Sport

Danny Hughes: Developing with the club is key to true GAA success

Crossmaglen Rangers are one club with players who have tended to prioritise their club commitment over inter-county football

I WOULD hazard a guess that for most successful sportspeople key events in their lives influenced their success.

Indeed, this event could also have coincided with the person meeting a scout, a manager or coach.

Our parents can be the greatest influencers, directly and indirectly. Whether it is working three jobs to support an expensive pastime, such as Rory McIlroy’s father, or indeed a coach who unselfishly gives up his or her time to coach an underage team, these are selfless acts rarely written about in the grand scheme of things.

I was lucky in that my brothers and I were close in age and, as a result, my father managed our club teams at every underage level and, finally, at senior level too.

His partner was a great clubman, Eamon McCarthy. Eamon is one of those characters in the club, always present and willing to commit to the betterment of Saval.

Unlike my father, Eamon didn’t have immediate blood relatives participating in the underage teams we played on.

Eamon had three girls, and probably much to the annoyance of his wife, concentrated his efforts on underage coaching alongside my father as opposed to managing any of his girls’ teams.

Why was he so committed, I asked myself over the years? My only answer to this was he viewed success in different terms to many of us.

Eamon (alongside my father) was responsible for a significant group of underage players at my age all playing football through to senior level.

Drop-outs within our age group were rare. Indeed, as a club, Saval was not that well represented at inter-county level over the years, aside from some iconic players such as Cathal and Jarlath Digney.

Into the ’90s we started producing fine players, representing Down at underage levels, including Gary Digney (minor winner in 1999), Stephen Sands, Donal Murphy, Peter Turley, Darren Cunningham and Jonny Hughes.

Some made it into inter-county panels for a time, while others didn’t, but my point stands – the players being produced were very strong committed club players.

Despite the fact that some inter-county careers stalled, Eamon and Dad viewed success unapologetically from a Saval perspective.

Creating senior players for Saval and not Down was their priority.

When I started playing alongside the aforementioned players, Saval were in the third division of four.

Today, we have played for many years in the first division (albeit relegated this season) and play in the senior championship year-in, year-out.

The new clubrooms, the addition of more football fields and new handball courts combine to produce some of the best facilities in the county, all unthinkable years ago when Eamon and my father, alongside and supported by fantastic visionaries in the parish, started coaching our teams from four wooden portable buildings beside a field.

How many rural clubs have similar stories like ours? From small seeds grow mighty trees.

There is no disguising the fact that the inter-county game has come to dominate the GAA landscape.

I am also guilty of prioritising the inter-county game and channelling my efforts towards Down.

I am increasingly more interested in taking a club-based role, taking the example of Eamon McCarthy and like-minded individuals of my own club Saval, concentrating on developing players who will play senior club football first and foremost.

Not every player deemed successful needs to play inter-county football. This is perhaps the most important message we need to communicate going forward within the GAA.

It should not be a case of ‘county or bust’ for any player.

As a club we have never won a senior championship, only making a senior final once, back in 1981.

I would say this resonates with a significant number of other clubs throughout Ulster and Ireland.

Like many, we are a club that is the lifeblood of our community and parish, but unfortunately are being hamstrung by rurality, mass emigration and changing social structures.

That’s not to say we can’t do better, like many other clubs.

The most successful club teams in Ulster in recent years have always prioritised their own club commitment over that of inter-county football. I am thinking of Slaughtneil, Crossmaglen and Kilcoo.

The real winners were the individual clubs via senior championship wins. Perhaps ironically, it was their respective county teams that suffered most.

I think, though, there is the possibility of a happy medium.

For those individuals within a club who are ambitious players, it can be very difficult to reconcile their ambitions with reality at club level.

There may be anything up to 10 individuals in any club who are very committed people, however, they are let down by a combination of poor commitment from a wider panel, unambitious club targets and perhaps poor management and coaching.

I have seen the most committed sportspeople quit, demoralised and broken at club level, and transfer their energies into individual sports such as duathlons or triathlons.

Vinny Murphy, the ex-Dublin player, recently posted a Facebook post which sums up the attitude and frustration of many coaches.

The modern inter-county player is currently accessing coaching and training akin to those experiences of a professional athlete in soccer and rugby.

Inter-county football is no different, with teams of physios, strength and conditioning experts and psychologists.

At club level, while we can’t possibly re-create the same facilities and access to funding that an inter-county team can, what we can do is to structure our clubs in such a way that we encourage, support and facilitate those ambitious individuals.

We can give more time to coaching underage teams and not just those teams which contain our offspring or blood relatives.

We can – and should – be doing better in upskilling our club coaches and ensuring that there is a minimum requirement of coaching ‘hours’ required before being confirmed as a manager/ coach of a particular team.

Clubs tend to allow managers and coaches to ‘follow’ each underage team, year-in year-out. This can be a complete disaster for those players who perhaps need a change of mentor in order to progress.

In fact, it can be the largest single contributory factor in drop-out rates in many clubs at underage level. Without the ‘county-glasses’ on, I can see that some of the best and most respected players within my club never represented Down at senior level.

They were ambitious, committed, highly skilled senior club players.

These guys can thank people such as Eamon McCarthy and my father. Men like this exist in every club in the country.

They gave of their time selflessly, not for their county, but for their club. This, for me, is the real GAA.

It is priceless.

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