Brendan Crossan: The GAA looking at its problems from the wrong angle
I’VE attended countless GAA Congresses over the years. In the early days some were raucous affairs. It was a time when you didn’t know which way a motion would go.
It was a time when some maverick delegates owned the room and could persuade those around them to change their minds. The top table would visibly convulse. This was democracy in action.
There was much less choreography back in those days before power became centralised and settled.
A few years ago I attended Congress in Cavan.
On the Friday evening when delegates were still finding their hotel bearings, the Director-General Paraic Duffy invited debate on the recently signed Sky Sports deal.
You could hear a pin drop in the sprawling function room in the Slieve Russell.
Duffy was genuinely astonished that nobody was prepared to put their head above the parapet.
“I was hoping we would have a full debate here,” said a surprised Duffy.
“I was hoping that if some people had something to say they would have said it.”
All you could hear was the pitter patter of journalists’ keyboards in one corner of the room.
The silence said everything about the democratic processes of Congress.
You were left with the distinct impression that everything was decided before delegates entered the auditorium.
When John Horan insisted he wanted Championship tiers before his presidency ends, he would get Championship tiers.
Despite the reservations expressed by many sectors of the GAA, including the GPA, the proposal to introduce tiers breezed over the line. It needed 60 per cent of delegates votes.
It got a whopping 75 per cent.
It was the kind of proposal that feeds the beast of elitism.
The wheat and the chaff needed to be separated, it seemed.
There is one inescapable conclusion to what happened at Special Congress last weekend: the strong counties will get stronger and the weak counties will get weaker.
So, if that premise is accepted, then tiers isn’t a remedy.
Tiers is a crass exercise in the GAA burying problems.
Tiers is a way of cutting huge swathes of the country loose so that the GAA can give more time and energy over to packaging the elite for TV.
For that’s where the revenue is.
For those who argue that if junior, intermediate and senior grades are good enough for clubs, then they should be good enough for counties.
This view is too simplistic to be taken seriously.
Armagh’s All-Ireland winning forward Stevie McDonnell probably summed it up best.
“People talking about tiered a system in clubs working well,” McDonnell wrote on Twitter. “There are over 2,200 club teams in Ireland. It needs a tiered system. We have 32 counties plus NY & London competing at county level. A tiered system is degrading at this level. Do a poll on county players. They’ll agree.”
It’s as if the GAA can’t countenance another one-sided match in the full glare on ‘live’ TV.
The notion being peddled that a team should not be in a competition they have no chance of winning is flawed too.
If that was the case then FIFA should create World Cup tiers – and see how that affects the overall health of the tournament.
Cameroon, Colombia, Japan, Republic of Ireland and Mexico have no chance of winning the World Cup – but yet we remember the colourful narratives that those nations bring to major tournaments, and the joy that one big result means.
Imagine if FIFA lumped the likes of Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Brazil and Croatia into Tier One, how long would it be before the games all looked the same?
Of course, there are under-performing county boards in the lower echelons but to dismiss them all ignores those who are making strides.
What the likes of Sligo, Antrim, Carlow, Longford, Down and Derry need is more exposure to the better teams.
A couple of years ago, Neil Ewing of Sligo pointed out the GAA’s greatest folly when it came to rebalancing the League and Championship.
“People are talking about Championship structures but the League structures are the problem,” Ewing said. “People say the Leagues are great because the teams of an equal level are playing against each other.
“But I think since the Division One to Division Four came in there’s a situation that has developed that the best five or six teams are constantly Division One and they’re constantly playing against each other and they’re making each other better, whereas the weaker teams are constantly playing each other and they’re probably finding a level that’s below themselves.”
He added: “It’s very disappointing for ourselves when you only play a Division One team once a year. You learn loads of lessons and the week after that you’re trying to implement all those lessons, but you’ve to wait 12 months.”
The same teams play each other in Division One at the beginning of the year. They now play each other in the Super 8s and they will see more of each other in Tier One next season.
Each of these competition formats are made for the sole purposes of TV, with a huge slice of the revenue going to the GPA.
The Tommy Murphy Cup was wrapped up in 2008 because of a lack of interest.
The GAA is staring at another Tommy Murphy Cup scenario and it will almost certainly fail, probably quicker than its previous incarnation that lasted five seasons.
Some of the proposed incentives are patronising too. Playing before a big game at Croke Park. An end-of-season holiday. A chance of an Allstar? Really? Is that the sales pitch?
More Tier Two players will opt to spend more time with their clubs than give three or four nights of their week over to the county team.
They may even switch sporting codes. More players will go travelling or play a bit of football in America.
Logic dictates that less money will be spent on Tier Two county teams and development squads. Management teams will be pared down too.
‘Do we really need a strength & conditioning coach?’
‘Do we really need three selectors?’
‘Can one of the selectors look after the kit this week?’
‘Do we really need a physio on site?’
‘Can we travel to Sligo with 18 players?’
‘Can we afford a new GPS system?’
‘Where’s the video analysis?’
‘Will we go two nights instead of three?’
Overnight hotel stays will be replaced by arduous bus journeys.
Just watch the sick notes rise and standards fall.
And to the younger generation: are they supposed to be inspired by this half-baked brainwave?
Just watch the corporate tables reduce in size and in numbers at your next Tier Two fundraising event.
Championship tiers is not a simple tweak, just like they do at club level.
Championship tiers will demoralise counties and strengthen the elite.
And if you’re strengthening the elite, then it’s not a good thing.