‘People have got so busy’: How modern life is putting clubs at risk

Bobby Hazelwood, Castletownroche secretary.

Frank Murphy’s tenure may have ended in Cork but Bobby Hazelwood is still standing, 31 years after he took the reins as secretary of Castletownroche GAA club.

1988 was a simpler time. It was a year when the county’s senior footballers went all the way to the All-Ireland final, but it took them just four games to get there. Club activity barely felt a ripple, as was the case when the hurlers bowed out in the Munster final on July 17 after two outings.

Hazelwood is not a dinosaur — he knows there is great value in the inter-county game and he reveals the club gave a lot of consideration to the revolutionary Option C championship structure before backing A. However, the corrosion of the club summer worries him.

“I don’t think we know the full extent of the new structure and it’s going to take a while longer for the damage to be seen. The inactivity for the clubs in the summer is a serious problem. Everyone is delighted with this massive Munster (senior hurling) championship, but there’s a price to pay for that too. It’s great for the inter-county supporter and I stress inter-county because a lot of those mightn’t be club members.”

It’s that very line which should concern the GAA — the seasonal consumer is threatening to replace the engaged club member.

Hazelwood has seen enough these past three decades to realise how the club has been pushed to the margins.

As for running a club? Castletownroche is his labour of love, but it is a role that is becoming more and more challenging. There are modern protocols that must now be followed.

Garda vetting, child protection, all the checks and balances… it’s harder to get people involved. People are nervous when they shouldn’t have to be. It has had a bearing on things.

And like so many rural areas, Castletownroche has lost people. “We’re trying to field teams but we are in a very serious position,” explains Hazelwood.

“We’re starting to come out of it a little bit, but there’s another bit of a lull coming and there’s been a massive decline in our catchment areas. The fewer players, the fewer candidates there are for positions in the club off-the-field.

"Nine times out of 10, it’s relations of the players who take those positions but if they don’t have anyone representing the club they are difficult to attract. It’s definitely getting harder when you don’t have success and you have to regrade. If you don’t have the player numbers, then that’s what you’re facing.”

Kerins O'Rahily chariman Haulie Kerins. Picture:  Eye Focus Ltd
Kerins O'Rahily chariman Haulie Kerins. Picture: Eye Focus Ltd

When a club as formidable as Midleton struggles to find a secretary, it’s clear the issue of attracting volunteers to run what has become a business doesn’t discriminate. But Castletownroche have had to cut their cloth to measure. As Hazelwood explains: “We use to have an assistant secretary, but that was dropped because we needed people in other positions. You will always get someone, but you need to canvass them. Fundraising is always a big one — your costs are going to be high no matter what level you’re at, but when you’re really wanting to make a decent run at the championship, it adds up, with the cost of physios and so on.”

And of course the paperwork is time-consuming. “Emails and stuff like that sure have sped up the process.

At the start, there was just the peann luaidhe and that was it. So, on one hand, things have improved from the day of letters. It’s a different world, really.

"[But] people think you are always available and you’d have to be prepared for that.”

Although competition is strong in Tralee, Kerins O’Rahillys have no major complaints about numbers, but chairman Haulie Kerins can vouch for how modern lifestyles aren’t best suited to volunteerism.

Not necessarily because people don’t want to assist but because they can’t, due to other commitments.

“Two years ago, we had a Strictly Come Dancing event and we had no problem getting 12 lads and 12 girls. We made over €20,000 for the club out of it. This year, we got the 12 girls but only had eight lads and were nearly begging to make up the rest. We eventually did, but we wouldn’t go down that road again. We have to be cuter with how we raise money. We have a race night, a road run, and The Masters’ prediction competition last weekend and a great lotto, but we forever have to keep an eye on things.

“It’s hard to get people to commit now with the work hours they have. I had my hip replaced earlier this week and couldn’t do a thing. The two weeks I was off my feet I spent a lot of that time trying to get people to take over girls’ U16 and minor teams. People have got so busy.”

O’Rahillys’ financial difficulties — they must now repay Croke Park after they took over their bank loans — are a significant consideration for Kerins, but after 20 years on the executive, having served as secretary earlier this decade, he is not one for sitting on his hands.

“The intensity has only ramped up the last seven years as such when I have been secretary, whereas before I was just turning up and helping out with injury scheme claims and small bits and pieces like fundraising. It’s a set kind of work whereas the brief of the chairman is wider, more loosely defined and a lot of it is financial.

"As chairman, you can either come good or take a back seat. You can delegate, but you have to try and set an example by doing a lot of it yourself. I feel you’re contributing more when you’re an officer than a club member. I said I’d give it 10 years between chairman and secretary and then do something different.”

The latest obligations such as GDPR compliance haven’t proven overly problematic for O’Rahillys.

“We’re lucky in that regard because we have guys that have expertise in that area to keep us on the straight and narrow.”

And Kerins’ own expertise working with FBD Insurance has helped when it comes to insurance. “The players’ injury scheme is an excellent scheme.

“The only trouble I would see with it is the overnight hospital stay, which eats into the €5,000 maximum that can be claimed on any one operation. Those figures can go up to €3,000 for a night and those performing the surgery are keen for the player to stay for the night so when the final bill comes, the scheme alone can’t cover it. One of our lads had his cruciate repaired and I asked him was there any difference in the place he had it done from a regular hospital. ‘They had Sky Sports,’ was his answer.”

Kerins admits dealing with players’ parents can be a delicate area: “Sometimes, they won’t accept why their son or daughter isn’t making a team and they let their voice be known and that goes from juvenile level right up to senior.

It’s a good thing too, though, because you have more going to games. I remember heading out to Dingle for an U16 league game and all you’d have is the trainer and one or two selectors with the team.

“Now you could have eight parents, sometimes two from the same family, and there’s a fiercer interest, which is great, but some of their expectations might be a bit higher than they should be.”

While they might not be as lofty as others, Castletownroche have their ambitions and last year they captured the Junior C championship in their football guise, Abbey Rovers. The fillip it gave the club was considerable, but Hazelwood can’t stress enough the battle for survival when their demographic is dwindling.

“It’s going to be the deciding factor for us. If you don’t have the numbers coming through the school then you’re in trouble. Years ago, we had looked at amalgamating when we realised we were going to struggle to keep going, but we didn’t get the permission.

“Now it’s happening in a lot of places. Our school had gone from 160 down to 50 and there were more starting in schools in other parishes than what we had in total.

“We are keeping our heads above the water, but there are clubs in similar situations like Freemount and Lismire and they’re feeling it. I can be replaced, but the players can’t.”

Many would make an argument against that, but you catch his drift.

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