When the recession hit this country hard a number of years ago and we were facing economic uncertainty and instability, we lost thousands of our most prized assets – our young people. Many of them never return to these shores again.
Thousands of tradesmen, nurses, teachers, and other third level graduates were forced away because of little hope for a future. Their prospects of finding work, or progressing in their chosen fields, was miniscule if they stayed in Ireland. Naturally the opportunity of more money and a better quality of life in Australia, Canada or the US was too appealing to turn down for the majority.
Fast forward to 2016 and another exodus is getting ready to depart again.
This annual evacuation hits GAA clubs and counties around the country each summer due to a similar lack of hope by members who believe they have no opportunity to progress in a meaningful way in their chosen sports.
The GAA’s own website estimates that over 3000 players will head away on sanctions across the pond again this summer.
Many go for promises of good work, better money, and plush apartments.
Others go simply for the craic; like a rite of passage that every young GAA player seemingly must now go through to come of age.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Before, it was just the lowly club player, sick of his lot, training for a summer without any meaningful games until the county team finished their run who would be taking flight.
Some have headed away for July and August and missed nothing more than a few county league games. So why not go to New York or San Fran and knock a bit of fun out of it instead of kicking your heels back at home?
In the past few years, this group of footballers and hurlers has grown and grown and now impacts more teams at all levels.
To be more precise, it includes people who opt out of their county panels and who would prefer to go over and kick it around in Gaelic Park on a Sunday afternoon, rather than commit to their county team for a year’s training for maybe two championship games at a level where they have no chance of being successful.
In the next week or two, once college exams wind up, the number of applications for sanctions to play in the States for the summer will start to flood into Croke Park. From the day of its approval in headquarters, a player is not permitted to play with his own club or county in Ireland for a period of 30 days. Which has been reduced from 60 days in recent years.
In 2013, director general Padraic Duffy introduced a new rule with regard to sanctions; that states that ‘any player who has been included on an inter-county senior championship list submitted to the referee, for a game in the current year’s championship shall not be eligible to be accepted as a member of any club in North America’ - with an exception made for full-time students on a J1.
Basically, this rule was brought in to stop players in weaker counties from playing their provincial games, getting beaten, and heading off to America without bothering with the qualifiers.
While the introduction of the rule had noble intentions, what it has actually done is forced some of the best players in the weaker counties to abstain altogether from playing championship football with their county.
By doing so they are free to travel to the US and pick up a few handy bob over the summer. Under the current championship system, some of the weaker counties competing for Sam Maguire are like a League of Ireland soccer club attempting to qualify for the Champions League…
They are technically in the same competition as Manchester United and Real Madrid, but realistically they’re on a completely different planet to those top dogs. There are only four or five counties that have real aspiration of winning the All-Ireland this September - Dublin, Mayo, Kerry and maybe Tyrone or Donegal.
What are the rest of the counties playing for? In truth, absolutely nothing once the league is over. Some like Monaghan, Roscommon and Cork will harbour ambitions of trying to win a provincial title. For everybody else, like Wicklow, Louth, Limerick, Westmeath, or Galway there isn’t much meaningful competition at a level appropriate to their capability. So why put in the time?
Take Tipperary as a prime example, they’ve lost three players with serious underage pedigree in Liam Casey, Jason Lonergan, and Kevin Fahey who all pulled the plug after the league. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be eligible for a summer sanction to the States. Their involvement with Liam Kearns would significantly strengthen their senior county squad in the Munster championship, but instead they will be competing for the North American one this summer. They know there’s no point investing all that time and effort with such little chance of reward.
It’s hard to argue with their logic for opting out, but there’s no doubt it devalues the game and the competition as a whole when the best players are not lining out for each of their county teams. And Tipperary are only one of many weaker counties affected by this summer exodus.
I’m sure many of the 3,000 - 4,000 players who will head off in the next couple of weeks on 30 days’ sanctions would prefer to stay at home and represent their club and county in an action packed summer filled with games appropriate to their level.
It’s clear the qualifiers are no longer, if ever, fit for purpose. They offer the weaker counties no viable pathway to success and the longer we keep our head in the sand, the weak will keep getting weaker, and the standard of football in North America will keep improving each summer.
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