Saturday 14 December 2019

GAA's labour of love gets easier as clubs switch on to digital age

New technology and better planning are making GAA clubs much more efficient, writes John O'Brien

S OME time before noon on Wednesday, GAA president Christy Cooney will stand at the bottom of the steps leading to the GAA museum at Croke Park and cut the ribbon on a project that, essentially, has been decades in the making.

Mounted on the walls on either side of him as he speaks will be a colourful symbol of all the clubs, from city to country to continent, that make up the association. More than 2,000 all told.

It is a simple enough concept, but one that says a lot. Thirty years ago the notion of club crests was still a quaint one in the everyday life of the GAA. For the centenary in 1984, a request was sent to clubs to design a crest if they had not already got one. Many complied, but not all. For the 125th anniversary, another request was made and the idea to collate them together devised. Finally, they have got there. A critical strand of the GAA's history neatly encapsulated in the space of a few square metres.

The location teems with significance. It means the first thing you notice when entering the shrine to the GAA's past is a monument to the entity of the club and a sign of how thoroughly it has woven itself into the global fabric. Even if visitors only stop long enough to pick out their own club's crest and feel a swelling of pride inside, they'll consider it to have served a purpose.

Four years ago, the GAA made a couple of low-key appointments that were of great long-term significance. Kieran Leddy became organisational and development manager, while Westmeath native Declan Fanning was appointed IT executive. Leddy remembers the concept of the crests being floated around three years ago and thinking they would have their work cut out to achieve it.

"We thought we might have to go and get crests for 300 or 400 clubs," he says. "But there were only about 10 or 15 clubs that didn't have one. They were mostly just using the club name in Irish instead of a crest. So we had to help a few to come up with a design, but that was all. I was amazed. We thought it would be a huge challenge but they're all there."

Leddy has consistently been astonished by how intricate and detailed many of the crests are and how much you can learn about an area just by studying the crests of the local clubs. A round tower, an old monastery, a major river. "You can tell by looking at a crest much of the history of a place. If there's a particular landmark in the area. It signifies what the place is about."

And so it is a good time for the GAA right now. No more than any sports organisation, the GAA isn't recession-proof but it has sufficient credit to see it through rough times. The tenancy of rugby and soccer at Croke Park has generated a €36m fund for capital projects around the country, much of which will go towards the clubs, and if it directly benefits some of those who were vehemently opposed to the opening up of the stadium, then they will smile at the irony. Life often moves in funny ways like that.

"The good thing about it," says Leddy, "is it provides money for the club as well as other projects and that creates jobs as a spin-off." He noticed a statistic recently which revealed that nearly two-thirds of all Irish people under 25 and old enough to work were unemployed. The development of the GAA won't radically alter that, of course, but it might at least put a small dent in it.

For clubs to develop, it is critical for them to become more streamlined and efficient and that means embracing the available technology of the digital age.

Three years ago, another ambitious project was undertaken to create a database of every player and member of a club in the Association. And now they are beginning to see the fruits of those labours.

Consider the magnitude of such a task and what it would achieve. No more spread sheets or the filing of teams on loose scraps of paper to be handed to a suffering referee. No more guestimates at the exact size of the GAA either. For the first time in its history it would be able to conduct a virtual census at the simple tap of a computer key.

In a suite looking out over Croke Park, Leddy offers a demonstration of the new model and its almost scary efficiency. He opens a club page, types a random name in a box and, magically, it is instantly translated into Irish.

As soon as the rest of the person's details are added, he is automatically registered. As beautifully simple as that.

For clubs, the new system opens up a vast new world of possibilities. From now on the club secretary can type up a team-sheet online, stick the crest on top and print it out for the referee. It is a dignified and, whisper it, professional process. Through the system the club can send text messages and emails to all its members and also register for the players' injury scheme.

Ultimately, it will be the only way in which the latter can be done. So it is a process the clubs have little choice but to embrace.

Leddy imagines the vast quantum of time it will free up. Under the old way, Croke Park would send newsletters and various items to county secretaries who then faced the time-unfriendly ordeal of distributing them among the clubs. Now it is a simple case of a single email floating effortlessly through the information super highway and, if there is suspicion of the new technology, it has not been visible to Leddy on his travels.

Along with Declan Fanning, he has spent the past three years travelling the length and breadth of the country, staging demonstrations, helping clubs get to grips with what the new system entails. Last week brought him to Armagh and Meath. In all, he reckons he has been to 31 counties and the response has been overwhelmingly encouraging.

"The buy-in from the clubs has been huge," he says. "They're saying 'Right, this is the way to go. The benefits are enormous. We need to appoint an IT registrar'. We've taken our time with it because it's such a huge task but by the end of the year we'd hope that all clubs will have registered and, in the end, every member of a club will have a personalised membership card. That's a big winner for the clubs."

And on Wednesday morning when Cooney stands outside the GAA museum and pays tribute to the contribution of the clubs, it will kick-start a day in which the GAA is entitled to feel good about itself. But not smug, though. It is 18 months since the GAA rolled out its Strategic Vision and Action Plan, a hugely ambitious document which had as its central pillars urbanisation and the development of clubs.

One of the targets of the plan was for all clubs to have a five-year plan in operation by 2015. Last week Cooney was in Maynooth to launch the Kildare club's strategy document and he marvelled at the ambition he saw. "We didn't think when we launched this two years ago," Cooney said, "that we'd be launching a club plan so soon. This is the second club plan I've launched and there's a phenomenal sense of self-belief in this club."

With its rapidly growing population, Maynooth's ambition neatly encapsulates the critical areas of GAA strategy and you can identify those challenges, too, in the make-up of the four finalists who will take the field at Croke Park on Wednesday. Two rural clubs, one from a small town west of the Shannon and the fourth from the urban sprawl of west Belfast. It is an illustration that, for all its progress, the core strength of the GAA remains firmly in its rural hinterland, a source of concern when the country is facing ever rapidly increasing depopulation.

And yet whatever challenges and difficulties lie ahead, you are left in little doubt that the GAA has never been so well-placed to meet them.

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