Andy Watters: There's a Conor Glass for every Conor McKenna

Andy Watters

Andy Watters

Andy is a sports reporter at The Irish News. His particular areas of expertise are Gaelic Football and professional boxing but he has an affinity for many other sports. Andy has been nominated three times for the Society of Editors Sports Journalist of the Year award and was commended for his inventiveness as a sub-editor in the IPR awards.

Conor Glass came home from Aussie Rules to lead Derry to back-to-back Ulster titles
Conor Glass came home from Aussie Rules to lead Derry to back-to-back Ulster titles Conor Glass came home from Aussie Rules to lead Derry to back-to-back Ulster titles

I WAS disappointed to hear four of our most talented young Gaelic Footballers could be off to Aussie Rules.

Down’s Odhran Murdock, Tyrone’s Eoin McElholm, Cork’s Conor Corbett and Galway’s James McLaughlin are all expected to travel to Australia for a ‘combine’ later this month. All four may well sign for AFL clubs and be lost – temporarily or otherwise - to the sport that has developed and brought them to this level.

But when you put the emotion to one side, you have to accept that this is an amazing opportunity for amateur players who are entitled to chase their dreams and do what they see fit with their sporting futures.

After all, they could argue that it’s their own talent, hard work and dedication that has brought them up to the stage where professional clubs on the other side of the world might want to pay them to play for them.

We’ll all be disappointed to see them go but how could you stand in the way of any young man or woman who wants to test themselves in professional sport and enjoy the mind-broadening and character-building experience of living in a foreign country?

None of the four played in the Sam Maguire competition last season and Murdock is the only one who is established at senior level for his county.

The potential loss of the marauding midfielder is an obvious setback for his club Burren and for Down. When the news broke earlier this week that he might be absent for at least part of this season’s senior championship, some suggested that Burren’s rivals were playing mind games and making up tall tales to unsettle the club.

This ‘Combine’ is right, slap-bang in the business end of many club championships.

Could that have been avoided?

Not with the way the GAA season is now. If it’s left until after the club championship season, it’ll interfere with the provincial championship season and if it’s left until after that then there’s the All-Ireland club and then there’s the county season starting again in January and sure what about the pre-season training…

And anyway, what Burren, or Loughmacrory, or Moycullen (McLaughlin) or Clyda Rovers (Corbett) are up to in some amateur GAA competition thousands of miles away is of very limited importance to AFL clubs.

They have their own business to attend to. They have squads to assemble and only a certain window to do so as they plan for their own seasons.

The AFL scouts don’t care about ruining some club’s chances of winning the championship or a county winning the Tailteann Cup. All they do is spot the talent and make the offer. It’s up to the player to accept or reject it.

Can the GAA compete with Aussie Rules financially?

No. If it’s money you’re after, the GAA can’t compete with the Irish League.

Money is not what the GAA about but if playing professional sport is the lure could we look at that? Perhaps by introducing a sliding scale of professional contracts for inter-county players?

Maybe the first 10 on an ‘A’ contract (£30,000), the next 15 on a ‘B’ contract (£25,000) and another 15 on a ‘C’ deal (£20,000). That’s the guts of a million quid a year (just for football) which is an awful lot of lotto tickets.

Even then, those salaries aren’t going to keep the AFL scouts at bay.

And if the GAA starts giving out professional contracts, an entire behind-the-scenes structure of managers, coaches and facilities would have to established in which they could operate.

Would that extend to every county?

Possibly and again perhaps on a sliding scale where Division One clubs offer more lucrative contracts that the lower leagues.

Good luck sorting that out and better luck raising the money to pay for it.

There isn’t a system that will make the GAA water-tight - there’s no Bondi Beach in Ireland. There would never be a guarantee that a lad wouldn’t go to Aussie Rules anyway – in fact they’d probably be in better shape to go if they were already professional athletes - but having a contract system in the GAA would mean that the county he was contracted to would be compensated for his loss because there would have to be a transfer fee involved and that means player agents.  

Would the club that has brought the player through since before he could tie his boot laces see any of that money? If so, how much? Indeed, would counties have to play clubs a fee to sign their players?

Tyrone All-Ireland-winner Conor McKenna is a star at the Brisbane Lions
Tyrone All-Ireland-winner Conor McKenna is a star at the Brisbane Lions Tyrone All-Ireland-winner Conor McKenna is a star at the Brisbane Lions

Irish rugby has answered some of these questions and managed successfully but there are only the four provinces to look after meaning a much smaller pool of players. The global reach of rugby – at club and country level - gives them a much broader and stable financial base and, since the demise of the International Rules game, the GAA doesn’t have that.

But the most important point is that there is so much more to our games than money and, in this day and age when everything is governed by money and sport across the globe is being polluted and ruined by greed, that truly is a very special thing.  

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So perhaps the more pertinent question to ask is: Can Aussie Rules compete with GAA?

Not as a game. Have you watched the AFL lately? If you think Gaelic Football is possession-based and defensive these days, I encourage you to watch the AFL.

And certainly not in terms of old-fashioned values like pride and honour and belonging to a club and community that will cherish you.

If we erode amateur status we let the genie out of the bottle.

The loss of any of the four lads is a blow for their clubs and county’s but, in the bigger picture, we need to be careful not to over-react because we’ve seen plenty of young players make the trip and many of them come return after two or three years.

There's a Conor Glass for every Conor McKenna.

We must continue to invest in scholarships and facilities and look after our players as well as we can but trying to close the door on a young person’s freedom of choice is as dangerous a road to go down as trying to compete with professional sport.

If someone gets the offer to go Down Under, I say: 'Good luck, we'll be here when you get back'. We could lose far more if we try and force them to stay.