GAA Football

Brendan Crosan: The once unthinkable of pay-for-play in the GAA will arrive

Michael McCann, pictured playing for Cargin, says the inter-county game is for students nowadays
Picture by Cliff Donaldson

A FEW weeks ago, I interviewed Antrim footballer Michael McCann about Cargin’s chances of retaining the county championship and whether or not he would be returning to the county scene in 2017.

Michael is married with kids and runs a couple of gyms in Toomebridge and Magherafelt. He works between the two gyms. He never stops. He rises early to take classes; there are a couple of hours of down-time in the middle of the day and then it’s foot to the floor in the evening time.

Unless he’s given special dispensation by the Antrim management team next season - it was not something he discussed on or off the record in the interview - I can’t see how McCann, still one of the best players in the county at 31, can spare the time to meet the demands of the inter-county scene.

This time last year, Antrim’s joint-manager Gearóid Adams was knocking on his door to persuade him to return for the 2016 season. And he agreed.

“From a recovery and mental side of things,” McCann explained, “you have to gather yourself up to drive to Belfast three or four times a week which is tough and the weekends away. I would love to keep playing but, to be honest, I think it’s a game for students nowadays.

“If you’re talking about going to train in Belfast that’s maybe 6pm to 10pm - four hours per night, three times per week and then you have a match at the weekend away. For a player, it’s easily 25 hours a week.”

In another interview around the same time, Terry Hyland revealed that work commitments were the main reason why he stepped away from the Cavan manager’s job.

Terry owns a hardware store at home and he simply wasn’t giving the time over to it. He was clocking up 60-hour weeks managing Cavan.

Something had to give. And it was the Cavan job. Even though Cavan will be competing in Division One next season against the big guns, it still wasn’t enough for Hyland to stay on.

A couple of seasons ago, Dermot Carlin reluctantly quit Tyrone. He wasn’t getting enough game-time on match-days, couldn’t play in club fixtures while on county duty, and the time demands weren’t conducive to a balanced home life.

“I’ve a little two-year-old son and a seven-month-old girl,” Carlin said in Friday’s Ulster Club supplement.

“The good thing is Killyclogher train at 8 o’clock, so I help put the kids to bed at half-seven and the pitch is only two minutes away.

“Whereas Tyrone training was at half-seven and you were there for half-six and you’d get food afterwards. You have to weigh it up. You’d be heading away for weekends with Tyrone, so you’re not seeing the kids in the evenings and you’re not seeing them at the weekends.”

And spare a thought for Derry boss Damian Barton. As revealed in The Irish News, the Oak Leaf panel has haemorrhaged nine players, many of whom would be in Barton’s strongest line-up.

Despite losing to Tipperary in an epic All-Ireland Qualifier, Danny Heavron and Conor McAtamney had fantastic games for Derry that day in Kingspan Breffni Park.

Terry Hyland was forced to quit managing Cavan due to work commitments

Roll on 2017, everyone thought. But the pair can’t commit to their county in 2017. The brain drain in Gaelic games is truly frightening. More players will head off to America for the summer or perhaps change codes.

And there’s money to be made at other sports too. For instance, there has been a significant number of GAA players who have cut it at Irish League level.

A lot of Irish League clubs still train two nights per week - usually Tuesday and Thursday - and players can earn anything from £100 to £400 per week. In many instances, that’s a working wage.

In times of economic austerity, players can’t give three or four nights over to the GAA with no financial incentive. Work patterns have changed. The utopian hours of nine-to-five are becoming a thing of the past.

Shift work reigns. You work when you’re offered it - night or day or at weekends. You fear for a lot of the middle-tier counties. As Michael McCann intimated, the average age of county teams will plummet, while an increasing number of the more experienced players will stick solely with their clubs. That’s where their ambition starts and ends.

In a lot of cases, you’ll find the better clubs sides would beat their own county team because the county team has been shorn of its best players because of the overwhelming demands.

So what happens next? Well, the horse has already bolted. The days of  winning Ulster titles and All-Ireland titles by training twice a week are long gone.

It became a Darwinian pursuit some time ago. In future years, there will be pay-for-play scenario in the GAA. Right now, it’s just a matter of how you get around it.

But barriers will come tearing down. Thirty years ago nobody could have imagined Rule 21 and Rule 42 being effectively dropped.

Ten years ago, nobody could have imagined the GAA signing up with Sky Sports and agreeing to charge a subscription to watch its top games.

At the opening of the 2015 Congress in Cavan, the GAA’s Director-General Paraic Duffy encouraged debate on the recently signed Sky Sports deal. There wasn’t a whimper from the floor.

When the Gaelic Players Association first met in the Wellington Park Hotel in 1999, the players’ body could never have imagined them securing a cool €6.2m per year for its members.

Those funds will go some way to arresting the brain drain, at least in the elite counties. Right now, everybody is dancing around the issue.

Few GAA people have come out and uttered the words ‘pay-for-play’ - but it will come. Like everything else in the GAA, the unthinkable will come.

They’ll just call it something else...

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