Funny how times change and roles are, seemingly, reversed. Donal Óg Cusack, to so many who witnessed Cork scale hurling’s Everest on three occasion from 1999 to 2005, was the epitome of the Rebel with a cause.
Two times Cusack and others stood in front of county board tanks, protesting their archaic nature, striking against the administrative might of Frank Murphy. Following such militancy, the negotiating table delivered change to benefit inter-county players.
Cusack's post-hurling path seems to be a natural fit – as the current chairman of the Gaelic Players Association.
And now this.
In the past fortnight three highly regarded voices in Gaelic games – Joe Brolly, Eugene Magee and Colm O'Rourke–- via columns for Independent group newspapers and Gaelic Life magazine have heavily criticised the GPA.
This included O’Rourke’s accusation of “elitism” by ignoring the club players’ plight and suggestions of the existence of a bias, by Magee, for Dublin players over those from smaller counties. O’Rourke wrote the players’ body has “lost its way,” becoming a mere “GAA committee” by not ensuring “healthy tension” exists between them and Croke Park.
"I think there should be a tension between both organisations," Cusack told The Irish Times.
"For example we – myself and Dessie Farrell as chairman and chief executive – meet on a monthly basis with the GAA president Liam O'Neill and the chief executive Páraic Duffy. Often there is a lot more than tension existing in the room but when a structure is there why would we have to come outside that structure? Unless we needed to.
“It is a bit disrespectful to the modern day inter-county player to be suggesting that.”
Criticism of the GPA, however, has been sustained. Brolly, writing in Gaelic Life, called them "the poster boys" for the "commercial colossus" that the county game has become. O'Rourke said official recognition from the GAA limited their effectiveness.
But Cusack disagrees.
“Players would have no problem showing their teeth again if need be,” he claimed. “The GPA has got stronger over the last few years. Even the number of players who have come out in support these past few weeks shows that.
“But why be militant for the sake of it? We fought and argued for ten years to get officially recognised. We are not mindless agitators.
“The system is not perfect but we looked for that system so we should operate within that system until we see a time when we think it is not being done fairly or properly. At this moment we believe it is.”
There was a text message. The GPA has initiated an internal investigation to discover who sent a message to members stating that O’Rourke was having a “cut” off the GPA and calling him a “Meath F****” (sic). O’Rourke wondered if Dessie Farrell sanctioned the text.
The GPA denies this.
“We treat that very seriously and as chairman I asked for an internal investigation to start. That was not sanctioned, not approved. That’s it.
“If that was a member there would have to be a sanction against that member.”
Cusack concedes this sustained attack in the media has prompted the GPA to examine why it is happening.
“Of course. You always need to assess your situation. We are a national body; you are going to take criticism. You need to take that criticism on the chin.”
But he adds: “It’s a chance to go out there and tell our story.”
There are 100,000 senior club players across the country and the GPA staff of 10 full-time people is too small to make that expansion.
“We represent inter-county players. We never, ever claimed to represent club players. Having said that we understand that all our members are club players.
“The whole elite thing, I would reject that . . . I would argue that we are egalitarian in terms of structure.”
Magee asked how many Dublin players have been beneficiaries of funding and how many Leitrim or Longford players have been beneficiaries of funding in the past three years – the former Offaly manager’s implication being smaller counties are not looked after to the same degree.
“We don’t distribute funding,” Cusack responds.
“The essence of the movement has been around player development. And provision of those programmes. So if you are a Leitrim hurler you got access to the exact same programmes as a Kilkenny hurler. That is a fact.”
The government grant of €1 million is stretched across 2,200 GPA members.
The GAA gives them €1.8 million annually, over five years until 2016, which is funnelled into the development programme, education, career guidance, health and well being, personal development and the benevolent fund. These are explained in detail at www.gaelicplayers.com.
“I’d argue that a lot of players finish the game bitter. They look around and they realise ‘Jeez, what happened my career [outside of sport]. I started at the same time as that guy and he’s after pushing on.
“The plan is for players to transition out of the game not in a disadvantaged position. That means better educated, having not lost ground.”
Cusack once did but no longer advocates professionalism, even long term.
“If we embrace the dual model it’s actually a good model in that players get to experience playing their sport at a really high level but also develop off the field aspects as well.”
But the players’ body remains under sustained criticism.
“I heard recently that the GPA has lost its radical nature. I’d argue that the GPA is radical in its very existence.
“I’ve been involved in what you could describe as militant actions but there is no point in being militant just for the sake of it.”