Joe Brolly reckons county footballers are "indentured servants", writes Paddy Heaney.
After consulting my dictionary, I agreed with him. After all, servants aren’t supposed to think for themselves. They do what they are told and they don’t ask questions. That’s how county footballers are supposed to act.
Consider the following example. Last Friday afternoon, one of my colleagues contacted an Armagh player and asked him for an interview. Typically of the average county player, the individual was friendly and courteous.
But he politely declined to grant an interview. The player explained that another media ban had been imposed on the Armagh players.
Kieran McGeeney was furious with an article which Joe had written so the players were ordered not to speak to any journalist from any newspaper.
The master issued the order and the apprentices obeyed.
It’s easy to understand why McGeeney was annoyed at Joe’s column. He suggested that McGeeney is running a military-style training regime. Joe claimed that when Armagh started in December, Crossmaglen had eight players in the squad. A fortnight after training began, only three were left. One of the Cross players said: “Fuck that Joe, I have a life.”
This column has discovered what exactly the Armagh players were doing in December. Here’s a sample.
On Tuesday December 16, Thursday December 18, Friday December 19 and Saturday December 20, they trained twice a day.
Then they broke for Christmas.
Armagh’s Yuletide festivities were formally brought to a close when the players returned for a three-day training camp which was held on December 28, 29 and 30. Again, the players trained twice a day during that camp.
Brolly believes that Armagh’s training regime is symptomatic of “a game that has slowly but surely turned toxic”.
As “the win-at-all-costs creed has taken hold” he thinks players have become “battery hens, to be used by managers as they wish”. The main thrust of Joe’s argument is that managers are creating a professional environment which is placing extreme demands on amateur players. He has called for the GAA’s leadership to intervene.
He wants the county calendar to be overhauled. Under Joe’s proposals, the league will start in January and finish in March, thereby allowing the All-Ireland finals to be completed by early July. The clubs would then enjoy a free unhindered run from July until the end of the year.
Joe also wants managers to be governed by the same rule that applies to players. In other words, a person can manage his club or native county. Movement beyond those boundaries would be prohibited.
There is a huge amount of merit in Joe’s depiction of how an amateur game has spiralled out of control. However, I would disagree with him on one point.
According to Joe, most of these issues are a relatively recent phenomenon. When Joe was playing, he says “the game was precisely that. A game. We played for our club. We were part of our community.”
That’s not how I remember it. I played senior club football in Derry during the era in the early 90s when Eamon Coleman was trying to guide Joe and his team-mates to All-Ireland glory.
As a club footballer, we rarely played matches. My overriding memory of that period is of training and training and training.
Weeks would pass by without league games ever being played. When we did get a game, we usually had to field without our four county players (Enda Gormley, Damien McCusker, Fergal McCusker and Gary McGill), all of whom would have been instructed not to play.
Last year, Armagh’s county footballers played two out of 15 league games. In 1993, Joe Brolly wouldn’t have played a huge amount of league games for Dungiven either.
The win-at-all-costs mentality is nothing new in the GAA. It has always existed. Like many managers before him, and many who have followed him, the late Eamon Coleman was prepared to do whatever it took to win. It was Coleman who abolished the dual player in Derry. Prior to his appointment, Brian McGilligan, the Downeys, and the McGurks all hurled for the county. Coleman brought that practice to an end.
The master issued the order and the apprentices obeyed.
There is no intention here to vilify Eamon Coleman, a man I liked immensely. The point is that Kieran McGeeney is really no different to Eamon Coleman. Faced with the challenge of putting their best possible team on the field of play, both men reached the conclusion that it would be mad to risk them playing league games.
When managers try to protect their players from injury and over-training, they are roundly ridiculed. When they allow them to play for their clubs, they risk the fate which befell Brian McIver in last year’s Championship.
Seven Derry players got injured while on duty with their clubs. The casualty list contributed to the county’s shock defeat to Longford in last year’s Championship. But as Eamon Coleman would have understood, no-one is interested in excuses after a defeat.
That’s why managers will always suit the best interests of their team.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that the problems highlighted by Joe Brolly are nothing new. This chaos has been rumbling on for decades. The concern, however, is that the situation is getting worse.
But the time has come to stop blaming managers and county boards. By this stage it has become abundantly obviously that it’s impossible to run the club fixtures in tandem with a multitude of inter-county competitions.
Since the introduction of the back door, the Championship has morphed into a commercial monster. We have the McKenna Cup in January, a league that runs from February to April, and a Championship which ends in September.
How is a county board supposed to provide a fixtures list when the county team’s campaign could end in July, or August, or September? It’s impossible.
And the insanity must stop. There are two reasons why the county calendar must be truncated. First, it will reduce the excessive demands which are being placed on county players. Secondly, it will make it easier for club fixtures to be planned and played.
Naturally, the finer details need to be discussed but the GAA’s leadership must be prepared to act boldly. The problems have been identified. It’s time to implement a solution.
County players need protection from their masters. Club players need games. A new framework is required.
Unless the GAA is prepared to change its calendar, nothing is going to change.
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