Back in January 2014, I was asked to speak at the national coaching and games conference in Croke Park as part of a keynote address discussing some of the factors that made Kerry and Kilkenny seemingly perennial contenders in the senior football and hurling championships.
It was rather unfortunately titled “the special K’s”.
At that time, Kerry hadn’t won a minor title for 20 years and it was seen as a significant black spot on our football radar. Despite that absence of underage titles, the senior team was one of the most dominant of the previous decade.
The idea of the presentation was to emphasise that there was no obvious correlation between the two and that coaches should concentrate more on developing young players rather than focusing on the results and silverware of underage competitions.
The key message was that success didn’t have to mean winning, and that development was very much non-linear.
The joint presentation with Brian Ryan (games manager in Kilkenny) and John Considine of Cork focused on the various aspects that went into the development of players within those counties.
We looked at the nuts and bolts; the number and specific roles of games development staff within each county. We examined how they interacted with primary and secondary schools in their area, with clubs and club coaches, coach education and development squads and so on.
Since Dublin cruised home to their fourth All-Ireland senior title in a row, the spotlight on the obvious inequality of games development funding which they have enjoyed has intensified. The numbers are eye-watering.
Dublin has received somewhere in the region of €16.5 million over a 10-year period from 2007 to 2017, while the likes of Kerry picked up just over €700,000 in the same timeframe. In 2016 for example, Dublin got €1.43m while this year’s All-Ireland final opponents, Tyrone, received a paltry €119,000.
There’s nobody in their right mind that can argue that those numbers accurately reflect a fair distribution of GAA funding so that counties can promote and develop our national games on a level playing field. The disparity is undeniable.
But I do feel like people are arguing about two separate issues. Coaching and games development and senior inter-county set-ups are two different planets. Yes, there can be mutual long-term benefits, but not a short-term big bang for your buck kind of thing.
It is important to look at exactly where that money goes.
In Kerry, there are a total of five full-time games development administrators for Gaelic football who cover the entire county. Within their remit, those GDAs regularly visit a combination of 30 or so primary and secondary schools, 10-15 clubs, development squads, deliver coach education courses, and workshops, run the summer camps and so on.
In Dublin, there are somewhere in the region of 90 employed if you include GDAs and Games promotion officers (GPOs). Obviously, there is much more of the population living in the capital, more clubs, more schools, more players. More need.
In Dublin, many clubs have exclusive access to their own GDA and many foot half the bill for the privilege.
That games development money has given them an ability to widen their base significantly, by reaching far more children on a more regular basis which has enabled them to introduce those children to the game and help establish tangible links between schools and clubs.
Sustainability is key to any sports development initiative.
Participation in nearly all sports, the world over, and especially in GAA takes the shape of a pyramid.
The base entry level is deep and wide. That’s your academy programs in clubs; the under 6s, 8s, and 10s. That’s about winning the hearts and minds and getting them hooked on the game. As children move into their teenage years, the pyramid narrows towards the sharp end, and as they get older still, the numbers participating in the game fall off a cliff.
I would argue that games development staff are more concerned with participation numbers rather than performance. The work they are doing on the ground in Dublin schools and clubs is light years away from being concerned with what Jim Gavin is doing in his senior set-up.
There should a clear and unambiguous distinction between the two.
The bottom line is that it should no longer be appropriate for Dublin to receive an excessive slice of the funding pie to the detriment of other counties. But I would also argue that the correlation between the games development funding and senior success isn’t as closely related as some might have us believe.
For example, breaking down the funding per registered player is a false narrative. Much of that money which is gone to games development is spent working in primary and secondary schools from one end of the year to next, the majority of those children would not be members of any GAA club. While the inequality of the funding should be obvious to all, the focus should really turn to re-dressing the balance as quickly as possible as opposed to trying to belittle the achievements of a truly great team.
Dublin has turned themselves into their very own cash cow. They have sponsorship opportunities afforded to them that other counties can only dream of. Therein lies the simple solution to the finance issue.
The GAA must as a matter of urgency continue to reduce the funding provided to Dublin as they did last year, and allow them to become more self-sufficient with the finance that is self-generated from sponsorship and fundraising like every other county.
I’d also love to see a cap put in place for sponsorship money, and anything above the cap gets put into a centrally pooled fund that can be shared amongst the rest of the counties. Teams that exit championship earliest get the most, and so on up the line.
The reduction of games development funding alone would free up significant money to put into other counties that desperately need it. However, before that could happen, there would also need to be significant work done with the individual county boards to develop a coherent and properly thought-out strategy for the most efficient use of that money towards coaching and games development within the county. Everybody needs their own tailored ‘Blue wave’ strategy.
No point trying to carry water in a bucket full of holes. That redistribution of wealth will solve one problem but won’t have any effect on curbing Dublin’s surging population and that will continue to be the elephant in the room.
At Cumann Na Mbunscoil level you won’t find a two-teacher school competing against a 30-teacher school because it would be mismatch. Their pick would be too great. And for me, it’s the population and not the finance that will be the greatest hindrance towards the creation of a more competitive Gaelic football inter-county landscape in the next 10 years.
The Association may be left with only one alternative if the graph continues to trend the way it is in terms of population.
It is fascinating to look back now with Kerry having won the past five minor All Ireland titles and question if the county is in a better place in terms of production at senior level than we were back then, and what caused such a dramatic turnaround in fortunes at minor level.
There was certainly no big funding increase to games development compared to when we went 20 years without a title, nor any increase in the number of full-time staff working the county. There were no major sponsorship deals suddenly providing players with extra perks to somehow professionalise their efforts. Our population in Kerry didn’t suddenly surge, nor was there any significant shift in thinking in relation the importance of winning at minor level.
All that changed was the people.
Quality people giving voluntarily of their time working with clubs and development squads under good leadership changed the landscape at minor level. Getting the right people in the right positions is more important than how much cash you have to spend on GPS and video analysis.
It won’t be a quick fix, but it can be fixed.
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