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Kevin Madden: GAA's grassroots in danger of being steamrolled by corporate machine

 Kevin Madden believes we are now in an era where the club game is completely subservient to the elite. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

THE New York Yankees legend Yogi Berra famously said once: “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up some place else.”

As all roads lead to the Athletic Grounds this Sunday, Slaughtneil and Kilcoo know exactly the direction they are heading in.

The Derry men will attempt to bring the 2017 season to a close in some style.To think they are on the brink of capturing Ulster senior titles in hurling, camogie, and football all in the one year is just mind-blowing.

In fairness to their opponents Kilcoo, they are no shrinking violets and, like Slaughtneil, have always had a reputation for being a tight-knit community with a strong spirit.

They too have been on an incredible journey the past number of years. In 2009, they won their first Down senior championship in 72 years.

Few could have imagined they would go and win another five in the next seven seasons. BBC NI ran a great feature on Slaughtneil a couple of weeks ago, which gave a valuable insight into the culture that exists within a small rural area punching well above its weight.

Aoife Ní Chasaide, full-back on the camogie team, spoke so eloquently about how they all lived for the club, their language and community and how this sense of purpose means that very few young people move away to explore pastures new.

Her words were refreshing, particularly given the fact we live in a time where communities are awash with young people emigrating to foreign soils in pursuit of a better life and a new sense of identity.

As we look forward to a potentially cracking Ulster final, I feel the GAA hierarchy could gain a lot of perspective by looking at these two great clubs which have a tangible chemistry with the people who live there.

We are now in an era where the club game is completely subservient to the elite.The games at grassroots level are in danger of being drowned by the corporate GAA who don’t seem to care. Even the inter-county game itself is in an unhealthy state due to an uneven playing field across the board.

The GAA has lost its way. We aren’t on the slippery slope anymore. This is the cliff at the bottom of the slippery slope.

Before we ask where we want to be in 10 years’ time, first we need to look back at where we were a decade or so ago, when all players freely played for their clubs without interference; a time when club fixtures flowed seamlessly; championships were never put on the backburner and people could watch the games live on television without having to pay for them.

In 2004, I did my university dissertation on the ‘Amateur Status of the GAA’. As part of my research, I interviewed Donal O’Neill of the GPA, Danny Murphy of Ulster Council and Ian McIlrath, chairman of Ballymena Rugby Club.

The day I spoke with Ian, I had been invited as guest speaker to one of Ballymena’s corporate luncheons before an All-Ireland league game.

It was a first for them to have a GAA person there and, while I was very honoured, it was an equally daunting experience, partly due to the fact that Rule 42 was still in place then.

At the time I recall being amazed to see Gary Longwell and Paddy Wallace there in their suits unable to play for their club due to contractual agreements with Ulster.

I remember thinking how absurd it was. Not being allowed to play for your club because you are contracted to another team.

Nothing like that would ever happen in the GAA, I thought. How wrong was I.

The Ballymena chairman told me that club rugby was dying in Ireland and he cited two reasons.

One was the ‘pay for play’ – “clubs can’t afford to pay their players and they cannot afford not to pay them,” he told me.

The other was the unavailability of the best players to line out for their clubs due to commitments with the elite sides.

Amateur rugby in Ireland is now practically dead and while the popularity as a spectator sport at elite level has soared, participation levels have plummeted.

The GAA is already down a regretful road where it is the norm in many counties that ‘the county men’ don’t play in some, and in more extreme cases all, league games.

Thankfully Antrim is one of the few counties where players are free to play all league games and the inter-county schedule rarely interferes with the fixtures.

One decent Championship campaign could easily change that.

I don’t blame the players, and I don’t lump the responsibility on the county managers either.

The GAA as an organisation has shown no leadership on this and worse than that seems content with sending out the wrong message.

Take Pauric Duffy’s comments when he was endorsing his proposals for a revamp of the Championship.

He told us that it is widely accepted now that inter-county players don’t play club football until county is over, so the new format will mean most clubs having their players back three weeks earlier.

Let’s just think about that for a second.

The director general of the GAA thinks it’s perfectly OK that a club should field without their best players for over half the season.

The ordinary club players and supporters are frustrated with huge voids in the fixture calendar and the uncertainty around championships.

They are fed up fielding games without their best players, the very ones they nurtured.

Outside the top teams, many county players are now questioning the value of investing huge amounts of time and sacrifice when the chance of success is minimal.

Not because they lack belief, ambition or don’t get paid but because the corporate GAA have failed to address the elephant in the room.

The amount of money one county has to prepare their teams in some cases is up to eight times more than another.

There needs to be a proper cap on spending and greater investment in the weaker counties, which will allow a more level playing field for preparation.

Otherwise, what’s the point? When I interviewed Donal O’Neill back in 2004, the GPA’s stance was slightly different than it is now.

They were in favour of the GAA going semi-professional at inter-county level and adopting a similar model to the one they use in Australian Rules.

He told me it was only a matter of time before the GAA went down the pay-perview route for televised games, which would further fuel the appetite of players calling for their slice of the pie.

The idea that the GAA would ever tax its members for watching live games on TV was an absurd suggestion at that time.

But little over a decade later and that is exactly where we find ourselves.

Where are we headed next? The time has come for a proper debate around all these areas before clubs get flattened further.

Because, as American writer Stewart Brand said: “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, your part of the road.”

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