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Seán Moran: The GAA looks in danger of losing its battle with sustainability

Concerns aired by director general Tom Ryan last February have come uncomfortably to the fore as the year ends

It didn’t attract much attention when the GAA annual reports were launched – what with the spilt season, the Kilmacud-Glen saga and the war on referees – but down-the-script comments by director general Tom Ryan have acquired resonance. It was a section headed “A sustainable GAA” but had nothing to do with the environmental agenda and that aspect of sustainability.

They’re not doing too badly anyway on that front at present with the planned construction of a solar farm in Naul, north county Dublin and water harvesting tanks in Croke Park for pitch irrigation, as well as the zero-to-landfill status of the stadium over the past seven years.

No, Ryan was talking about the basic activities of the GAA needing to be sustainable and even provided a checklist. These points nearly all concerned reducing the burden on players, officers and other volunteers, clubs and so on.

“As the GAA strives to pursue its aims in an increasingly demanding environment,” he wrote, “we find that we are under pressure on many fronts.


“Our ambitions are lofty but resources are finite. I have touched on resources in the financial sense but resources mean many things and in our case a significant limiting factor is time. The time that volunteer officers, players, parents and so on can devote to Gaelic games in a crowded day or week. Similarly, we find ourselves competing for public attention and media profile in an ever-crowded media landscape.

“We need to reflect on what we are trying to achieve and consider whether that is really where we want to go. Consider too how best we can achieve these aims with the resources we have. We need to restore that balance. Our goal should be to arrive at an Association and constituent clubs, who prosper within a framework of sustainability.”

As a preliminary point, it could be pointed out that the “ever-crowded media landscape” has intensified since the championship season – the association’s shop window – has been concertina-ed into three months – which now frequently clashes with big, end-of-season rugby and soccer matches.

That decision is still under review but signs are that the split season will continue.

Media coverage wasn’t however the most pressing issue identified. Most explicit was the stress that so many members were being subject to in a modern world where full-time demands are being met by volunteers.

Players are of course volunteers and there was a focus this week on the club cohort with social media coverage of the crackpot training regime ordained by one manager with its prohibitions and insistent vetoes.

The culture of the drinking ban has become nearly as corrosive as the culture of drinking itself and modern management approaches have thankfully rendered such prescriptions distinctly old school.

Kildare and Naas defender Eoin Doyle made some sensible comments on the subject at the Leinster GAA press call on Monday.

“I could be wrong but I think the game has maybe evolved and managers have seen that. I think it’s come full circle in terms of the whole drinking ban and players not doing x, y or z.

“That’s my own personal opinion based on Kildare and my club. There certainly hasn’t been anything like that and I think players need that balance if they want to be able to perform and keep going into the season.”

In other words, let players make the decision themselves. I remember on the international rules tour in 1990, the Irish panel decided of their own accord not to drink until the series had been won. Manager Eugene McGee allowed them the latitude and the undertaking was all the more robust for having been the players’ idea.

Sustainability made a further appearance this week when CCCC chair Derek Kent said in the Irish Independent that in his view the now moribund proposal that counties with fewer than five adult teams shouldn’t contest the national league had simply tried to address the problem that “the game of hurling is not sustainable if that is the base we are trying to build from.”

How sustainable is the intercounty game in general? In the above case, the relevant counties are keen to persist but at least they have grade-appropriate competitions. Ironically just as Fermanagh were protesting to protect their place in the hurling league, three footballers from the county were walking away for the next year because of work and travel commitments.

In football, the sense of exclusion is growing. There isn’t a correlative difference between the demands on an elite county player and those struggling to win some piece of silverware, to justify the chasm between their respective prospects.

There has been some progress with the introduction of the Tailteann Cup as a Tier Two championship but for all its merits, football could do with an extra tier. Hurling after all has five.

Then there is the financial framework, as Ryan warned last February.

“The size and cost of backroom personnel of senior intercounty teams is becoming simply unsustainable. The values of the Association are being eroded with each paid addition to the backroom team and voluntary roles are in danger of becoming a thing of the past. 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.”

This particular concern is not new and this category of spending has been compared to a runaway train, hitting an estimated more than €32 million nationally for last year.

For all the urging of sustainable activity, there is the counter-balancing reality that so entrenched are the interests of elite teams that the matter more resembles a genie being let out of the bottle.