I found myself searching sports channels on Saturday morning trying to catch a glimpse of Dingle’s Mark O’Connor making his AFL debut for the Geelong Cats against Essendon.

I didn’t realise there would be two other former Gaelic footballers in the same game, with Laois native Zach Touhy and Tyrone’s Conor McKenna also playing.

Mark O’Connor has long been on the radar in his native county since catching the eye in the development squad structure. He then progressed to Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne where he won Hogan Cups before being one of the standout players in Kerry’s All-Ireland MFC winning team. Needless to say he had Kerry fans salivating at the prospect of what he could do in a senior jersey for the next decade or so as he reached his prime. He was everything you would look for in a top-level footballer. Two-footed, great hands, and had the wheels to get all over the field. He was one of the rare talents that only come around every so often.

But he was suffering because of his talent too, and possibly mismanagement of his workload, as a chronic knee problem was hampering his progress before he departed for Australia.

Obviously, in Kerry everybody is getting a little twitchy about the prospect of current Kerry minor David Clifford following O’Connor to try his luck down under also.

But this is far from an isolated Kerry issue. Just go through some of the names that have left our game for the AFL in the recent past; Michael Quinn, Marty Clarke, Kevin Dyas, John Heslin, Chrissy McKaigue, Brendan Murphy, Pierce Hanley, Jamie O’Reilly, Tommy Walsh, Colin O’Riordan, Ciarán Sheehan, Ciarán Byrne, Patrick Brophy, Conor Nash and a good few others.

Maybe the volume isn’t huge, but each of those guys were invariably the top young prospect within their own club and probably their county. They were the cream of the crop. And while some have returned home, our game was, and is, poorer for their absence.

Of course, that’s not the players’ fault. What are they supposed to do? Should they have told the guy waving a contract offering them thousands of dollars to go live in the sunshine and experience a different way of life as a professional athlete; ‘no thanks mate, I’d prefer to stay in the cold, wet of Ireland, work 39 hours a week in a bank for much less money, and have 4-6 weeks between competitive championship games’.

Not likely.

There is no quick-fix solution to the issue of our best young players leaving Gaelic football and going to the AFL. In terms of trying to keep the best available talent competing in our own game in this country, there should at least be some joined-up thinking to put a concerted strategy in place at national and county level to try to provide a meaningful alternative to heading away.

At this stage, Tadhg Kennelly is seen more and more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but really, if it’s not him, it’ll be someone else employed by the AFL as an international recruiter playing the role of pied piper.

Tadhg will argue he and the AFL are only providing an opportunity for these kids to explore a life-changing experience as a professional sports person. True. But in the reality of professional sport, recruiting players is also big business, his business, and these kids are valuable commodities.

For us in the GAA, our focus should not be about shunning the AFL scouts, but we must become more active in raising our own standards and providing the best opportunities we can for our top talent to want to stay in Ireland. That’s the difficult part and requires some creative thinking.

Providing college scholarships and business or company mentorship and pathway programmes should be a starting point for a standard practice package for our best and brightest being tempted by the lure of a foreign game. A sponsored car? Subsidised car and personal health insurance? A food allowance? Tax breaks?

And how about a shorter, more condensed playing season? Give players a definite closed season so these young people can travel and see the world without being pressurised to stay at home for games that ramble on, as one protracted season just rolls into the next. The other major issue I have with the current system occurs after players have decided to go and sign with AFL clubs. What is the kick-back for their GAA club, their county or the GAA as an association?

From the age of 6, GAA clubs have nursery programmes working with these kids on their fundamental movement and their ball skills and getting them hooked on the game and sport in general. County development squads only complement and enhance the great work done by the volunteer club coaches, and as a whole, there is a huge investment of time and money going into coaching and developing of young GAA talent only for the ripest of apples to be plucked before you get to reap what you sowed by seeing them playing senior football for their club and county.

According to Tadhg Kennelly, the AFL have offered to make a payment to the GAA as reparation for the players that are leaving our game for Australia, but the GAA have declined such an offer as it sails too close to ‘pay for play’ for their liking.

My suggestion would be to make that payment an agreed requirement between the two associations, and money would be ring-fenced by Croke Park to go straight to coaching and games development funding directly to the counties affected by the loss of players to the AFL. It’s not going to change the world, but it would be a meaningful gesture from the AFL that would increase the financial pot each county has to put into coaching and games development, which in turn helps the clubs directly affected by the loss of those players.

It is an imperfect suggestion I know, but it would be better than what exists at the moment. I would venture most of those players I mentioned earlier never dreamed of playing on Grand Final day at the MCG, but the majority would have imagined walking up the steps of the Hogan Stand in September.

If we are serious about keeping our top young talent playing Gaelic football, instead of just grumbling about it, we must conceptualise a collaborative strategy to help keep them at home. And I don’t mean a strategy to deny young people an opportunity of being a professional athlete, but at the very least we should be doing more to provide them with a viable alternative for staying with Gaelic games. While we can never compete with the monetary or lifestyle advantages of the AFL, it behoves our association to make more of an effort.


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