Ephie Fitzgerald says GAA must refocus to avoid a player exodus and financial stress

‘The pressure David Clifford is under for an amateur player is absolutely and utterly ridiculous,’ says distinguished manager after stepping down from Waterford

Ephie Fitzgerald believes the growing costs of preparing intercounty teams are unsustainable.

And Fitzgerald, who stepped down this week after two years in charge of the Waterford footballers, also has concerns over the long-term impact of the professional standards now demanded of amateur intercounty players.

Fitzgerald, who managed his home club Nemo Rangers to four successive Cork titles between 2005-08, is one of the most respected coaches in the game.

He also managed Ballylanders to a Limerick SFC in 2014, had spells coaching both the Limerick and Clare senior footballers, managed the Cork minor footballers and, in 2016, guided his native county to an All-Ireland women’s senior football title.


Having witnessed the amount of money swirling around the county game, Fitzgerald is concerned about what is required from county boards to fund team preparations – an issue Connacht secretary John Prenty previously described as a “runaway train”.

“The biggest problem for me is the cost involved in it all, regardless of what division you are in or who is in charge,” says Fitzgerald, who managed the Waterford senior and under-20 footballers in 2023.

“I was taking mileage, that’s what I was getting and I was happy enough with that. But it’s more or less €400,000 a year to run an intercounty team, and that’s for the likes of Waterford.

“For Kerry and Dublin, the figures are far greater. Galway’s costs were astronomical last year. You are talking big money. Only a handful of teams in hurling and football are capable of winning the All-Ireland every year, so if you want value for money then in terms of success it is going to be very difficult.

“I don’t think county boards around the country can afford to continue that kind of spending.

“Transport, accommodation, food, everything has gone up in cost, it’s very difficult. I wouldn’t be a county board officer for all the tea in China. I don’t know how they do it.

“I don’t know what the answer is in terms of revenue, but I don’t think it’s sustainable long-term. It’s a very costly business.”

In 2022, Galway and Limerick became the first counties ever to break the €2 million mark on expenditure for their county teams, and Galway chairman Paul Bellew recently told Galway Bay FM the board is set to report a spend in excess of €2 million again for 2023.

In 2022, a combined total of over €32.5 million was spent by county boards to fund intercounty teams at all levels.

The Covid-impacted seasons of 2020 and 2021, because of their condensed nature, skewed the trend in terms of expenditure. The introduction of a proper split season brings a new dynamic, but despite the shorter intercounty season there were more games in this year’s football championship than ever before.

In 2021 (Covid season) Waterford spent €618,362 on preparing their intercounty teams. The amount increased to €962,568 in 2022.

In his annual report this year, GAA director general Tom Ryan said: “The size and cost of backroom personnel of senior intercounty teams is becoming simply unsustainable.

“We need to support our treasurers more vigorously on this matter. Dispiritingly, a lot of our pressures are self-inflicted, and this is one such instance.”

Raymond Galligan’s recently announced Cavan backroom team for 2024 has 19 members.

Fitzgerald is also uneasy over the expectations placed on players.

“It’s a case of amateurs getting to a level of fitness that they shouldn’t really be at,” he adds. “If you are a professional footballer, you might train in the morning and come home and have a lie down, relax, recover – recovery is every bit as important as the actual training.

“You are not worried about where the wages are coming from at the end of the week. Our guys don’t get that opportunity to recover, that is the worry I would have for fellas going forward in terms of injuries and long-term effects, not just physical but emotional as well because of the pressure on them.

“Take David Clifford, he’s looked upon as a superstar, the pressure that guy is under for an amateur player, it’s absolutely and utterly ridiculous.

“I do think we will see more players become disillusioned and you’ll see guys going away more regularly.

“How can you expect guys to train five, six days a week, and still function properly in terms of their family life and their professional life? They are doing it, but for how long will they do it? I don’t think it’s sustainable.”

Instead of having so much money washing through the intercounty game, Fitzgerald would like to see a greater emphasis put on the development of kids at school and club juvenile level.

“I have a big problem with a lot of these [intercounty] development squads as well,” adds Fitzgerald, who works as a teacher. “Everybody develops at different stages.

“I’d have no competitions until they are 15, no meaningful competitions, I think everybody deserves to play and learn the skills, don’t put any pressure on the kids.

“We all started playing because we enjoyed it, I don’t think I ever won a game at underage but we had a great bond, everybody got to play, winning wasn’t the be-all and end-all, it was more about the camaraderie and togetherness, that is what the GAA is all about.

“You look around the country and the danger signs are there for the GAA, in rural areas clubs are struggling to put teams together.

“Rather than spending so much money on intercounty teams, spend it on developing young players and keep them involved with their clubs.”

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning is a sports journalist, specialising in Gaelic games, with The Irish Times