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Let's not lose the positive from Covid crisis

GAA is in danger of becoming a Trumpian dystopia unless stakeholders work together

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IMPORTANT STAKEHOLDER: Paul Flynn CEO of the Gaelic Players Association. Photo: SPORTSFILE

IMPORTANT STAKEHOLDER: Paul Flynn CEO of the Gaelic Players Association. Photo: SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

IMPORTANT STAKEHOLDER: Paul Flynn CEO of the Gaelic Players Association. Photo: SPORTSFILE

There aren't many positives to salvage from the wreckage of Covid-19, but here's one: the virus, in its initial horrifying iteration, had a remarkably unifying effect on the Gaelic Games family.

"We are all in this together," became the mantra of our times, and no branch of Irish society embraced this more selflessly than the GAA, as clubs rallied to help the old and infirm, the vulnerable and isolated.

But now comes the antithesis to all this generosity of spirit: as the number of positive cases has shrunk, the negativity has mushroomed.

And nowhere is this more evident than in that perennially vexatious interface between club and county.

There are two sides to this age-old argument - or, to be more accurate, multiple facets and a world of nuance invariably ignored by the other side.

The pandemic has merely turned up the volume on this shrill debate, drowning out any alternative opinion. The GAA is in danger of morphing into a Trumpian dystopia of them-and-us.

Except it doesn't have to be that way.

Pressure

Not every county manager is Trump incarnate, only in it for his own ego or wallet or self-preservation … but a minority are, putting undue pressure on county boards to tailor club fixture programmes to their benefit, and organising covert training sessions in flagrant contravention of GAA guidelines.

What happens then? Every manager becomes the bad guy.

Asked this week about all these rumoured training sessions, Clare football manager Colm Collins replied: "If you're a journalist and this is going on … it's not that difficult to find out, but at least verify it and then call it out. Don't be tarring everybody with the same brush. I know for certain it's not happening in Clare, but that's all I can tell you about."

Collins was scathing about what he perceives as the "demonisation" of inter-county set-ups.

And yet a large part of the problem is (a) the nod-and-wink Irish approach to bending rules, an attitude that has long seeped into the GAA when it comes to flouting regulations, fighting valid player suspensions, etc ad nauseam; and (b) the long-standing failure of the GAA body politic to tackle this mindset.

There is, in truth, only one way to do it: don't just make regulations but impose them. Stringently.

Michael Duignan - player, manager, pundit and now a county board chairman in Offaly - struck a chord with many earlier this week.

"I'm disillusioned with the direction from inter-county managers, first of all for putting pressure on their players to getting back training, because players will do whatever they are asked to do," Duignan told Newstalk's Off The Ball.

"I am starting with inter-county managers, then county boards for allowing it to happen. I'm also disillusioned with Croke Park for not coming up with stricter sanctions, and the players themselves and the GPA in particular for not standing up and saying 'we're not accepting this'. It is hypocrisy, it is dishonest."

Here's the problem: there will always be an element of self-preservation with most managers. The notion that collective training bans or late-running club championships could leave him playing catch-up on a rival county - especially in this uniquely truncated season - is perhaps an understandable fear.

But those managers need to show a little less self-interest and a lot more self-confidence: the inter-county season is four-and-a-half months away. Four-and-a-half months!

Whipping

They don't need to be whipping players into aerobic killing machines in early July for a league game in mid-October - or a championship opener that may not happen until the first or second Sunday in November.

Moreover, when they do get those players back collectively, it will be after a season (albeit constricted) of club training and matches. This is not the equivalent of pre-season. Most players will be in fine physical fettle; a minority who aren't entirely self-driven and/or belong to less ambitious clubs will need some extra work.

But this is where the GAA hierarchy have got it wrong. Decommissioning all county training until September 14 is a crude and, potentially, even counter-productive solution. Players who have exited their championships before that date should be free to resume county training. It's a no-brainer.

The flip side is that Croke Park needs to wield a lot more stick to those counties who aren't playing ball.

"We'd like people to call them out but we're not actually intending to impose any penalties," said president John Horan last Friday.

"We haven't really looked at it in detail yet," said director-general Tom Ryan at the same briefing. But he added: "It hasn't been a summer for penalties and sanctions. I'm not really sure that's the right realm for this thing either."

The GAA's past record on punishing counties who flouted winter-training bans or regulations to limit overseas training camps is not good. At times, toothless; at other times, woefully inconsistent.

But at least intentions, for the most part, are honourable. County boards, you could argue, are the biggest hypocrites of all.

The sacred cow of amateurism will be invoked while acquiescing in (some) managers being paid. Perhaps a more damning indictment is that not enough boards have shown the requisite courage and leadership, fostering a perception that managers have undue influence on the timing of club fixture programmes and/or the availability of county players for club games.

Duignan's 'plague on all your houses' critique made specific reference to the Gaelic Players Association. He has a point: the GPA could have been a lot stronger in addressing what is, let's not forget, an issue that affects player welfare.

There was some welcome movement this week. In a note to county board chairpersons, CEO Paul Flynn stressed that the September 14 date is "clear and unambiguous" and there should be no return ahead of that unless a player's club commitments have been completed.

However, a statement released on Wednesday has added to the confusion. "As things stand and for complete clarity, the roadmap clearly highlights that there should be no collective inter-county training prior to September 14," the GPA reminded.

Negligent

"However, it would be highly negligent of us, and utterly wrong, as the body charged with looking after inter-county player welfare, not to seek to have any such training covered by the GAA Injury Benefit Scheme, should these sessions be sanctioned by their respective counties."

To critics of the GPA - and there are many - this qualified as the very opposite of clarity and more like double-speak.

Yet the GPA is not the enemy here but an important stakeholder in a complicated scenario.

In many ways, we are all to blame. Counties are not permitted to sanction training sessions before September 14 - but won't be punished by Croke Park if they do so. Most managers insist they are playing by the rules - but some aren't.

But then we, as supporters, demand professional standards from amateur players - even as they seek to serve two masters, club and county, in the midst of a pandemic.

And if your county team crashes out after one championship game, who will we instinctively blame?

Either the players or, more likely still, the manager. We won't blame the virus.