Cahair O'Kane: Inter-county standards starting to really damage the club game

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair is a sports reporter and columnist with the Irish News specialising in Gaelic Games.

Inter-county standards are being forced upon club dressing rooms that cannot possibly sustain it.
Inter-county standards are being forced upon club dressing rooms that cannot possibly sustain it.

BENEATH the Christmas lights of the Curfew Tower, the people of Cushendall stood late on Sunday evening to welcome home the Four Seasons Cup and its captors.

There are a couple of hundred hardy souls wrapped up and braving the icy night, looking above at the fireworks display.

They’ve spent the last few winters indoor, stewing over the Creagh lorry coming down through Dunloy or the path being carved up the middle of the An Carn centre in Slaughtneil.

This was Cushendall’s turn.

Where half a million people take to the streets for victory parades, they look up and they just know the faces.

We meet our heroes walking to the shop and know them as Brian’s lad or Jimmy of the butchers or one of the Roes, and sure wasn’t his mother a great camog?

It is an intensely personal and unique relationship with your own people that sculpts the very landscape.

Nobody out on those streets ever signed a contract that said they had to love the place or its team.

It’s a given from the moment you’re born.

None of the players are dragged to the field. They won an Ulster title because they put in the work that earned them one.

The GAA has always been an organisation that allowed people space to find their own definition of what they are.

If you wanted to dedicate your life to it, wanted everyone to know you were Billy Bob the Donegal footballer, then you could chase that dream.

That’s what the inter-county game exists for.

The club game has always been that little bit looser, where you’re free to come and go.

You train Tuesday and Friday, match on Sunday and the rest of your life is your own.

Clarinbridge hit the headlines in the past week after the Galway club’s playing contract was leaked and became the epicentre of a public storm.

They weren’t planning to do much that hundreds of other clubs around the country aren’t already doing. The only difference is they put theirs in writing.

Sources in the club told the Irish Independent over the weekend that the push for it all came from the players, not management.

That’s very believable.

In any successful team, there is a core of players desperate to win that will set the tone.

Some think the trick is to pull the rest along.

You’ll never pull a team to victory from the front.

Only if you get those at the back to do their own pushing can a team win.

It’s no use having five brilliant players but a number 26 that couldn’t beat snow.

Get that man into the gym three nights a week and out with a bag of balls, pushing everyone ahead of him, that’s when things change.

Written contracts might achieve that and they might not. Different folks have different strokes.

Ultimately, the only thing that will get a big enough group of people to commit to something that takes over their lives for two-thirds of the year is if there’s a chance of success.

In any county, you’ll have a handful of clubs capable of sustaining such standards.

In Antrim hurling, that is Cushendall, Dunloy, Loughgiel.

To be born in any of them is to be born with a hurl in your hand.

With their tradition behind them, they’ll always be able to push at the boundaries knowing that success is never far away, if they can just push that little bit harder.

It’s not that the life is any easier for them. It’s just more likely to be rewarding.

For the majority of clubs that are trying to catch up, the elevated standards are becoming a real problem.

The rising standards have forced the average club player to go far beyond their means.

Intermediate and junior clubs are spending £100s every week paying men to start them training in November for a season that runs from April until late October.

The club game was always intended to be a recreation that sustains a nation.

A lot of clubs rely on getting a high percentage of eligible adults to play for them. That in itself is difficult to manage.

Too rigidly policed, players don’t want it. Not strict enough? No good either.

Unlike in other sports, you can’t just walk out and go to the club down the road if you don’t like it.

You generally have three choices: you make huge sacrifices, you move away and transfer, or you don’t play at all, for anyone, ever again.

For every player that wants to drive standards, there are ten more that just want to play a game of sport at the weekend and not have to sacrifice living to do it.

If they feel like the gym, they’ll go to the gym and if they feel like a chicken and black bean sauce with fried rice and chips on a Saturday evening, well they’ll do that too.

Just because you don’t want to live like a monk doesn’t lessen your sense of identity or love of place, but you can feel like it has.

These are inter-county standards being forced upon club dressing rooms that cannot possibly sustain it.

Players of average ability and with designs on a relatively normal life are being asked to match standards they either can’t or don’t want to.

And it is making a lot of club players resent the game.

They want to play and they want to do well but they don’t want it to be the only thing they have in their lives.

The two keep moving further apart, now occupying a space where you can only play any way half-seriously if you agree to the madness.

The terms of playing for the club are ironically making many players want to rip up the contract they’re given at birth.

It used to be hard to walk away.

You fear that in places where they don’t carry trophies down the street every winter, all this is making it too easy.