Tomás Ó Sé: Don't get me wrong, I love rugby but it doesn't come near to doing what GAA does for the country
It’s grand when Ireland are winning or when Munster or Leinster are doing well but although the GAA can be obstinate, slow-moving, suspicious of change at times – all the things that give us ammunition to criticise – it connects Irish people all over the world and is the permanent lifeblood of the country
At school, Tiger Woods was a nerd.
He walked with his head down, rarely talked.
He was socially awkward.
I'm just into the early pages of that new book about Tiger and it's extraordinary how he'd morph into a completely different person as soon as he hit the golf course.
A fellow student in the accountancy class at Western High School, subsequently to become his girlfriend, couldn't believe the difference.
He seemed like two different people to Dina Gravell who, to begin with, knew nothing about his golf. As writers Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian describe it: "With a club in his hand, Tiger looked so invincible, so strong." With golf, he was the equivalent of an animal on the prowl.
Without it, he seemed afraid of his shadow.
If he wasn't so good at his chosen sport, who or what would Tiger be today? I ask that because I wonder about myself in that regard. I was a shy kid, low enough in self-esteem. But being good at football stopped me ever feeling isolated. The GAA brought me out of my shell and, effectively, gave me the confidence I have today. It shaped my personality.
And, yet, I spend most of my time picking holes in it. Finding fault. Calling for change.
I've been thinking about that lately, wondering why I find it so easy to take swings at an organisation that has given me so much. And a song keeps slipping into my mind when I do. The voice I hear is Michael Jackson's:
"I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways"
Because the power, theoretically, lies with every club member to make change. But most of us don't use that power. I mean I haven't been to a club AGM in my life, yet I'm full of opinions on all that is wrong with the GAA. I wouldn't even know who our club delegates are or the job they face in trying to get a motion brought to Congress.
So I recognise the hypocrisy in a sense of almost endlessly taking issue with how the GAA does its business, yet remaining completely ambivalent to the opportunities all of us get to bring about change. You see, I regard myself as a good complainer. Maybe there's something twisted inside me, but I'm in my element giving out.
Sometimes, it's as I'm almost locked into that setting. What can I complain about today? Who can I pull down to size? Like when you think of the key energies surrounding GAA life, it's almost as if the strongest one can be a compulsion to pick holes. It's how we roll.
If in doubt, just give out!
I mean I hate Congress. The whole thing just looks like something plucked from the dim and distant past to me. It seems antiquated, dominated by middle-aged and elderly men whom I always feel have little enough in common with me. Then, when I see things like last year's vote against transparency, I just despair. Or the need for a two-thirds majority to get a motion passed…
Are the voices of the grassroots being listened to? My guess is no. But I've never really made a serious effort to understand it either.
I mean it seems to me an unwieldly way to make decisions. But if I never even bother going into a meeting in my club to understand how these decisions evolve from the bottom up, do I really have the right to make little of it?
I've always seen myself simply as a player, leaving all the other stuff to people whose paths I seldom cross. And so when I say then that I don't trust those people, when I depict them almost as dinosaurs, am I being entirely fair?
I've always seen Congress as a fundamentally arrogant exercise, something out of touch with modern reality. But the truth is I know next to nothing about how it works. Most people don't.
That said, if I'm not giving out, what will I have to talk about?
* * * * *
Like the big bugbear for me right now is how the traditional art of fetching and kicking is being lost to football. I met a lad from Monaghan last week who described himself as a massive admirer of Kerry football, his favourite player being my brother Darragh.
And this man made a point that really resonated with me. He said the two things that made Darragh great were his ability to catch high ball and the accuracy of his long passing.
Well, I'll risk the wrath of Dublin supporters here by re-affirming my belief that, if he was playing in 2011, we'd have won that All-Ireland final.
Why? Because our inside forwards would have thrived on Darragh's kicked deliveries from out the field.
Most of what we get to see these days should be called 'hand-ball'. The modern obsession with keeping hold of the ball means it's all about hand-passing now. Playing percentages.
Donegal, largely, brought this about with their All-Ireland win in 2012. A team that hadn't, traditionally, sat at the top table claiming the Sam Maguire changed the communal mindset.
When Jimmy McGuinness took over, that table was occupied by Dublin, Kerry, Mayo and Tyrone. Then, suddenly, everybody saw what he achieved and – even at club level – there was this compulsion to ape the Donegal model.
But a point most people missed was (1) that McGuinness had great players and (2) their coach was an unbelievably smart man.
So the Donegal way became this kind of magic-carpet ride in so many people's minds. A route to overcoming the odds. That thought came back to me watching Moy play An Ghaeltacht in the All-Ireland Intermediate semi-final last January.
An hour in, An Ghaeltacht led 0-6 to 0-3 and, my God, it was a horrible, horrible game. Moy set up ultra-defensively and An Ghaeltacht just weren't good enough to put the game to bed.
In other words, they weren't good enough to do to Moy what Dublin did last August to Tyrone.
Next thing, Moy got a goal and the game turned on its head. Good luck to them. They went on to win the All-Ireland for what was probably the greatest day in their club's history, but that afternoon in Thurles I could count on one hand the number of kick passes they made. And, yet, we call it football?
Look, I'm not trying to aim any personal digs here. These are great football people, but they've been seduced by this modern culture.
Lord Christ, I heard recently of a girls' Féile team in one county deploying a sweeper. Think about that. Fourteen-year-olds being schooled, essentially, in how to create congestion.
Trust me, underage coaching has a lot of answer for and Croke Park needs to address this as a matter of urgency. They need to send out people to coach the coaches in my opinion. To rein in the madness. Maybe give every county ten day-long sessions a year, reiterating the traditional skills of Gaelic football.
Because I see too many underage coaches and managers today who think they're the next McGuinness. They've lost the plot. They're nearly trying to intellectualise the game in order to make themselves look smart. A sweeper for under-14s? Spare me.
If it was up to me, I'd get rid of underage development squads too. This idea of treating kids as elite athletes... I'd ban it because all they're doing is pulling 14-year-olds away from club training and club matches. Giving them notions.
It makes my blood boil, because there's an awful lot of people out there on power-trips, almost turning kids into joyless robots when they should be playing football for enjoyment.
For God's sake, give them time to be children.
I had a single coach all the way from under-12s up and, you know something? It simplified everything. It never felt as if we were over-thinking things. Don't get me wrong, he knew what he was doing, and that's the absolute key. Volunteerism is, arguably, the biggest strength of the GAA, but the flip-side of that is a lot of children simply aren't being coached properly.
And I'm not talking just about coaching the basic skills. I'm talking about coaching inclusivity too, about bringing the supposedly weaker kids along.
Let's worry about tactics and sweepers and nutrition shakes when they get to minor level.
Like, I'll say this against myself. I was absolutely ruthless as a player. I'd actually hurt an opponent to win. But retirement has opened my eyes to the narrowness of that kind of focus.
We're losing too many kids from the game by this instant pre-occupation with winning.
You know, historically, Nemo Rangers never had 'A' and 'B' underage teams. They mixed it. They understood that underage sport cannot simply be about winning.
That meant, naturally, that they didn't win anything at underage which, to be perfectly honest, I considered a badge of honour.
But there is change there too at underage level and it's actually not the way to go.
It makes me think of lads like Aidan O'Mahony, Tom Sullivan, Paul Murphy, all from Rathmore, but not one of them played minor with Kerry. They were late developers.
In the rush to create elite athletes almost from the playpen now, late developers will get forgotten about.
* * * * *
One thing that's crystal clear is we're still a million miles from resolving the club v county divide in the GAA.
Personally, I'd propose sitting down ten of our best minds at a table and empowering them to sort this out once and for all. Put trust in them.
Because we're just going around the houses here and, as we've seen, this club-only idea for the month of April has been largely ignored. If it doesn't suit a county manager, the truth is most county boards just roll over. Another point to be made on that is some counties start in June, some in May. You can't expect every county to give up players if they are playing in early May.
Accordingly, there's zero consistency to what's happening. One county might be trying to do things by the book, another will be completely ignoring the directive. It's become the Wild West in that regard.
The number of county players who haven't been available to their clubs for a lot of April has made a complete mockery of the plan. And yet, a lot of these counties don't even have a championship game until June.
How does that make sense?
Strong county managers dictate what their county boards do and, until and unless that's tackled, the structure of the season will remain immaterial.
Wouldn't it be great to have a set calendar in stone for club and county with no bending of the rules and no counties going on solo runs?
* * * * *
But here's the thing. I've seldom looked forward to a season more than the one looming and that's got me thinking about how grey all our lives would be without the GAA.
Imagine rural Ireland without the clubs and that sense of identity they give the smallest townland, the tiniest village. Think of all the unpaid hours put in to the children of those places through simple love of the game, through sense of place. Think of the respect for your parish that grows from that, for your community.
Yes, this is the same, big, hopelessly flawed, endlessly contradictory body that so many of us have made second careers out of hammering.
But recently I've been thinking about the unique culture of volunteerism we have, where so many people of all professions will give so freely of their spare time. Of how the Association has grown and evolved, the transformation in standards on and off the field. Look at the facilities now, the stadia, the pitches. Look at the players, infinitely fitter, quicker, stronger and more skilful than even those playing a short decade ago.
Even looking at the Kerry Golden Years video recently – and those men will always be gods to me – I was struck by the number of mistakes, the amount of aimless kicking, the lack of comparable pace.
Our players now are so well educated on their own bodies, on strength and conditioning, on diet, on how to be a healthier person and to take care of yourself, it's unrecognisable from my early days as a player. The old binge-drink culture has, largely, faded away. And that's certainly no harm.
Think of today's heroes: Michael Murphy, Conor McManus, Brian Fenton, Ciarán Kilkenny, Con O'Callaghan, Lee Keegan, Aidan O'Shea, Stephen Cluxton, Rory Beggan, Michael Quinlivan, John Heslin, Keith Higgins, Cian O'Sullivan, Diarmuid Connolly, Paul Flynn, Bernard Brogan... and that's without even touching on my own county.
These fellas, in my eyes, wouldn't be beaten in any era. Because we're living in a golden age and it's being dominated by a Dublin side that may actually be the greatest GAA team of all time.
Look at the likes of Clare, Tipperary, Carlow, punching gloriously above their weight. Look at our role models: Michael Darragh Macauley doing his bit for Concern. Joe Canning with Unicef. Alan Kerins and his brilliant charity work. Outstanding people, making us all that much prouder to be members of the GAA family. Maybe we need to remind ourselves of that. Of how the GAA has shaped us all as people.
Of all the big sports events happening in the world these next few months, there's nowhere I'd want to be more than Castlebar on May 13. Mayo v Galway. Lord God, that's going to be something.
You know in these very pages recently, I saw Neil Francis wondering if rugby had become the real 'People's Game'. And all I could do was smile to myself.
Rugby is grand when Ireland are winning or when Munster or Leinster are doing well.
But the GAA is the permanent lifeblood of this country. It lives and breathes in every corner of every county. It's strong everywhere.
It connects Irish people all over the world. Don't get me wrong, I love rugby too but it doesn't come near to doing what the GAA does for Ireland.
After family, it's certainly the biggest thing in my life. Yes, there's loads about it I want to change too and, hand on heart, I won't be going quiet on any of that.
But I plan on being more pro-active with my club too. On understanding precisely how this democracy of ours works.
And to do that, in the words of Jackson, maybe I'll have to start with the man in the mirror.