The volcanic reaction to the European Soccer League got you thinking, don’t deny it. Or reacting, even.
It’s unusual to see an announcement get a response indicating such a strong consensus, perhaps because no matter how bizarre the stance is nowadays, there’ll always be a group in favour of it. Hence the surprise a couple of weeks ago.
What kind of announcement would provoke a similar consensus in GAA terms, then?
“First, you can’t compare professional soccer and the GAA because the GAA is so embedded in the community — even though that’s what happened in England, supporters embedded in the community reacted so negatively to the news,” says former GAA president Christy Cooney.
“To me something like that would destroy the integrity of the GAA — I couldn’t see the feasibility of it. What would be the advantage to doing it in the first place?
“There’ll always be a team or few teams at the top of the tree, but that happens naturally in every sport. The best will always be a group unto themselves, almost, but it happens organically.”
“Any move towards professionalism would get a huge reaction initially,” says another former GAA president, Nickey Brennan.
“It would end up with people moving away from the GAA.
“The GAA’s model today is not capable of managing a professional game because we’re not a global sport, which means the sort of money needed wouldn’t be coming in from the corporate sector or the media.
“I know that continues to be a worry for some people but I don’t see it happening. But it was certainly something that people did aspire to at one stage. The bottom line is that if you aspired to professionalism you’d see two separate organisations, because if a player were paid to play he’d be gone from the club while he’d still be involved with the county, so the divide would become a huge one between club and county.”
Christy Cooney echoes Brennan on the potential for division such an announcement would bring: “Straightaway there’d be a massive split, with smaller counties up in arms immediately.
“And yes, the other obvious question would be how that would affect the club scene. I might be wrong, but I think it would be impossible to make that move work on different grounds — economically yes, but also for reasons of player welfare, working out fixtures, ground availability. Everything.”
“I was chairman of the sub-committee (of the Strategic Review Committee) which looked into that idea originally,” says Cooney.
“And you saw the reaction to that at the time. It was blown out of the water.
“And not just by Dublin either, by the way, but by other counties which were concerned that something similar might happen to them.
“What people forget is that Dublin got their act together after that, to the extent that Gaelic games are now hugely strong there. So it’s interesting that a proposal to divide Dublin was followed by Dublin becoming stronger than ever before.”
“This is definitely one which would lead to a lot of shouting at the start, when announced initially,” says Brennan.
“But I think some pragmatism would set in soon enough.
“In Kilkenny there are plenty of rivalries, but if it came about that my own club had to join another for reasons of survival — which is a strong possibility, though possibly not in my lifetime — then that would have to happen.
“A lot of the kids in different clubs that would be likely to amalgamate nowadays, even though they might be rival clubs those kids are also going to school together, they see each other on the weekend, they go to college together, so the barriers we had years ago are not there.
“I wouldn’t see that being a huge issue for too long.”
Cooney agrees that it could spark a renaissance for some clubs.
“It would cause uproar at the start but it would bring a realisation to clubs that they need to do something themselves to boost playing numbers, to work on underage teams — or it might create an acceptance that the club might be better off doing so, and getting better games for its players, if it joined another club.
“People understand the power of local rivalries, particularly between small neighbouring clubs — it creates a dynamic between the communities, it puts the games into people’s conversations and people’s lives. That’s very powerful and it’s been very good for the GAA for years and years, but it also opens the way for another discussion.
“Every county board should review the situation of their clubs on an ongoing basis, and should be aware of how those clubs are doing before there’s a situation where those clubs’ survival is an issue.”
The pandemic has been disastrous and deadly across society, but the accompanying lockdown has given many time to re-evaluate and reprioritise. Is the statement above over the top?
“No,” says Brennan.
“What the coronavirus has done has been to force the GAA to batten down the hatches financially and to examine what it’s doing, what’s necessary and what’s unnecessary in terms of what it’s spending money on — at all levels of the organisation.
“I’m not overly worried about the financial impact because even if it takes five or 10 years to recover, the GAA will recover.”
“It’s (the pandemic) has reduced the amount of time that players have had to spend with intercounty teams,” says Cooney.
“It’s also reduced the number of inter-county training sessions — if I’m reading between the lines correctly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Association tries to put a structure in place to reduce the number of sessions, to reduce panels, and to reduce the costs of inter-county training generally.”