Instead of giving out about players going to America, GAA should be doing more to keep them here
Team holidays would strengthen team bonds and make it harder to leave prematurely
The amount of intercounty players heading off to America already seems higher this year than ever. They’re not just gone from the weaker counties either – teams like Down, Laois, Armagh and Galway have lost players to Boston or New York for the summer. The list is long and has some fairly recognisable names on it. There’s Gareth Bradshaw, Kevin Meaney, Brendan Quigley, Paul McComiskey, Declan McKenna and plenty more besides.
This isn’t a new thing, obviously. Players have been going out there for decades. But what have we ever done about it?
When the qualifiers came in, it probably stemmed the flow for a few years because it meant fellas would be playing up until the end of June one way or another but that carrot doesn’t seem as enticing now.
The gulf between the top teams and the rest is so wide you can see lads deciding it isn’t worth hanging around.
The thing is, people tend to see this the wrong way round. They tend to castigate the players who head off rather than trying to keep them here.
Obviously there’s not a lot the GAA can do about the amount of unemployment in the country. And there will always be lads who see their friends posting pictures on Facebook of themselves in Cape Cod with scantily-clad young ones and decide they fancy a bit of that themselves.
But the least we can try to do is make the sport something they feel is worth staying around for, that it isn’t actively pushing them on to the plane.
I know a lot of people will be saying it’s all very well for me to be spouting off about it. And it’s true, heading off to America was just never really something that came across my radar when I was playing.
Even in a bad year before the qualifiers, Kerry would normally have been in a Munster final at worst so by the time we were out it was probably a bit too late to head over.
I had my taste of it, though. In the late autumn of 1996, we went over to Boston with the club. There’s a big west Kerry population in places like Hartford and Springfield so we moved around a bit and had a great old time.
We were only young fellas and we hadn’t two pennies to rub together, really. In fairness, we were mostly hanging around to see would anybody buy us a drink.
And then a call came though, the New York final had gone to a replay and they were looking for footballers to come to play in it. Someone asked would I be up for it and I said, ‘Sure what harm? I wouldn’t mind seeing New York anyway’.
Headed for Manhattan
So myself and Mickey Connor and my brother Fergal jumped on a bus and headed for Manhattan.
We played for Westmeath against Donegal. The football was incredibly physical. The first thing that happened in the game was a dust-up. Almost literally a dust-up, since the grass was pretty bare all over.
Very few people went for the ball, far more went for heads. The ball broke to me and let’s just say I was very conscious as to how long I would stay on it. There was no fear of me going through the middle and taking on the defence anyway.
There were blow-ins from everywhere on the pitch that day. Fintan Cahill from Cavan was on our team, Seán Geaney from Dingle, Martin Flanagan from Westmeath.
Niall Cahalane was playing for Donegal. At half-time I was standing chatting to Mickey Connor about how we were getting on and he pointed his head and said as Gaeilge, “Look who it is”. And standing there in a Donegal tracksuit winking back at us was Dara Ó Cinnéide. He hadn’t come on the club trip but he found his way over all the same.
We hung around afterwards and had a few pints. But there was a sting in the tail.
We obviously weren’t sanctioned to go and play and I had lined out under an assumed name – I think I was Derek O’Connor for the day.
I figured it was an off-season game and no-one would pass any remarks. But it found its way back home and in the heel of the hunt, I got a six-month suspension. We got it down to four in the end. Must have been for good behaviour.
It’s nowhere near as cloak-and-dagger now and everybody knows the players who head away off.
The fact it’s so open and matter of fact must tell us something, though. There’s such a build-up of things wrong with our game now it just isn’t attractive to these lads.
If it isn’t the distance between the top teams and the also-rans, it’s the sheer negativity of some of the football they have to play. You have to ask yourself, is this game any fun to play anymore?
We’re very hard on players. We’re very stiff and set in our ways. That’s why I felt for Seánie Johnston last summer.
The rest of us can sit around and complain about the gap between the big teams and the rest but what can the players in the middle of it do? If they head off to America, they’re killed for jumping ship. If they move to a bigger county, they get dog’s abuse for the summer.
All because they want to improve their own situation and tradition frowns upon it.
The way of the GAA world is they are supposed to grin and bear it. Born into a weak county? Tough. Dig in, work hard, play your two games and then you’re forgotten about till next year.
And we wonder why some of the games are poor quality? Take the likes of last Sunday in Casement Park. Those Antrim boys knew they were going to lose the game and they went out to keep the score down.
They put 14 men behind the ball and used every negative tactic in the book. They left in late tackles, they dropped their knees on fellas’ backs when they were on the ground, they stood in front of free kicks to stop them being taken.
Worst of all was all this incessant mouthing and sledging. It’s everywhere in the game these days and it comes from the fact the top teams have been doing it for years.
That filters down, it’s the easy option for the weaker teams. They might not have forwards as good as what Tyrone and Donegal have but by God, they can jaw away like them, no problem. And if they’re doing it, it’s only a matter of time before the under-21s are doing it.
It might feel like a show of strength but to me it’s a sign of weakness. It’s a sign you have nothing better to offer. If it was down to me, there’d be game bans for that kind of thing but I don’t think there’s any appetite in the GAA to crack down on it.
But we can’t be all about the stick. As I say, I think players get far too much stick already anyway. I would suggest a small bit of carrot as well.
Is there any good reason every county team can’t be sorted out with a team holiday at the end of a season?
With all the money flowing through the GAA, we can surely start some sort of initiative. Maybe the GAA puts up half the money and the counties have to raise the rest, something like that.
One way or another, the benefit of a team holiday is massive. You might be reading this going, “Yeah, right, like a week in Majorca is going to make up for a summer in Boston.” But that’s not the point. Team holidays are one thing I really miss from my time as a player. That’s where you really build bonds between players in a panel, where you make late-night promises to each other about what you’re going to do next summer.
Later in the year, when you’re in the muck and sludge at training, the craic you had from your team holiday keeps you going.
Because ultimately, it is the bonds between players that is most likely to stop fellas heading off before their summer is over.
Even if they’re from a weaker county, even if the gap to the top table seems insurmountable, a player doesn’t want to let down his friends. He’ll be more likely to stick it out and see the thing to the end.
At the very least it’s worth trying. Right now, I don’t see anyone trying anything.