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GAA disputes have a long history and an even longer future

FUNNY how times change. Back in 1976, Cork's hurlers were outraged over a three-month suspension imposed on one of their comrades by the county board. The conflict had its origins in a national league match between Cork and Kilkenny in which the player was reported for using abusive language towards the referee. His name was Gerald McCarthy.

Many moons later he's back in the tumult of player unrest, this time as a conscientious objector. As he stressed in the course of a defiant statement, McCarthy has had his run-ins with the county board over the years. He's not a patsy. As a player he saw at close hand early skirmishes in the player revolution. But now he is in the eye of the storm -- and fighting it with every fibre of his being.

The circumstances, he would argue, were different back then. In 1977 his team-mates Jimmy Barry Murphy and Brian Murphy threatened to pull out of the All-Ireland hurling semi-final against Galway. This was in protest over the suspension for six months of the entire football squad of which they were part. The notorious 'three stripes affair' -- where the footballers ignored county board warnings and wore outlawed adidas gear in the Munster football final against Kerry -- was one of the great flashpoints in the history of player-establishment hostility and signalled a new level of player militancy. They eventually backed down but it tested the waters and challenged GAA authority and the sanctity of the rulebook.

What we are now witnessing in Cork and elsewhere has many of the same basic ingredients as 30 years ago when McCarthy was in his hurling prime: it is a struggle for power and influence. Players are no longer willing to be silent if they feel something is wrong. Determining how far that influence should stretch is the tricky part. Players, presumably, are capable of abusing power too.

They are certainly more entrenched and obdurate now than in McCarthy's playing days. Cork's two dual players hurled against Galway in 1977 after a long meeting between the warring parties, held in St Finbarr's GAA club, ended the dispute. Ironically, it is McCarthy's home club and that night he was summoned to the meeting around midnight as negotiations hobbled on the brink of collapse.

When it began to look inescapably bleak there was the final pitch that could bring them together: they were all in it for the good of Cork hurling and football. Everything else had to be subservient to that and that cry still echoes today. There was talk of Jack Lynch, the Taoiseach of the day, possibly having to intervene. But it wasn't necessary. Jimmy Barry Murphy turned up at a board meeting the following month and read a statement on behalf of the football squad. He asked that they accept a verbal undertaking, rather than the written one they'd demanded, that the players would abide by the rules on sportswear in future.

"Our main reason for asking you to accept a verbal rather than a written guarantee is because many of the players feel that the latter course would be a reflection on their integrity," Barry Murphy read to delegates, including the then, and current, secretary Frank Murphy. After digesting what he had to say the officers decided this was the sensible course of action. The matter was put to bed.

Six years before that the Cork football team threatened radical action when Denis Coughlan was dropped for the Muster final against Kerry. After a training session the players met and drafted a letter requesting that the selection committee include Coughlan on the team. It was claimed the letter read like an ultimatum and asked that the players be allowed select the side. But a compromise was found and Coughlan didn't start.

While players were not as mobilised as they are now, as vociferous, as media-trained, and there was no sign of a players' association, those disputes in Cork showed that grievances are not a modern-day phenomenon. They preceded the GPA and many would argue that they contributed handsomely to its foundation a decade ago.

The problem in Cork seems to be that the issues have been overtaken by the personalities involved. This time the chasm looks too wide to bring about reconciliation but there will be further appeals for the good of Cork hurling. The rich and venerable tradition is entreated in times of profound crisis, when all seems lost, to smile beningly on the warring factions.

Cork is a peculiar case but it is not the only troubled location. In Wexford, John Meyler was removed after it became clear some players weren't supportive of him, although the message was related nebulously through the county chairman rather than directly by the players. And, oddly, one of the most experienced players, Damien Fitzhenry, said he knew nothing about player unrest. Meyler claimed there had been no mention of it when they met after exiting the championship.

"It was a shock to me because not one player had raised any issue with me for three days after the Waterford match. I don't know where this came from."

In Donegal the players criticised the handling of the process of finding a new manager and also the removal of Brian McIvor. Ten years ago, Offaly hurlers turned on Babs Keating and effectively forced his resignation. It is easy to be sympathetic. In Meath the process of finding a successor to Colm Coyle has been prolonged and discredited by petty politics and squabbling. The players don't have a direct input into selecting the next manager but it will have a big impact on the next two or three years of their careers. Nothing so far inspires confidence that the board will make a judicious choice.

In 1992, the Mayo footballers engaged the media in the same way as the Offaly hurlers did six years later to encourage Brian McDonald to leave his post. Half a century ago their predecessors famously pooled their talents to write to the county board asking them to do all in their power to turn around the fortunes of football in the county. It was unorthodox and an unusually forward move by players who were expected to play and leave it at that. Mayo went on to enjoy the most profitable period in their history.

In Cork there is a fierce battle raging for public support on both sides, fought mainly through the media via various leaks and anonymous information feeds, all of which drives both parties further apart. Senior GAA officials in Australia will come home from a successful and unusually harmonious series to find the relations all at war. But the prospects of a high-level interjection as happened last year look remote. Cork have to find the resolution themselves.

There is also a level of conflict fatigue among the wider public, not to mention, presumably, the people directly involved. While Gerald McCarthy claimed the players were pre-disposed towards conflict, it beggars belief that they would be happy to be in the position they find themselves.

Is the latest Cork crisis giving player issues generally a bad name? The GPA, which has trumpeted player issues and pushed the agenda aggressively when required, doesn't think so. "I think there is a lot of this to be played out yet," says Dessie Farrell. "It took people a while to realise what was going on in previous conflicts. And I think this could go in the same direction. People don't like disputes and there is a feeling that players should shut up and get on with it. That's lazy and old-school thinking."

Farrell denied that Cork hurlers are exercising a veto on the management process and believes the county board have not been honest in their dealings with the two player representatives on the panel chosen to select the next manager. Only one name, McCarthy, was nominated. The county board released a statement claiming they had five meetings and the players put no alternative candidate forward.

"In most situations common sense would prevail and they would arrive at a consensus. Players work very well with most county boards where they do everything above board, where county boards are genuinely interested in the potential within a squad and trying to maximise that. Players have to look in the mirror first of all and say they are giving 100 per cent. After that they are entitled to expect the same from everyone else," says Farrell.

"There will be more of this, call it player power if you want, where players want a greater input and I think it makes our relationship with the GAA very important and useful in trying to make sure common ground can be found. The GAA should take the lead and develop a strategy to deal with these situations, a format where players can pursue these issues down the proper channels."

One of Meath's leading forwards, when contacted on Thursday, declined to comment on the current impasse in his county and said he felt he didn't have a right, or indeed a desire, to express a view on the situation. Every player is different but that view is antiquated. Many county boards, however, still resent any interference. That doesn't facilitate best practice when it comes to management selections.

"Player power is nasty business," said Gerald McCarthy last week. "If this bunch of players can do this to me, what will they do to someone else? Do players have the right to act in this manner? If they do I think it will cut off the lifeblood of people who want to work in a voluntary capacity."

Managers, by their nature, want to be allowed manage and not feel undermined by power blocks within the playing panel. Clearly in Cork, McCarthy felt his authority was being challenged and his word wasn't gospel. It was the players who said he made his best speech moments after being given a selection of positive comments they'd written down. Players have to respect authority but they are also entitled to raise issues that concern them. If the relationship and environment is healthy problems can be resolved.

The claim that democracy has been honoured in Cork is also a contentious one, not for the first time. Power is centred on the executive, a small cabal, and most ordinary delegates are 'yes men' who tow the line. There are ways in which the system can be corrupted, as we saw recently in Meath, where a loophole was found to avoid giving the job to the man the majority of the selection panel wanted: Luke Dempsey.

Democracy is what it says on the tin; GAA democracy is another thing altogether. The more politicised players become, the more they're likely to revolt against the gombeenism that still thrives within much local administration. There's bound to be a lot more trouble ahead.