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Future choice Crystal clear

S ports fans see things differently. Like the Aborigines for whom the landscape of Australia is alive with the marks and memories of Dreamtime, the world is marked for us by its associations with the games we love.

To the uninitiated, for example, New Inn is a small and unremarkable village which you'll miss if you blink when travelling from Loughrea to Ballinasloe. A GAA fan, however, knows that it is the home of Sarsfields, who Joe Cooney inspired to become one of the greatest club hurling sides of all-time. To the tourist, Sneem is just a village which you pass through en route to the more spectacular visual delights further along the Ring of Kerry. The far more important fact that it produced the great John Egan escapes them.

That's why when I saw the Waterford Crystal workers occupying the visitors' centre last week, my first reaction was not to admire their undoubted courage, solidarity and determination. It was to think of their junior soccer team. Because Waterford Crystal is not just a factory, it's also the name of a terrific soccer club, one good enough to win that most difficult of competitions the FAI Junior Cup as recently as 2006. They also made the final in 1998 and 2005 and won the Munster Senior Cup in 1996.

Set up as a works team, Crystal has also included outsiders, though as local councillor Davy Walsh told me: "There's no such thing as an outsider in Waterford Crystal because everyone in Waterford has a connection with the glass factory." There were numerous other sporting clubs in the factory which had one of the most extraordinary facilities in Ireland in the days when sporting provision was in the dark ages.

The Waterford Crystal Sports and Leisure Complex, which opened in 1971, had a swimming pool, an indoor sports hall, an athletic track, football and rugby pitches and tennis courts. It says something about the achievement of the workers that the swimming pool remains the only public pool in one of Ireland's largest cities. Anyone who visited Waterford back in the dark days of the eighties marvelled at what had been created at the plant.

It was not created by an act of corporate munificence but by the workers themselves. The centre was their idea and was paid for by a contribution out of their wages which management then agreed to match pound for pound. That was the kind of people they were in Waterford Crystal.

And the kind of people they remain because I can't help thinking that the spirit which has seen the workers refuse to go gently into the good night of unemployment is intimately bound up with the factory's sporting tradition. People with the memory of playing together, swimming together and running together on fields, in pools and on tracks which were the fruit of their own hard work were never going to walk away quietly. The pride felt when the soccer team finally made that FAI breakthrough is now being duplicated in the occupation.

The factory has always been implicated in the city's sport. Among other things, there was a glass worker Terry Stafford on the great Waterford team which won three League of Ireland titles in-a-row from 1968 to 1970. Another glass worker on that team was Noel Griffin, who kept George Best scoreless when Waterford held reigning champions Manchester United to 3-1 at Lansdowne Road in a first leg European Cup tie in September 1968. Eamonn Coady was there when Waterford United won the FAI Cup in 1980. Jim Greene and Ken McGrath are among the hurling greats who worked there. Yet all this tradition could have been set at nothing had the glass factory workers meekly accepted the decision of the receiver.

Being a sports fan, I'm biasd in favour of a place like Waterford Crystal. A piece about the great sporting tradition of Anglo Irish Bank would, I imagine, be somewhat shorter. Yet it is the second entity which was nationalised by a government which wouldn't even guarantee the pensions of the workers in the first one.

There is a moral here for sporting organisations. An amount of time has been taken up by county boards nationwide worrying about the loss of a few players here and there to Australian Rules. Well, what is going to happen over the next couple of years will put that in the shade.

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Back in 1987, in my first job, I hit on the idea of surveying the GAA clubs in Roscommon to find out how they'd been affected by emigration. It turned out that things were even worse than people had imagined. One club, St Faithleachs on the Longford border, had lost 34 players, another one had lost 27. A whole generation of promising minors and U21s had flown the coop because there wasn't work for them at home.

Guys from counties all over Ireland who should have been lighting up Croke Park ended up singing along to the JCB Song in London pubs and putting the football boots on ice. This went on all through the '80s.

To see us going down this road again is like suffering the recurrence of an awful nightmare. I remember being in Longford a couple of years ago and talking to people from the Dromard club. One thing they all agreed on was that if the building trade crashed, the club would be decimated because that was where most of the employment in the area came from. Yet, to be honest, the thought of such a crash seemed so distant that we could talk about it as something wholly academic.

Now it's here. And the GAA, above any association, has a duty to try and keep as many of its players at home as possible. The Association still carries considerable political clout and it should not fall for the idea that there is no alternative but to let unemployment grow and grow while the government engages in an accountancy exercise. The GAA is in a good position to make the point that it is an act of indecency to put young building workers on the dole while nationalising a bank most of us wouldn't have noticed the absence of. That billion and a half flushed down the Anglo Irish drain could have put a lot of people, who'd love to be back at work, building badly needed schools all over the country.

If the GAA wants to go on pretending it's above politics while small clubs are denuded of their young players, fair enough. But it would be a shame. Because at the moment in Ireland there are two options. You can be one of those workers who, on getting laid off, say it's a terrible thing but what can you do about it. Or you can be a Waterford Crystal worker and refuse to accept the fate imposed upon you by people who'll be sitting pretty no matter how this shakes out. The GAA, and every other sporting organisation, should take the second option.

And, despite what happened in Croke Park last night, I know who my Team of the Week are.

thephotograph@hotmail.com


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