The recent decision of Dublin’s dual prodigy Ciarán Kilkenny to return home after just a few short months into a professional career in Aussie Rules has been the subject of much debate and analysis. A professional sports career in the warm climate of Australia? Or attempting to balance a full-time job on top of the commitment that is training with a top class inter-county panel, which can include gym sessions at six am and trainings late at night on cold and wet winter evenings in Ireland? An easy choice.
Returning home to Jim Gavin’s squad before the league kicks off is a culture shock. A new management is just what a young player trying to break-in craves. Through this latest media frenzy about the Castleknock man, it has been largely forgotten that he has not yet fully established a starting birth, having made his championship debut by coming on against Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final last August. However, due to the tug-of-war that is the hurling/football divide in the capital, Gavin will be keen to give the young star plenty of game-time to stave off the appeal of Anthony Daly’s hurlers, who are due a big championship.
An exodus down under has evolved as a serious problem for the GAA in recent years. Setanta Ó hAilpín was the first high profile case in 2003. Opting for the lifestyle of a professional sportsman was a simple one in his view. But deep down, he never forgot hurling, returning to aid Na Piarsaigh to a county championship the following year, alongside his brothers.
Tadhg Kennelly is another who returned to the old sod in search of further glory after a successful spell with the Sydney Swans. “I will always miss Aussie Rules and I won’t cut my ties to Australia, but I want to win an All-Ireland with Kerry.” He didn’t have to wait long, helping the Kingdom to another Sam Maguire in 2009, writing an autobiography in the aftermath, aptly entitled Unfinished Business.
But is ‘parish pride’ the only defence against the lure of a professional sports contract in the GAA’s arsenal? A dissenting voice came through Down native Caolán Mooney. He described the toll placed on young stars in sport, “You’d be so tired and there were days where you just could not be bothered. You just didn’t want to be there. It’s mentally draining. It just takes every bit of energy you have… I just thought, the sooner I get out of here the better.”
“It’s at the point where you train professionally but you don’t get any money for it,” he went on, raising a critical point. Did the GAA inadvertently create a beast through their ties with the AFL, providing them with a huge resource of talent from which to draw from? And some might note that Croke Park can do little about it, apart merely simple propaganda by highlighting the reasoning of Kilkenny as best they can.
Australian Rules has not been the only professional sport snapping up the best GAA talent. We have seen many top-players abandon both hurling and gaelic football for the likes of rugby and soccer. Another Kilkenny-esque move came a few years ago came when Ipswich Town goalkeeper Shane Supple decided the life of a professional soccer player was not for him, returning to Dublin, where he is being kept off the starting team by Stephen Cluxton, who many consider to be the greatest shot-stopper of all time in the sport. So trading a starting role for Ipswich for a substitute spot for Dublin? ‘Each to their own’ some might say. For the passion for a sport you love is the other answer.
There is always going to be obstacles for the GAA if is to remain truly amateur. But like any strong institution, its strength lies in its foundations. A sense of local pride is instilled from grass-root level. You are taught to represent your team with pride, and there is no culture of mercenary players switching teams for personal gain, with a possible exception or two. This is what makes the GAA great, and what may entice the likes of Ciarán Kilkenny to return, or maybe not to leave in the first place.
SPORT IS EVERYTHING. Brian Barry.