feel no team gets better by accident. When you see what Limerick did at underage in hurling, that required enormous effort. How did Clare win all those under 21 All-Irelands in hurling? To me, in all counties, they have the potential to be better and improve but it requires huge effort."
Anthony Daly's Clare pushed out the boundaries with early-morning sessions in the 1990s and a regime of physical training that became notoriously harsh. In his later spells managing, more recently with Limerick minors, and UL in the freshers colleges competition last season, he has seen the content change but the time put in hasn't lessened or the pressures on players.
He declined the option of getting involved with the UL team in the Fitzgibbon Cup this year even though he knew they had huge prospects because of the expected clash with county team needs in the National League. Players being dragged in both directions at this time of year is a problem the GAA, he feels, could and should solve because players are left open to exploitation.
"It is all getting a bit harder and if you are not getting any joy at the other end it is harder still," says Daly. "And if you are a Meath footballer, like he (Paddy O'Rourke) would have looked at his uncle (Colm O'Rourke) and that golden generation, and now they have gone through an awful time, changing managers and getting hockeyed by Dublin annually, so he's probably saying to himself, 'Sure where is the fun?'"
In his time managing Dublin he remembers players on the fringe of the panel being let go, even though they must have known they had slim prospects of making the team, and leaving in tears. There is always someone prepared to come in and take that place. Sacrifices will still be made. He thinks back to the day after Offaly defeated Limerick in the 1994 All-Ireland hurling final, when Clare were back training for the season ahead. They weren't to know then they would be All-Ireland champions for the first time in 81 years in 12 months. And they were ready to go training a year out from the final.
Whether those weaker counties will keep persisting in the absence of meaningful competition is the great unknown. The gap is getting wider and at some point they may lose the signal and it will be too late to reconnect. "You come out of it a better person," says Emlyn Mulligan of his devotion to inter-county football. "Obviously the commitment is big but it keeps you fit and the mind healthy. And you make great friends."
But the GAA should never be complacent. In 2016, Leitrim beat Waterford, their second ever qualifier win, and only three players are on the current panel who played that day. That would not have been the case when Mulligan started out. Those counties can't be cut adrift or Emlyn Mulligans will become scarcer by the day.
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