The true crisis of the GAA is a bit existential. I know, that’s deep. You’re probably thinking “Oh God, here we go again, another pseudo-intellectual hipster gobshite probably going on about how the GAA is the soul of the Irish or some such twaddle.” Nope. Sorry. The question the GAA is facing is very, very simple.
All the talk about new Championship structures, Champions League style systems and reduced provincial championships are irrelevant until the GAA can answer the question of who’s more important: The club player, or the inter-county star?
Everyone is proposing new Championship models, and how it’s vital to the integrity of the championship to end the archaic provincial system and introduce “something”. I say “something” because there are so many different models around at the minute, Game of Thrones has less theories floating about online than the Championship has now.
We are constantly hearing two incredibly contradictory messages about the GAA and the life of both the club man and the county call up. On one hand, we regularly hear how the club is the foundation of the organisation, the lifeblood of the association. The club is held as this golden ideal much like de Valera put the family in the Constitution: unimpeachable, pure, good, and virtuous.
Much like Dev’s ideal family, however, this something of a myth.
If the club is so important, why is treated like that ugly cousin you ignore at weddings by county boards when it suits? County championship games are shoe-horned into a small window between the end of the National Leagues and mid-May, where they are then completely abandoned and forgotten about until the county is knocked out of the Championship?
If a county is successful, club players are then forced to run off Championships at haste like the old gold watch tournaments from the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, playing every weekend till November in muck and gutter. County players never play in the county leagues for their clubs, so especially in counties were championship promotion and relegation is tied to league performance, clubs face a real danger of being effectively punished for producing county players. A great existence for “the bedrock of the Association”.
The county manager has become a god. Club championships are dropped at their whim. In ways, you can’t blame them. In an era where managers are blamed for everything up to and including the Famine if they don’t win, it’s in their best interest to exert as much control as humanly possible. They need to control their players and protect them from injuries that might happen to their money makers. It’s not their job to run and maintain the club scene. That’s what county boards are for, and they’re not doing their job on that front.
Then again, what do supporters want? In the Jim McGuinness years, the Donegal championship was effectively put on blocks till Donegal were out of the Championship. Would any Donegal fan trade in their whirlwind last few years for a well-run county championship during the summer?
If we get a Champions League style system of some kind as a GAA Championship structure, do we expect the character of managers to change? It’s all well and good saying now that weekends will be left free for club games, but realistically, all it’s going to take is for one county manager to say no and a county board to fold, and all county managers will demand the same.
Into this storm is dropped the county player.
Their schedule is often outrageous, turning into a twelve month slog through all conditions. Declan O’Sullivan is an example of a man who seemed to never get a break. McGrath Cup, League and Championship with Kerry. Kerry Senior Championship with his division, South Kerry. Kerry Junior Championship and South Kerry Championship with his club, Dromid Pearses. Dromid finished their season around Christmas some years. Look at all that football.
Is it any wonder in his later years he had bandages on his knees that made Glen Ryan’s brace from the 90’s look like a Band-Aid?
On a related note, baseball is going through a crisis of pitchers tearing their ulnar collateral ligament, a key ligament that renders the player unable to throw the ball and pitch with any velocity. The injury is repaired by a surgery known as the Tommy John surgery, after the first patient who underwent it.
A leading theory in the rise of this injury is the over-use of the arms of young pitchers who now pitch year-round at high school level combined with imperfect technique is leading to a kind of exhaustion of the ligament over time and its eventual tear. Given the raft of ACL, PCL, MCL and LCL ligament tears in recent years, isn’t it possible that what’s happening to pitchers elbows is happening to GAA players’ knees?
Back to the players. In 2014, Carlow manager Anthony Rainbow lamented that ten players had not made themselves available for the Carlow senior team.
“Is it the clubs not getting behind the county scene and not encouraging their players to come in? I don’t know what it is, but they have to look at themselves.”
Can you blame them? Can you blame any player in one of the really weaker counties, faced with prospect of a winter of torture at the hands of a fitness fanatic followed by getting seven bells knocked out of them in a provincial game, then having to turn around for a qualifier game against maybe a big team smarting off a close loss, and having the seven bells knocked out for a second time for saying “You know what? I’m better off with my club, playing competitive games every weekend”.
Can you blame the clubs for encouraging their players to think like this?
If we want to have a Champions League/group stage/league system for the Championship, with a run off of the provincial titles as well, something has to break. Can the county player continue in that system to play for their club? Can the club player endure even longer periods of inactivity? If the club is the be all and end all, it’s less county games we need, not more. If, and it’s as is obvious as the hand in front of your face, the county player is the point on which the Association turns, it’s not hard to see a time in the very near future where we have an inter county panel, a group of players who do not play with the clubs.
The two-tier GAA may be on the way.