Robbie Kelleher: ‘If I was a club player now, I think I’d go off and play rugby’

Robbie Kelleher brings a double perspective to bear on Dublin and the GAA.

An All-Ireland winner with Kevin Heffernan’s great Dubs side of the 70s and an economist with Davy Stockbrokers, he injects some realism into last year’s suggestions that the Dublin GAA juggernaut, well-financed, all-conquering, was going to rule for years.

“There may be some justification for it, but I felt that the hype surrounding Dublin last year, certainly, was greatly exaggerated — five in a row, all that kind of stuff.

“The fear that Dublin is going to completely dominate Gaelic football, which appeared this time last year because they were playing well, that’s exaggerated.

“That said, I certainly think the GAA is now very strong in Dublin, and almost unrecognisably so compared to when I was playing, almost 40 years ago. At that stage, it was almost dead in the water.”

Kelleher sees a significant dividend for Dublin GAA at club level.

“As recently as 10 years ago, the club scene would have been dominated in Dublin by some big clubs, the likes of Kilmacud and Ballyboden, but that’s much better now, the power is more widespread. You have Cuala, Ballymun are strong, and that’s a good sign.

“I don’t know if anyone ever counts up all the kids who come along on a Saturday morning for sessions at GAA clubs in Dublin, but those numbers are incredible.

“The GAA is incredibly strong in Dublin now. I’ve lived in Stillorgan now for the last 40 years, and if you went back, that wouldn’t have been a traditional GAA area at all, but now if you go down to the shopping centre, the jerseys you see predominantly on the kids are Kilmacud Crokes or Dublin county jerseys.

“You’d rarely see Manchester United jerseys, maybe the odd Liverpool jersey, but it’s incredible compared to where we were even 20 years ago, to see boys and girls alike walking around with hurleys.

“Obviously that growth and strength has been feeding into minor and U21 success in football, and to an extent in hurling, but we’re a long way from the dominance people were talking about last year.”

Kelleher points to counties like Kerry, Donegal and Mayo, traditional victims of emigration, as a counter to suggestions economically strong counties dominate: “Not that I want to be critical of Cork, but it’s 10 years since they won a hurling All-Ireland, and they haven’t been going well at minor either.”

Still, success also brings challenges.

“As I say, the reemergence of traditional clubs like Ballymun and Na Fianna, the emergence of Raheny, Clontarf and Cuala and so on, that’s encouraging — but we need more.

“I’m involved in (Kilmacud) Crokes and I’ve argued that the club is far too big for its own good — the 150 six-year-olds who come down there every Saturday morning, we just don’t have the facilities to deal with them, while St Olaf’s up the road is struggling.

“I think it’d be far better for Crokes and Olaf’s, not to mention the kids themselves, if half of them went up to Olaf’s. But like everything else in life, a brand gets created.”

The other problem in the capital is one familiar to GAA members everywhere.

“The fixture list. I think one GAA President after another has paid lip service to this and done nothing about it.

“If you’re a pure club player, a footballer or hurler just playing for the club, but you have teammates who are on inter-county teams or playing for college teams, then unless a situation is created where there isn’t a clash of fixtures, you don’t need a PhD to work out you won’t play very often.

“The fixture list in Dublin is shocking. The championship will start in early May in Dublin, 32 teams playing straight knock-out, so half of the teams in Dublin will be gone out of the championship in the first week in May. Some other counties are better at managing fixtures — Cork aren’t bad, in fairness.

“But it’s hard to keep going. I was involved with the minors in Crokes a few years ago and we had two matches in June, July, August and September.

"You go up to the club grounds in August, you can hear the birds singing and the ground is in perfect condition; go up there on a cold, wet January evening, though, and there’s hardly a tiny spot of ground available for training.

“If I were a club player now, I think I’d go off and play rugby. What we’re offering the club player is very poor, and we’ve been talking about it since I was playing. President after president comes in and says the club is at the heart of the GAA. Lip service.

“The club is at the bottom of the pile. Forget inter-county, it plays second fiddle to the college scene as well; it is absolutely at the bottom and that’s a threat in Dublin, and in other counties as well.”

Kelleher’s background leads him to other questions, such as stadia (“Do you need four stadia — Cork, Limerick, Thurles and Killarney — within an hour of each other?”).

The finances of the GAA could also bear some scrutiny, he thinks.

“It’s fantastic to see a company like AIG get involved with Dublin. That’s not something that would have happened years ago. The GAA would never have had the brand that would have attracted a company like that.

“I think it’d be interesting if someone did a comprehensive analysis of the finances of the GAA, in terms of the individual units — clearly the finances of Croke Park are very strong, and as I understand it, the finances of the provincial councils are pretty strong.

“But at county level... some counties, like Dublin and Cork, are okay, but there are some counties which are absolutely broke. And then if you get down to club level, there’s a significant number of clubs in serious financial difficulty.

"I also always had a bee in my bonnet over the proceeds of provincial matches — if Cork play Kerry in Killarney in front of 40,000 people, the Munster Council get all the money. Crazy. Same for Dublin and Meath if they fill Croke Park with 80,000 people. It all goes to the Leinster Council.

“I’m not sure they should have access to all that money when there are counties with serious financial problems, and clubs with the same problems. The money should be directed towards those.”

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