I found what happened in Croke Park this weekend to be eerie and genuinely disturbing. It made me fear for the game. The gap between the elite counties and the rest is becoming a chasm. That is blatantly obvious now, and the GAA has to address this issue urgently.
This was the August Bank Holiday weekend: notionally the banner weekend for the All-Ireland football championship. And to say it was an anti-climax would be an understatement. At one stage on Saturday evening, Tyrone led Sligo by 0-20 to 0-10. That is a huge margin in a championship game. What struck me was that Niall Carew, the Sligo manager, said afterwards that at least the team was competitive, unlike in the Connacht final. And it was a comparatively fair point. But it is odd to think that a 10-point gap is now construed as competitive.
Of course, held against what happened on Sunday, Sligo were highly competitive in their match. The scoreline in the Kerry-Kildare game was genuinely shocking. Kerry won by an aggregate 27 points. Merely to put up a 27-point aggregate tally is exceptional. It is a score you would more readily associate with a hurling game. And it wasn’t even Kerry’s full score, just their winning margin. 7-16 in an All-Ireland football quarter-final is a tally that should set the alarm bells off.
Then came the Dublin-Fermanagh match. I had met a few Fermanagh supporters before the game and their only wish was that they wouldn’t be “annihilated”. That was the exact word used. And in fairness to their players, that didn’t happen. The contest was over fairly early on but the Fermanagh team kept chipping away and they played with a great spirit and got some good scores in the closing stage of the match. But it was the reaction of their supporters that made me take notice. They were 10 points down with 15 minutes go to and you would think they were the team winning. They were jumping up and down in the stands and the team was applauded off the field.
And on the surface there was a moral victory there for Fermanagh people to celebrate. But it made me wonder about the level that most teams are aspiring to now. I stayed in the stadium after Dublin had left and I was looking down at the pitch and the Fermanagh boys came back out and they were hugging their family and friends and the scene was one of joy. And that spooked me because they had been well beaten in an All-Ireland quarter-final. And Fermanagh are a well-organised team with an All-Ireland winning manager on the sideline.
So what does that say about the future?
In 2013 Seán Cavanagh deliberately pulled Conor McManus at a vital stage of the Tyrone-Monaghan All-Ireland quarter-final. The commentary on what Seán did was extraordinary: it was branded a disgrace, wrong and something had to be done. And the GAA moved very quickly to deal with it and pushed through a motion at congress which resulted in the black card. If that was a watershed motion in how to deal with cynical play then I would suggest that this weekend is a watershed moment for the actual All-Ireland football championship.
The time has come to look at how we develop our players in the decades ahead. It is a simple choice. Do we want to develop our teams and players to be competitive in each county? Or do we continue doing the least amount required to fulfil our obligation?
In my experience of county boards and resources, it is the latter. This is why we are beginning to see results like we did at the weekend.
In Donegal, my own county, my understanding is that there are two full-time football coaches in the county. I would imagine it is a similar story in most counties. So when I was senior manager there, I had to take a different approach. I knew we couldn't compete with the top teams. We had to be creative and innovative and not just in terms of how we played the game, which was designed to try and squeeze percentages in our favour. Behind the scenes, we recruited a staff that expanded from single figures to about 20 people through volunteers and people looking for work experience. We contacted companies suggesting we road-test their GPS systems and promised to talk about them and spread the word. I doorstepped people who supported Donegal football to raise money for training camps and these people put their money where their mouth was. That was all over and above what we got from the county board.
My feeling is that, nationally, there is a culture of mediocrity. Not everything is being done to develop the talents of young players. If a group of good players come through in a county, it is regarded as a boon, a gift. It need not be like that.
Look at Colm Cooper or Michael Murphy, two of the outstanding creative players on view at the weekend. How many Coopers or Murphys are out there that we don't know about? Or will never know about? I would contend that there are plenty. But in order for those future players to be discovered and to flourish, they need a list of things to happen. And top of that list is opportunity. They need have the opportunity to play the game and then, most importantly, they need to have people coaching who can see what it is in them that needs to be developed.
Don’t try and tell me that every child in the country doesn’t have the potential to solo and kick with both feet. Are we really trying to pretend to ourselves that kids in Kerry are born with that facility? It is absolute garbage. It is because they are being developed to become players and people go out of their way to nurture a talent. Genetics do play a part: some people are just more athletic and agile and have better aerobic capacity than others. That is fine and you work within those constraints. But leaving that aside, everybody has the capacity to develop motor skills. Soloing and catching the ball are motor skills and every child is a blank canvas in that regard.
I happened to hear Éamonn O’Hara, the former Sligo player, speaking on the radio a few days before we played Kerry in the 2012 All-Ireland quarter-final. He said that he felt that Donegal were a “manufactured” team and would be found out by Kerry. The word interested me. Surely to God every team in the country should be manufactured? Surely every player is manufactured because they are a consequence of every coach they ever met who shaped their kicking and passing style and developed their physical and technical and mental attributes.
This fallacy that they are all “natural” players in Kerry: why is that? Coaching. Development. Consistency. Work.
My own club, Glenties, were nowhere in Donegal football for a long time. We won a minor title in 1965. We didn’t win again until 2003. In many respects were going nowhere between those years. I didn’t see a football field until I was 11. Now, we have six or seven people coaching every single team at all grades. And we compete with St Eunan’s, the biggest club in Donegal, in county finals at all levels. How did that happen?
Thirty years ago, the notion was that no Glenties player would ever make the Donegal team. We just didn’t produce county men! When I got on the squad in 1992, it was a big thing for us. Now we are competing at all grades and have county players at all grades. Did we all of a sudden get this miracle genetic pool in Glenties that allowed us to field all these natural footballers? That is nonsense.
In Glenties, when the boys are coaching kids we don’t just focus on the top players who are dominating at training. They will find their way anyhow. Instead we prioritise that everybody be proficient at the basic skills and we put a big emphasis on the fringe youngsters who might be that bit behind on their development in order to get them up to a decent level. If you do that, you have a team.
In order to implement this, the GAA will have to spend money.
Dublin are the most extravagant example of a county whose structures and resources are at a different level. Kerry have a system of support and technical knowledge passed on through generations and the finance from Kerry Group.
The other county that has significantly stepped forward in recent years is Tyrone. I feel there is an obvious correlation between Tyrone’s consistent success at all grades and Club Tyrone, which generates €500,000 to €600,000 a year for football in the county. That money is used to give their players the best chance possible to thrive. We had to do it in a different way in Donegal and in a very short space of time. And I was so consumed with the senior team that I as unable to make an impact on the overall structure within the county.
I feel the vast majority of counties are shooting in the dark and just hoping. I think we are in danger of a situation where the game is running away from many counties. Too many county boards don’t have the desire or the acumen to identify what they need to do in their counties to create a culture of developing young players.
I would suggest this is the most urgent problem the GAA faces and that planning for the future welfare of Gaelic football in all counties should become the legacy of the new president, Aogán O’Farrell.
If what happened last weekend at Croke Park happens for the next five years in a row, then the 60,000 people who turned up will become 30,000 and it will dwindle from there. Who wants to see that? I felt apprehensive at times in Croke Park on Sunday. I started to cringe inside. The last thing you want is to see anybody demoralised in a public setting. That is what has happened in this All-Ireland championship repeatedly. It happened to Longford. It happened to Sligo. It happened to Kildare – twice. There is a problem here. We need to face up to that before it is too late. And in the same way the GAA ruthlessly went after the cynical foul, they must ruthlessly go after the challenge of developing players in all 32 counties. And if that means putting on an extra 10 concerts in Croke Park to gather the money, so be it.
And I’m not suggesting that doing this will mean that the smaller counties will suddenly start winning All-Irelands. No, we need to do this just to make teams competitive, to give people hope – and to keep the All-Ireland championship alive.