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Report findings show that top-flight GAA players see inter-county game as first master

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GAA President John Horan introduced new sanctions for counties that break the training ban. Photo: Sportsfile

GAA President John Horan introduced new sanctions for counties that break the training ban. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

GAA President John Horan introduced new sanctions for counties that break the training ban. Photo: Sportsfile

You could be mistaken for thinking that some sort of siege was lifted last Friday with the decision to impose sanctions against teams who breach the prohibition on inter-county training ahead of September 14.

That special forces, commissioned by the GAA, moved in to liberate hostages, in this case inter-county players, and return them to their families, in this case clubs, after weeks of being held against their will.

It's as if a great favour has been bestowed upon the players with legislation preventing training for the next 10 weeks now tightened by penalties that could see their chairman or manager suspended for a couple of months, league points lost, or even disqualification from competition for a potential breach.  

But such an impression is misleading, because the vast majority of those players who had continued training with their counties wanted to do it.

The connection with their county team was one most would have preferred to maintain over the next couple of months, even at the expense of their club.

This conclusion isn't based on anecdotal evidence, it came from many of those players themselves or their predecessors when the Economic Social Research Institute (ESRI) despatched an email to their in-boxes in 2016, the answers of which have formed the basis for a report distributed in two parts in September 2018 and December 2019.

The ESRI's report shed a lot of light on the life and lifestyle of an inter-county player, most notably the average 31-hour commitment required in a week. But beyond that headline finding, there were some illuminating conclusions to be found.

One of the 35 main findings was that "just under three-quarters of players stated that they would not want to spend more time with their club if it was at a cost to their personal inter-county career success".

Think about that in the context of the commentary of the last few weeks and the scale of the divide that exists in the average inter-county player's thinking around county and club commitment.

To drill down further 78.3 per cent of footballers weren't prepared to spend more time with their clubs, if it came at a cost to their personal inter-county progress.

Hurlers expressed that sentiment in slightly less numbers, 69.3 per cent. The higher the standard, the stronger the pull of inter-county commitment was likely to be, with 76 per cent of MacCarthy Cup hurlers, compared to 53.3 per cent of Rackard Cup, not willing to compromise their time if it came at a personal loss to their inter-county ambitions.

And if they had more time on their hands, more would be given to careers, family and friends with just four per cent devoting it to club activity.

Thus, the expectation that players were going to forcefully rise up, make a stand and deviate from their inter-county manager's plans was misplaced.

For the most part, players train with a county team because they want to and their schedule allows it. When they sign up, they know what they are getting themselves into.

It's perhaps why the Gaelic Players Association (GPA) has got itself muddled over the issue of training. On one hand, it has had to compromise as a stakeholder on the Covid-19 Advisory Group but implicitly instructing its members not to train ahead of the September 14 date.

The imposition of sanctions and the more hard-line approach articulated would have gone against the consensus of its membership, many of whom were keen to train on.

They knew that, hence the contradictory call for the injury-benefit fund to be restored for those clandestine sessions. Sometimes seeking to be all things to everyone invites more trouble than it's worth.  

Those counties that were in breach of the ban on inter-county training in recent weeks were likely to be scaling down their operations anyway with the onset of competitive club games next week.

But last Friday's intervention, which seeks to hold the county chairman and manager more personally culpable, will focus minds on the issue.

As ever, monitoring and enforcement will be the challenge, as will the burden of proof. But Croke Park will have the resources to check the team lists in challenge matches and league matches in the coming weeks and draw comparison with inter-county team lists to ensure that there is sufficient crossover.

Exhausting work perhaps but one sure way to gauge that there is at least compliance when it comes to games. That's a fair start.

For sure, the threat of sanctions has struck a blow for clubs. But a majority of players won't see it that way. Most see themselves as county players, first and foremost.