Dick Clerkin: With all this positivity, why am I uneasy about the GPA’s future?

Like many this week, I was somewhat surprised when I learned about the GPA’s significantly improved deal with the GAA, and the cordial manner in which it was negotiated. Rumblings earlier in the season from the GAA’s inner sanctum gave an impression that relationships between the two associations were on the wane. This new deal certainly refutes that suggestion.

As an active member right throughout my inter-county career, I would estimate that I have personally benefited to the tune of €20,000 (before you faint, divide that by 17) in tangible benefits from the various initiatives driven by the GPA.

Government grants, increased mileage rates, professional services, development programs, playing gear, gum shields, commercial opportunities... All of the aforementioned have been directly or indirectly influenced by the GPA resulting in a benefit, financial or otherwise, to me and every other inter-county player. Many of these benefits are probably taken for granted by players and the GPA doesn’t get the full recognition it deserves for its part in achieving them.

In fact, earlier this year I succeeded in making a significant career move that might not have been possible only for the assistance of a GPA professional development program. For this alone, I will be eternally grateful to the GPA for what this move has provided for me, both professionally and personally.

Appreciative of the benefits the GPA can provide its members, I welcomed the new deal, and the security it offers.

That an amicable agreement was reached without any public discontent is a significant achievement; those involved deserve credit for handling things in such a professional manner.

Most observers feel it was a landslide victory for the GPA.

Yet, how could you say the GAA lost? They have simply committed to supporting the development of one of the associations most important stakeholders: Inter-county players.

As their representatives, the GPA facilitated this, and ought to be very satisfied for doing such good work on the player’s behalf.

So, with all this positivity, why am I uneasy about the future?

Like I said, I’ve been an inter-county player for 17 seasons, plus a GPA supporter from the beginning, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that my support hasn’t been challenged in recent times. I want to see the GPA improve its image, gain trust throughout the broader association, consider its direction and question its relevance to all players. Squabbles in the media, twitter rants, and an all-too-often defensive front, have left me unimpressed (for all the good work that is being done, it continues to struggle on the PR side of things).

Commercialism and amateurism are two words that don’t sit comfortably in the same sentence, and the GPA has attempted to enshrine both into its vision as an organisation. For that reason, many simply don’t trust it. In the early days, a ‘pay for play’ agenda was the GPA’s thing. Today, it’s committed to upholding the amateur ethos. Many can’t disassociate the then from the now.

First impressions last.

By limiting the interest to inter-county players, the commercial drivers of the GAA, the GPA continue to fuel this mistrust. Club players have minimal commercial value, so they have no interest in them; a simple accusation, but one difficult to defend. The inter-county game is built on the foundations of an astounding club network. All inter-county players are club players first and foremost, or at least they should be. It’s where they began and it’s where they will finish. Why the need to differentiate between the two so distinctly? I am a member of my club, not my county. County representation is a privilege, not a right. I never signed a contract nor did I ever get a guarantee. A man could be in one year and out the next, so why, with such a relatively and/or potentially short-lived standpoint, should inter-county players have such a strong voice in how the broader association operates?

A valid argument held by many at present, and again, a difficult one to counter.

When you’re caught up in the inter-county bubble, it can be all too easy to insulate yourself from the massive challenges faced 24/7/365 by clubs and their players. While in this bubble, inter-county players need not concern themselves with such issues. By only representing inter-county player’s needs, the GPA gives the impression that this split loyalty is acceptable. By doing this, the image of the inter-county player is being damaged, as much as that of the representative body.

Inter-county players and the GPA need to strike a better balance between club and county involvement. Hampered by a dysfunctional fixtures calendar and competition structure, what is the best way to straddle both commitments? Many people look at Monaghan wondering how we achieved what we did recently with such relatively small resources. One thing differentiated us from a lot of other teams, in that every inter-county player would play around 80-90% of our club games each year. Over my 17 seasons, on average I would play up to 18 games per year with my club.

Most of my Monaghan team-mates would be the same. I think I can safely say we are the exception, rather than the norm. Yes, at times the balance between both is problematic. Injuries incurred playing with the club during the inter-county season are an intermittent source of frustration. At certain times, I questioned the need for players to over commit themselves at the possible expense of their county involvement.

However, looking back, I can safely say that the appreciation and visible commitment of the Monaghan players to their clubs, played (and plays) a major role in their development not just as players, but as leaders.

It also contributed significantly to the unyielding good will and support from our clubs.

That is why I have concerns about the commercial incentive the GPA is pursuing for the sole benefit of inter-county players. This runs the risk of further driving a wedge between club and county activities and, from my experience in Monaghan, this is not in the long-term best interests of the players.

What does the GPA want to see in 10 years time? As ambassadors for amateur sport, GAA players can be living, breathing evidence that team sport can be played at the highest level, while still connected to the people and communities in which it functions. Free from the trappings associated with many aspects of professional sport, GAA players can set themselves apart and be role models for sport in its purist form, both in Ireland and around the world. The GPA would strongly argue that this is what it is aiming to do.

However, mixed messages are confusing the onlookers. Focusing on the long-term commercial realisation of the players, clouds all of the good work that they do in other areas. Development programmes are seen merely as a smoke screen for a long-term ‘pay for play’ agenda.

This image needs to change, for everyone’s benefit. We need a body that is relevant to all players and that is accepted by all stakeholders within the GAA.

The primary objective has to be to enhance the playing experience for all playing members in the association, inter-county and club.

This new deal presents an ideal opportunity to wipe the slate clean, start afresh and build trust. Why not bring club players into the loop? One is merely an extension of the other and, by doing so, you would get a more rounded view of the current playing experience. By and large, club players recognise and appreciate the efforts their inter-county peers put in.

However, they also deserve a voice, and nobody is speaking loudly enough on their behalf. If inter-county players deserve fair recognition for their efforts, then so do club players.

Taken for granted, club players currently feed off the scraps that fall from the table of the outdated inter-county fixtures calendar.

Dessie Farrell and his team deserve huge credit for what they have achieved over the years. Last Monday’s deal marked one of their greatest achievements in the history of the GPA. Facing the uncertain challenge of a continued partnership with the GAA top brass, they came out with flying colours. Their next challenge is to win over the hearts and minds of the association’s grassroots. It is probably their greatest challenge, but one certainly worth fighting to win.


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