The Boot Room: GAA media relations not helping presentation of the inter-county game
THERE was something different, decidedly chirpier about Abbotstown on Wednesday morning.
Perhaps it was due to the fact the FAI, under new Press Relations management, supplied the awaiting media with four Republic of Ireland players for interview: Alan Judge, Matt Doherty, Jack Byrne and Sean Maguire.
Each player was refreshingly open – a far cry from Martin O’Neill’s reign that ended last November.
In the lead up to big games, O’Neill was always better company earlier in the week.
He'd usually be in jocular mood but by the time the pre-match press conference arrived, the day before the match, O’Neill was more sombre and monosyllabic, and probably felt inconvenienced by having to perform media duties so close to the game.
In his last year in charge, his press conferences simply became terse affairs. Even before he left his position, the Irish public had fallen out of love with the national team.
The football was dire and the player interviews were desperately anodyne.
The crowds tumbled.
No amount of schoolboy ticket giveaways could disguise the fact that the team was at its lowest ebb in over 30 years.
Since he has taken over Mick McCarthy has been on something of a charm offensive. Not only has McCarthy been trying to patch together a squad of middle tier English Premiership and Championship players for the upcoming Euro 2020 qualifiers against Gibraltar and Georgia, he’s also been pressing a lot of flesh.
He even made a recent appearance on The Late, Late Show a few weeks back and admitted he was trying to move a few tickets for the home game against Georgia.
Someone in the FAI realised that there is a disconnect between the senior team and the football public and it needs urgently addressed.
McCarthy has gone above and beyond to try and repair that while the appearance of four players up for interview on Wednesday morning was another sign of a new approach.
Making four players available means more airtime and significantly more column inches.
It helped, of course, that Doherty, Judge, Byrne and Maguire were incredibly frank and open.
Wolves defender Doherty didn’t skirt around his poor relationship with O’Neill, insisting that the only thing he regretted in his scathing interview he gave about the former manager last November was the timing of it.
Asked about his straight-talking nature, Doherty said: “That's why I'm here. I'm here to answer questions that you ask me... I'm not a liar. I'm not going to try and get out of the question.”
Jack Byrne and Alan Judge gave rare insight into just how difficult and stressful a professional footballer’s life can be.
Dubliner Byrne started out with Man City and gave an honest account of how he tumbled from one loan deal to another before coming home to play for Shamrock Rovers.
Judge, who endured a torturous 19-month recovery from a broken leg, revealed how he sometimes stopped his car 200 yards from his own home if he’d a bad day at training – just for 10 minutes to compose himself because he didn’t want his kids to see him upset or annoyed.
Four days before he was due to sign for Newcastle United, his career lay in ruins.
“I don't like saying it but my family's financial security was just (clicks his fingers) - taken away from me in two minutes,” said Judge.
“My career, all that – Euros , Premier League, everything. But when you're injured you find out just how much you love football.”
It was one of the most engaging press briefings at Abbotstown.
Four ordinary lads, not a big head among them, not a hint of aloofness either.
Football fans read and listen to their stories and connect with them.
Who knows, they might even go to the bother of purchasing a ticket for the Georgia game next Tuesday night.
Contrast that media approach to the GAA’s last Saturday night at Croke Park where Dublin hosted Tyrone, their first meeting since last year’s All-Ireland final.
It should have been an easy sell.
Less than 20,000 paid in to watch it. Now, there are a multitude of reasons why there was such a paltry attendance.
The rising costs to take a family to a game (food, fuel, parking, ticket prices) is one reason.
Another is perhaps the growing apathy towards Gaelic football as a spectacle, particularly the inter-county game.
The sorely limited media access to players and management is another problem and entirely self-defeating for the GAA.
After both Jim Gavin and Mickey Harte sat in the desperately dank pressroom beneath the Hogan stand on Saturday night to deliver their respective verdicts, reporters hung around at the back entrance of the changing rooms in the hope that a player stops and talks.
Ronan McNamee, the Tyrone defender, sat his gear bag down and spoke amiably to awaiting reporters for seven or eight minutes.
The Dublin players are off-limits, sadly. There is no point in a reporter darkening their changing room door.
Arguably the greatest football team that ever played the game are virtual strangers to the nation.
Of course, Philly McMahon and Brian Fenton are exceptions to the rule and will leave behind glowing archives of their lives beyond the pitch.
But the vast majority of the Dublin players will come and go, perhaps spurning a good career opportunity in the process.
Each week in pressrooms dotted around the country, there are ex-players making second careers out of sports journalism.
It’s no coincidence that many of them played football in the ‘Noughties’ – a time when players were more accessible who enjoyed good relationships with members of the press.
There was more colour, more back-stories, more personalities. More and more, the modern age player hides their personality behind platitudes.
For reporters of a certain vintage, Gaelic Games were more enjoyable to present 10 years ago; there were more engaging interviews and probably more trust as a result.
Right now, the inter-county scene needs all the help it can get because a high percentage of the games look and feel the same and are not worth watching, and are played by people that we know very little about.
Outside of their own parishes, there is little or no connection between top players and the average GAA fan.
Mindful of the lack of meaningful access, editors may become more circumspect about where best to deploy their finite resources.
The GAA could learn a thing or two from the FAI’s new and necessary PR approach.
As it stands, there isn’t enough flesh being pressed.