Time for action to bridge gap between haves and have-nots in the GAA says Fermanagh's Phil Flanagan

Initiatives from Club Eirne, the fundrasing wing of the Fermanagh county board, have enabled the county to keep pace with current spending trends over recent years. But that won't last forever warns Phil Flanagan
Initiatives from Club Eirne, the fundrasing wing of the Fermanagh county board, have enabled the county to keep pace with current spending trends over recent years. But that won't last forever warns Phil Flanagan Initiatives from Club Eirne, the fundrasing wing of the Fermanagh county board, have enabled the county to keep pace with current spending trends over recent years. But that won't last forever warns Phil Flanagan

LAST year the spending of the Mayo, Dublin and Cork county boards all topped the E1.5million mark while Galway, Limerick, Tipperary and Kerry shelled out seven figure sums.

With costs rising and spending increasing year-on-year there is mounting evidence that smaller counties are in danger of falling by the wayside if the race to fund success in the GAA is allowed to continue.

Fermanagh were sixth from bottom of an official Irish Times GAA spending list for last year. By Dublin’s standards, the Erne county’s outlay of E461,045 was modest but raising that sort of money – up by over E70,000 on 2016 – took constant effort from their dedicated volunteers and supporters.

Fermanagh vice-chairman Phil Flanagan says the time has come for action to be taken on bridging the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots of the GAA.

“There has to be a real discussion in the GAA on how the revenue that’s coming in is shared better,” said Flanagan.

“If we want a rising tide to life all boats we can’t simply keep doing things the way they are being done because the gap between the stronger counties and the weaker ones is getting wider and it’s hard to see how you tackle that without sharing the resources around all of the counties.

“Last year Dublin got nearly more money for games development than the four provinces put together. You look at all the work the Ulster Council are putting into coaching and schools but the level of investment that Dublin is getting is substantially more.

“I’m not arguing that Dublin should get less, because the investment they have had has been hugely successful for football and hurling in Dublin, but a similar approach needs to be taken in other areas.

“The answer to the GAA’s problems is not to bring in more money, it’s not simply for us to run about saying: ‘We need to bring in more money’. We need to look at where we’re spending money because the cost of running county teams at all levels now is reaching unsustainable levels.”

Only Longford (36) have fewer than Fermanagh’s 42 senior clubs. With such a small membership, the county is dependent on the commitment of Club Eirne, their fundraising wing, who attract the finances that allow it to compete at underage and senior level.

“One of the big challenges that’s facing every county is the sheer cost of participating in our games,” Flanagan explained.

“When some of the counties are spending a million Euro or more on county teams alone you have to stand back and ask the question: ‘When is this going to stop?’

“It might appear to be sustainable at the minute but there is a very real possibility that it might not last into the future so we need to be very careful that we’re not spending more money than is sustainable.

“There’s a fantastic committee of fundraisers in Fermanagh – Club Eirne – bringing in huge amounts of money. Without them we’d be beat, but we have to be more careful as an Association and county boards have a huge responsibility to make sure that they are operating within their means.

“At a national level urgent action needs to be taken to make sure pressure isn’t being forced on to county boards because the cost of participating in our games is going up and up and up every single year.”

The money raised by Club Eirne doesn’t just go on funding the Fermanagh senior team. Nowadays a lot of county expenditure is on underage teams and, like the other Ulster counties, Fermanagh now field development squads at U14, U15, U16 and U17 level.

All of those squads have training sessions every week and they need to be fed and watered, kitted out, transported to games, grounds need to opened and heated etc.

“Counties feel obligated to enter academy or development teams in all the competitions,” Flanagan explained.

“From the first weekend in March this year to the middle of July there will always be a Fermanagh development squad playing at some level.

“That’s a scary statistic and it’s a huge commitment from a resource point of view.

“You’re talking about bus hire, feeding the players, heating… It all adds up. The cost of hiring a bus is several hundred pounds every weekend and that’s the challenge facing every county at the minute.

“It was very positive to hear the new Uachtaran John Horan saying at Congress that he is going to have a review of the development squads across Ireland because they are getting out of control.

“They’re taking the best players away from clubs and putting them into the county scene. They go to a training squad and go back to the club with the attitude that the club is second class whereas the club should be at the core of everything they’re doing.”

Aside from underage commitments, the costs associated with running a senior team and trying to match the commitment of other counties are also increasing. Flanagan says that the GAA’s agreements with the Gaelic Players’ Association (GPA) have further increased the cost of running county teams.

“There are expenses for players, mileage for players, compensation for dietary requirements, gear, boots, trainers…,” he said.

“All these costs add up and I’m not begrudging the fact that counties and the GAA have to look after county players, that’s a basic requirement, but the sheer cost of doing so at a county level is very significant and I’m concerned that the way things are going a lot of counties, and indeed a lot of clubs, won’t be able to sustain it.

“All this spending is going to do is widen the gap between counties with large populations and a large membership base and the smaller counties who don’t have that option.”

So what does the future hold? Flanagan stops short of predicting financial armageddon for smaller counties but he does warn that “urgent action” – including a redistribution of finances and a cull of underage development squads – is needed.

“I wouldn’t like to think that county boards would go out of business. I wouldn’t like to go that far,” he said.

“But unless urgent action is taken to control the costs there will be problems down the line. It might not be that county boards will go out of business but there will certainly be a far bigger gap between the well-off counties and those of us who are struggling to survive.”