For those poor souls slaving away in multiple GAA WhatsApp groups (and there are some of us in literally dozens of them), it can be difficult to imagine a life without them. But it would be churlish to presume everyone has seen the list of 11 rules apparently set out by an unknown senior club manager in advance of the 2024 season that was circulated around the GAA world earlier this week.
On the other hand, it’s fairly instructive when people with no interest whatsoever in the GAA start coming up to you and talking about a story that has somehow pierced the consciousness of the nation. So what was it about these 11 stipulations that so engaged the general public this week?
We should start by giving you a short highlights package of the stipulations in question. First of all – no holidays without consent of management and the leadership group. No drinking for five months, unless with managerial consent. No golf!
Some of the other stuff included was invasive but within the bounds of reasonable behaviour. Logging your runs on a fitness app, achieving fitness markers, running and conditioning programmes, contributing to fundraising efforts, travel home for players based in Dublin or Limerick. All pretty full-on, but all also pretty common.
And that’s the thing. It doesn’t actually matter what club this is, or who the manager/coach is, or even if this was a discussion document and not an agreed-upon season manifesto. The key fact is that GAA club players might be shocked by this, but they’re not exactly surprised.
Because this isn’t about high performance. It’s about control. Young players trying to win a high-profile county championship don’t need to be told not to go drinking. But in this scenario, any drinking that they are going to be doing is with their team-mates only. It’s almost a defined tactic to isolate young men from anyone who isn’t a team-mate.
And that is before we get to the idea of the married father of two who manages to get his 10-month-old to bed on a Wednesday night and decides to have a glass of wine with another consenting adult who happens to share a bed with him.
That father of two who might say ‘nah, I’ve got training tomorrow evening, but thanks’ will get a roll of the eyes from his partner. But if he turned around and said ‘I can’t – I’m not allowed’, he could hardly complain if he was strongly urged to find alternative accommodation for the night ... or for the foreseeable future.
There is no physiological reason why someone shouldn’t have a glass of wine with their dinner up to (and probably including, if an Italian footballer is to be believed) the night before a championship game. But the tone is extraordinarily dictatorial, and it’s the exact opposite of the player-led environment that countless successful teams have based their whole culture on.
One thing missing from all of this, of course, is context. Who knows what level of indiscipline in previous seasons has prompted this kind of radical corrective? But there is also context missing from the concept of treating all your players the same in the first place. It’s almost dystopian – a nullification of the individual.
To a certain type of coach or manager, this is what it’s all about. Everyone must suffer equally. It feeds into the repeated messaging behind what’s required to succeed in the GAA – pure suffering. If you’re enjoying it, it’s obviously because you’re not trying hard enough.
There was a time when even insisting on players going to the gym two or three times a week was seen as an unconscionable burden – back in the 2000s, when a high level of fitness was required to play the game at intercounty level, but the gym was still seen as some kind of torture chamber.
That tale of unremitting sacrifice rings a little less true when your co-workers, men and women the same age as you, might go to the gym every bit as often as a GAA club player for no other reason than to look half-decent on the beach, or on social media, or for any number of reasons not linked to sport.
So the suffering must extend to other areas of a player’s life ... such as the golf course. Imagine. Banning a grown man from the golf course, for an entire summer, is the least serious, and in ways the most instructive of these rules. It is the rank unseriousness of it all that should ensure no team would ever sign up to such a charter. The fact that it was so broadly disseminated suggests that the team that this was drawn up for didn’t think much of it either.
And this document is only as powerful as the players involved allow it to be. No club would stand by and lose a third or a half of their senior squad over rules like this. Players have more freedom to leave than they think. And the moment it stops being fun, they should ask why it is they’re hanging around.
Because winning and having fun are not mutually exclusive. We like to think they are, but they’re not. When Jack O’Connor said after the All-Ireland final last year that his Kerry team had brilliant fun all year, it sounded deranged to many GAA ears. That should be par for the course.
Ciarán Murphy’s first book, This Is The Life, published by Penguin Sandycove, is out now, and available in all good bookshops.