We were boarding the plane in Shannon last Thursday when I ran into someone I wasn't expecting to. Myself and Tomás and a few other broken down old Kerrymen were heading to New York for a fund-raising weekend when who did I bump into only the former Monaghan player, Nudie Hughes.
Now, in these situations, my instinct is always to be a bit cagey. No good spilling your business before you have to, I always think. So when Nudie asked what I was heading to New York for, I didn’t let on straight away.
“Ah you know yourself Nudie, a bit of shopping and that.”
“Good stuff, good stuff. I saw Tomás there as well – he’s going shopping too is he?”
“Ah yeah. Shopping, yeah. What about yourself?”
“Sure I won’t have time for shopping. There’s a big fund-raising weekend on for Monaghan GAA!”
He knew well what we were at. They had a golf day organised and a big dinner and whatnot after it. We had a heap of stuff to go to in Manhattan over the four days. When we were over there, the people in the various places we landed said that Roscommon were out a couple of weeks before and that Armagh are on their way out next week or the week after.
And me there trying to spin a lie that I was going shopping.
It’s a rat race now. Serious business but a rat race at the back of it all. It’s great for ex-players like me to be lucky enough to get heading over and showing the face for the weekend but the long and short of it is that we’re turning up with our hands out and the cap looking to be filled. We’re all at it because we all have to be at it.
People don’t like to talk about money when it comes to the GAA. But it’s at the very top of the list of priorities for everyone who is involved, be it club or county. The money it takes to run intercounty teams now is savage and if you want to compete, there’s no way around it.
In Kerry, we’re lucky. We have probably the best sponsor in the country in
and in all my time involved at various levels, you never heard the word ‘No’ when you went looking for stuff. Other counties would probably laugh at us if we put on the poor mouth and said we were short of money. Compared to almost (almost!) everybody else, Kerry have very little to worry about.
But there's a very good reason why this is the fourth time we've been over the States shaking the trees for money. And why there's more trips planned to Boston and Chicago and London, as well as the one we had in Dublin in February. This centre of excellence in Currans is vital for the future of Kerry football if we're going to keep competing into the future and to do that, we need to supplement the Kerry Group sponsorship.
There was a lot made during the league of the two nights training Eamonn Fitzmaurice had the Kerry team doing in Banna Strand. They went on a run after it where they won five games in a row. Fitzy was a genius for having them on Banna, by all accounts.
If that’s the case, we could all be geniuses. Fitzy had them on Banna Strand because there was no pitch in Kerry to train on after the weather had been so bad. That’s the reality of it. We had a desperate wet winter and everywhere suffered and without this centre of excellence, there was nowhere available. So they improvised. It worked out this time but it won’t always.
Money has changed the game. Dublin are able to bring in multiple millions in sponsorship, far more than anybody else. So everybody else has to go looking for as much as they can just to compete.
This isn’t a slight on Dublin, far from it. They have got their ducks in a row over the past decade to take advantage of what they have and you can only admire them for it. All the money in the world isn’t much use unless you have the people to put it into action. Good for them that they have.
The population base is useless to you unless you put good people in charge of it. Donie Buckley went to one of the big Dublin clubs recently to give a session but it wasn’t a case of taking the senior team for an hour and doing a few drills. He sat in a room with 60 coaches from the club – spread throughout all the teams from senior all the way down – and did a session coaching the coaches. That’s not a matter of money, that’s a matter of intelligent people using their natural advantage in an intelligent way.
I do find it funny though how quick the Dubs are to jump down your throat when you suggest that being able to bring in big sponsorship money might just possibly be a help to them. Go on the Dublin GAA website and click on partners and you find that they have 13 official sponsors but you’d be careful about bringing them up around the Dubs.
Even Stephen Cluxton got cranky about it in his All-Ireland speech last year. You'd feel like asking them if money isn't a factor in their results, why are they putting such a big effort into going looking for it. There's no shame in acknowledging it has a role.
We should all be a bit more open about this. Dublin have a natural advantage over all other counties. Kerry have a natural advantage over nearly them all. It’s not blackguarding either set-up to say that money plays a big part in keeping them at the top of the pile. It’s just the way of the world.
The scene over in New York is dog-eat-dog. That’s why I was trying to keep my powder dry with Nudie – I’d know that we’d be fishing in the same waters over there. It’s not just a case of myself and the rest of them hitting up Kerry people and Nudie and the boys going looking for Monaghan people.
You go where the money is. You could be talking to a big construction guy over there and all the men working for him would be from Tyrone and Meath and Galway and all over the place. That’s fine by us – we’d never be too proud to insult a man by not taking his money just because he isn’t from Kerry.
We were under pressure this time around because of the league final defeat. Fellas would be hopping balls with you left, right and centre.
“Why would I be wasting dollars on ye? Maybe I should be sending it to Jim Gavin and the boys.” That kind of thing. There’s no mercy.
But you keep at it. It’s a bit of fun and it’s no hardship to be sent to New York for the weekend. Make no mistake though, it’s running to stand still. The rat race at the top of the intercounty game now is ferocious. Everybody knows what everybody else has and what everybody else is doing. You can’t fall behind. You can’t let anybody think you’re falling behind.
It has cranked up even since I was playing. When I started off, we played a few league games before Christmas when everyone was only half-interested. Nobody was going bull-headed for it in October and November and by the time the league started up again in February, the main priority was to start building up a bit of fitness for the summer. There was no pressure until it really mattered.
Nowadays, the league means pressure from the start. You are competing, competing, competing from the minute you meet up before Christmas. That means every little inch is being fought for from far earlier than it used to be. This isn’t the first winter it rained in Kerry, obviously. But it has never mattered more that you don’t lose ground because of the weather.
It's not just centres of excellence that counties need money for. It's every little thing. I got a good insight into it when I was involved with the Kerry under-21s. We had fellas coming to training from Cork and Limerick and Galway and I'd be getting phonecalls saying such and such is stuck for a lift because his mom has the car and can we organise someone in Cork to drive him.
This happened the whole time. Different fellas running into different obstacles and next thing you know, we owe some man a fill of diesel because he was good enough to drive one of our lads to Kerry at short notice. It wasn’t a big problem and it was never going to cripple the county board or anything like that but you very quickly see how you’d easily run up serious bills.
I often looked at a county like Donegal and admired the way they were able to do it, – especially at the start of Jim McGuinness’s time when so many of his squad was in college in Dublin. All that travel builds up, it all takes a toll on the players. So you have to do as much as you can to make it as comfortable as you can for them. And all of that takes money.
To be any way competitive, you need to be getting together as a county team four or five times a week. Or if you’re not getting together, the player needs to be in the gym or in the pool on his own. One way or the other, a county player will be costing the county board money just about every day of the week. You’re talking mileage, you’re talking transport, you’re talking grub, you’re talking hydration, you’re talking physio, you’re talking logistics and stats and video analysis and everything else. Money has to be spent.
Count it up come August and September. The counties still standing will be the ones who have spent the most. Now, that might be a coincidence but I’d say we’ll go and fulfil the fixture at these fund-raisers just in case.