Kicking Out: GAA will always lose talents lured away by the world
IN 1973, Frank McGuigan captained Tyrone to a first Ulster title in 16 years.
A 19-year-old with an incredible gift, he was a demi-God who carried the entire hopes of a county on his broad shoulders.
And then just like that, he was gone.
Called to go on the 1977 Allstar tour as a replacement, he decided on a whim that he wouldn’t come home.
By the time McGuigan returned to Ireland permanently in 1984, he was 30. He was never emotionally chained to football the way some men are.
His famous 11-point haul in the ‘84 Ulster final (all from play) included a record for the number of successful dummies on to the left foot.
The injuries he sustained in a car crash a few months later ended his playing career.
To all intents, Tyrone and Ardboe lost out on most of what would have been his best football.
McGuigan was given an opportunity to see something of the world and he took it. He never sounded like a man who regretted it in the slightest.
That’s just life. People don’t come boxed up and labelled ‘one size fits all’.
Some 33 years on, Tyrone is mourning the likely exit of a man whose attributes have grown a similarity to those of the great man from Ardboe, albeit with years of proving to do yet to be mentioned in such a breath.
Cathal McShane will join AFL club Adelaide Crows for training this month with a view to signing a permanent contract.
At 24, he is the oldest GAA player to try his hand at the Australian code.
He might decide not to stay beyond the month. They might not keep him. But both of those are the outside bets.
If the reigning Allstar full-forward goes, the county’s hopes of an All-Ireland go with him.
Mickey Harte, perhaps understandably in his position, called on Sunday for the GAA to break its official ties with the AFL.
They’re not new words from his mouth. He has long been against the arrangement.
But what difference does it make, really?
If the GAA broke its links with the AFL, would it stop the Australians having agents in Ireland? Would it stop them holding their combine trial events here? Would it stop them scouting young GAA players?
No, it wouldn’t. They’ll do what they’re for doing, with or without the GAA’s help.
The reason the AFL targets young Irish lads is because their transferable skillset is already largely formed. Thanks to advancements in sports science here, they’re now physically better developed than ever.
Some GAA players crave the professional standards that inter-county teams now live by, but the commitment expected of GAA players can start to look like a major drawback when they’re pitted into competition.
A soccer team comes along and offers you £100 a week to train twice and play on a Saturday, and suddenly the six-day-a-week madness of the GAA regimes starts to lose appeal.
There was a lot less made of Antrim trio Matthew Fitzpatrick, Padraig Nugent and Stephen Beatty all opting out of county football in 2020 to play soccer.
Fitzpatrick follows Eoin Bradley into the Showgrounds, where the former Derry forward has made such a name for himself since quitting county football that he made it into Coleraine’s team of the decade.
The Irish League hardly represents ‘the dream’ that will lure scores of young lads away from the GAA, but it’s not bad. A few pound, a bit of adulation, and an equal if not bigger profile, and a higher ceiling if they have the age profile.
The top end of the soccer world is an almost irrepressible fantasy for anyone that has half a chance of touching it.
Look down the annals of Irish soccer internationals – Seamus Coleman, Niall Quinn, Kevin Moran, Shane Long, to name but a few – and see how many of them turned away the GAA.
That’s just the way it is. Ireland is such a sports-obsessed country that the major games will always wrestle for the best talent.
The GAA cannot abandon its principles of amateurism to try and stem an outflow of talent.
If players want to go and see what other worlds have to offer, then they have to be let go.
The argument that clubs and counties need to be compensated is a non-runner because it would be grossly unfair on the players themselves.
The GAA’s ethos is that we’re producing young footballers, hurlers, camogs, but that we’re also helping mould and guide young men and women, to give them a grounding and the best opportunity in life.
Not that it’s very likely, but imagine the AFL had come looking for Cathal McShane and he’d been mad to go, only to find he couldn’t because his club or county were holding out for better compensation?
It is unquestionably frustrating for Tyrone and especially Owen Roes, Leckpatrick to develop such a talent and then probably lose him, but they’re sure to offer their blessing as well. Who could ever begrudge it?
Player contracts are the only way to protect the GAA, and that is a can of worms that cannot be opened. It is a legal minefield that would serve nobody in the long run.
You’d do well to find a man among us that would turn it down the chance Cathal McShane has been offered without at least going for a look.
Australian Rules, soccer, rugby, whichever professional sport it is, they all have one thing the GAA can never offer if it’s to survive, and that’s a proper full-time career with a weekly paycheque.
If the AFL comes looking more and more GAA players, then it won’t be down to the two organisations working together.
It will be down to the GAA producing talented young footballers and athletes who match the prototype the Aussies are looking for.
Mickey Harte may argue that there are great opportunities for a 24-year-old footballer on the Tyrone panel, and he may be right. But the opportunities for a 24-year-old in Australia are generally far greater than for a 24-year-old in Ireland. Finance, education, profession, lifestyle, it’s a non-contest with our unending austerity that looks set to last for most of Cathal McShane’s working life.
You only need to look at the number of top-end GAA players who are taking a break in 2020 to go travelling to see how the mindset it changing.
The world keeps getting smaller and the pots of money being offered to professional sportsmen keep getting bigger.
The door out of here will only swing wider, no matter what the GAA does.