BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Professionalism in GAA steaming down the tracks

Rarely does a day pass in this country without a wonderfully evocative image appearing in the national papers from some sporting event or other and yesterday’s shot in these pages of Patrick Cronin striking the sliotar amidst the floodlights and flurries of snow during Cork and Waterford’s pre-season meeting in Mallow certainly ticked that particularly box.

Here, in one snapshot, was the perfect companion piece to Michael Moynihan’s reminder such unseasonal fare is not to be taken too seriously at this time of year, but the calendar month tends to have little effect on the levels of introspection and hand-wringing that have become endemic to our national games.

Already this week, we have seen some of the biggest issues facing the association regurgitated for a campaign still in its infancy. Laois manager Mick Lillis was asked about the gap between the Dublin footballers and everybody else in Leinster, Sean Boylan held court on the need for the return of some old-fashioned football values and president Aogán Ó Fearghail signposted a significant development regarding championship structures at tomorrow’s Central Council meetings.

The Dubs, rules, structures. Who said January was a quiet month?

Chuck in a lament for ‘the club player’ and someone having a pop at ‘that lot in Croke Park’ and we wouldn’t be far off the full set of gripes, grumbles and teasers that percolate every season yet overshadowing them all is the spectre of professionalism and it won’t be long before that potato is served up to us fresh from a piping oven.

The last few years have seen a plethora of big names debate the issue. Aidan O’Shea — as well as many others — has held court on the implications of the Sky Sports TV deal, John O’Mahony has called for inter-county managers to be paid over the table, Pat Gilroy has warned of the dangers professionalism would bring and Donal Óg Cusack has disagreed that its arrival is a done deal.

The whole argument is built on two fundamental pillars: 1) whether we want it or not and 2) whether the game could afford to support even a semi-professional body of hurlers and footballers. Ignored amidst it all is the fact the supporting structures for professionalism simply aren’t there.

For the last quarter century, the narrative when it comes to the inter-county games has been one of increasing professionalism.

Managers and coaches have become cuter and better educated, sports science has rinsed out much of the old ‘stretches and sprints’ approach to preparation and county boards have poured more and more money into the insatiable beast that is the inter-county scene. The number of games has increased through the advent of the qualifiers and the quality of pitches and ancillary facilities has improved beyond measure.

Lillis touched on this all- encompassing rising tide when addressing the supposed advantages which the Dubs have over the best of the rest after his side’s O’Byrne Cup game last weekend, when he played down the significance of Bryan Cullen’s appointment as the capital’s high performance manager after a stint learning his trade with the Leinster rugby brigade.

“Every county has got a strength and conditioning coach,” Lillis said. “Bryan Cullen is high-profile because he works with Leinster and he is a former Dublin footballer, former All-Ireland winning captain. Bryan Cullen is not going to be waving a magic wand with Dublin. I don’t think anybody is expecting him to do that.” This is true. Cullen and his former teammate Tomas Quinn, who took the role of Commercial and Marketing manager for Dublin two years ago, are merely examples of the latest pieces to be cemented into place in a jigsaw which remains far from finished, even by a Dublin GAA unit which is the market leader in the push towards higher standards.

What we have is a two-tiered system: an organisation in which those involved in playing the game are pushing the envelope and those charged with running it are vying to play catch-up. It is a far from healthy scenario and if, as Eugene McGee has said in recent times, the GAA becomes professional inside 10 years it will serve as a recipe for disaster.

Professional sports teams are merely the tip of an iceberg that demands support structures from everything including finance, marketing, sponsorship, PR, HR, operations, logistics, legal and governance. These are highly-specified areas of expertise that demand daily attention in a professional sports environment.

Gilroy, in a survey released in late 2014, spoke of the problems rugby experienced here 21 years ago when it ditched its amateur status, saying “it may have professionalised too quickly, creating problems ‘down the ranks’ at club level” and the GAA as it exists would suffer similar labour pains if it ever gives birth to a professional game.

This column has nailed its colours to the mast when it comes to professionalism before: like it or not it is steaming down the tracks and, despite all the talk about the players, the fact is that the GAA is far more prepared for professionalism on the pitch than it is away from it.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie Twitter: @Rackob


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