In the circumstances, I suppose, the descent into hyperbole can be excused.
The establishment of the new Club Players Association (CPA) was not, as its impressively energetic founding secretary Declan Brennan commented at its launch, ‘more important’ than the day the GAA was founded. That’s a plainly ludicrous claim.
Nevertheless, it is a significant event in the evolution of a sporting body that appears to have lost the confidence — and trust — of the vast majority of the player population it is charged with serving. That it should have come to this is a calamity of sorts — and one entirely of the GAA’s own making.
It is a clear consequence of drift and design, of unheeded warnings and skewed priorities. We are where we are now because the GAA has failed to remedy ailments that it has itself diagnosed — repeatedly.
While it was only last autumn that discussions around the foundation of club players’ organisation seriously began, the truth is that its roots lie in a longstanding and, at times, cultivated neglect.
You can go back decades and find the GAA pointing up the need to rebalance the club-county playing schedule in favour of the club. For a modern starting point, it’s perhaps best to reference the so-called MacNamee Commission report of 1971. Here, with great lucidity, it was conceded that the inter-county schedule was “heavily overloaded”, that the number of inter-county competitions needed to be reduced and that a master fixture plan be developed “having regard to the requirements of the association as a whole”.
Given how far-reaching MacNamee’s recommendations proved in other areas of GAA activity — it has served as the effective blueprint for much that is admirable in the contemporary association — it is somewhat extraordinary that on this particular issue, nothing at all was done.
Well, not quite nothing.
In the years that have followed, the only measures taken centrally by the GAA were calculated to compound rather than alleviate the problem. Report after report — commissioned by the association itself — confirms as much.
When, for instance, the back-door system for the senior championships was introduced in the mid-1990s a subsequent report — published by a Football Development Committee in November 1999 — remarked that its impact had been to the detriment of clubs for reasons that were none too hard to anticipate. Most crucially, it had resulted in a scenario where “a tiny number of inter-county players” were “depriving a huge number of club players of a regular programme of games.”
Yet nothing changed. Instead, 13 years later, another Croke Park-appointed committee — led by Eugene McGee — unsurprisingly reported an alarming level of disenchantment among club players, its stark criticisms of the season’s scheduling injustices bolstered by responses to a questionnaire completed by almost a thousand players at all levels.
The findings of the 2012 Football Review Committee survey were damning in the extreme: 52% of respondents reported that adult club fixture-making in their county was either “poor” or “very poor”; 60% reported that there was a lack of adherence to pre-arranged club fixture schedules; 64% believed that the club season was too long and drawn out and 54% said there were not enough competitive club games.
That’s quite the indictment of the status quo and still it proved insufficient to motivate a sea change in official thinking.
The value of all this for the CPA, however, is that it starts out from the fortunate position of not even having to make a case for itself. Nobody seriously disputes the chaos of the club programme and the contempt it displays towards those who commit to it.
But, as we’ve seen time and again, awareness and corrective action don’t always go hand in hand. Not where club players are concerned. This is why the CPA had little option but to oppose Páraic Duffy’s proposals for a football championship revamp, the principally aim of which is the resuscitation of a competition whose spectator appeal has been falling precipitously.
The Duffy plan does clubs no additional harm, but there is no disguising two salient facts: (1) club interests are not its core concern and (2) what it offers is not even the beginning of a panacea.
Real, meaningful reform requires everything to be on the table. Not just the All-Ireland championships, but the early season provincial competitions, the national leagues, university and underage competitions. The lot. It means re-ordering the hierarchy of playing priorities to ensure not only a better programme of club games, but one where county players are more routinely involved.
The hard truth is that ‘fixing the fixtures’ can only be achieved by upturning much of what has become established practice at all administrative levels and by curbing the overweening influence of both inter-county managers and players, the latter having acquired an even deeper institutional foothold as a result of last year’s GAA-GPA deal affording them both a stake in the commercial activity around inter-county games and a privileged input into GAA decision-making.
The problem for the new players body is that the challenge it has set before it is arguably more daunting than anything previously faced by an inter-county counterpart it has been so keen to distinguish itself from (“there will be no jobs for the boys”).
And yet, it is only by delivering on the CPA’s objectives that the GAA can fulfil its professed mission to be a truly community-oriented and participative sporting organisation.
The pity, of course, is that should have come to this, that it should have taken the further fragmentation of the GAA to force such a fundamental issue to the forefront of GAA concerns.
What makes it worse is that it could — and should — have been avoided.
A MacNamee Commission for slow learners, anyone?
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