Two years ago, the GAA celebrated its 130-year anniversary. Since then, it has evolved in many ways; from the first official rules, building Europe’s third largest stadium and attracting almost a quarter of Ireland’s entire population to watch the All-Ireland final.
However, one thing that has not changed in this time is its status as an amateur sport. This status could be in danger with the growing popularity of the game, not just on our own island, but in Britain too.
After a successful test hurling match in Fenway Park in November last, the GAA already has plans in place for another showcase next year. As well as this, many sporting legends such as Sir Alex Ferguson have expressed their admiration of the game, stating that the players at inter-county level put in as much effort as professionals.
Certainly, it would be hard to argue that inter-county players don’t act like professionals; for Donegal, this change could be seen happening five years ago.
“A number of things have changed, I guess the biggest one really would be the amount of time spent training,” Donegal captain Michael Murphy explains.
“It began under Brian McIver, but I suppose, when Jim (McGuinness) came in he began to identify different areas that we had to improve on and brought in specialists to improve us on those areas.”
Training twice a week with the county squad, an added club session on top of that, plus any added gym work needed on top of that, all whilst juggling a normal life outside of that. For many of the players, this has become much more than a sport to them.
Despite this, Murphy believes the players are well aware of this commitment from the get go, and it is all for the pride of representing your county, rather than the added fame of winning an All-Ireland title.
“Some of us are holding down jobs, some of us are students and some have kids; at the start of the year the players weigh up the commitment they know is needed and they understand the commitment it takes. Even if it is essentially slightly professional, you need to keep a grasp that it’s not.
“Representing the county is what it is about, an amateur association is what the GAA is, it’s what we started off with from the age of three or four and the morals should still stand no matter what level you go on to play at.”
The change that could be seen in inter-county level five or six years ago, can now be seen happening at club level, as Donegal minor manager Shaun-Paul Barrett explains.
“The whole approach to football has changed, it’s much more professional than say ten, fifteen years ago.”
Shaun-Paul, who has been involved in the GAA for many, many years believes that now you have to work a lot harder than you did in the past.
“It’s going away from being a pastime, it’s being taken far more seriously. Representing any team now, be it at inter-county level or at the bottom in junior, is a huge commitment.”
Many teams are now starting pre-season trainings in January, training twice a week and continuing this throughout most of the year. Almost every team implements a drinking ban on their team during the Championship stage of the season at the end of summer.
Despite all these changes, both Shaun-Paul and Murphy believe that actually giving the GAA professional status would be a very dangerous road to go down and believe this backbone of the GAA will always remain the most important thing about the sport.
“Club and Parish should still be the most important part of the game,” Shaun-Paul said.
Whilst also taking this stance, Murphy is more pragmatic in his opinions of this issue.
“Well, firstly I don’t think it’s sustainable. It’d be a dangerous, dangerous road to go down if you move away from what the sport’s about.
“What makes the player any different to the people at the gate collecting money, or those sorting the car-park? If you lose sight of that, you’re creating a divide that doesn’t belong in our game.”
It remains to be seen whether the sport will continue under this status for another 130 years or whether it will fold to the culture of modern society. However, tradition has managed to overcome many things and if ever there was a tradition that deserves to remain it’s the community ethos of the GAA.
You can listen to the interview with Michael Murphy in full below.
Enda Coll, Pundit Arena