GPA needs to change from curing issues to preventing them

Seán Moran: New GPA chief executive Dermot Earley faces immediate challenges

Dermot Earley's appointment as chief executive is a good choice by the Gaelic Players Association. His playing credentials are unassailable but more to the point (leadership, not weaponry expertise) he has held senior command positions in his military career and is focused and articulate.

I remember during the 2001 International Rules series when the Ireland camp was anxious to blur the lines in a disciplinary controversy by claiming that a little pushing around of match officials was part of our culture back home, it took the 23-year-old Earley, a member of the travelling party, to restore a semblance of sanity in a radio interview by pointing out that, no, such behaviour was not acceptable within Gaelic games.

He ably represented the GPA at last year’s annual congress in Carlow and there expressed players’ frustration with football championship structures. Later in the year, although disappointed by the rejection of the GPA’s own blueprint, gave a guarded welcome to GAA director general Páraic Duffy’s proposals to introduce a round-robin format, which will be debated next month.

It was an interesting topic for him to address, as football championship reform was one of the issues that emerged when the GPA was founded 18 years ago next September.


Well-funded organisation

He comes to an organisation unrecognisable from the one taken on by his predecessor Dessie Farrell in the first years of the new century. Now it is well funded, part of the Croke Park administration and has done a great deal to support intercounty players.

Look back at the original strategy statement of the GPA from the night in Belfast’s Wellington Park hotel when what was then a largely Ulster-centric association was launched.

It prioritised the welfare of intercounty players, fund raising, the establishment of third-level scholarship schemes, the managing of commercial opportunities for GPA members – remember, this was less than two years after endorsement deals were first permitted by the GAA – and proposed a players’ awards scheme.

Earley will also have to adapt to the recent formation of the Club Players Association and the emerging charge that the GPA has been a factor in the continuing failure to address the fixtures' issue in club schedules.

At the CPA launch, founder Declan Brennan said that whereas the GPA "had made the life of an intercounty a lot easier," it had also been "a disaster for the GAA in general".

That alleged connection between the GPA and the intercounty game’s invasion of club schedules is something that Earley may wish to confront at some stage, as it’s a grossly unfair characterisation of the intercounty players’ association.

In fact it tends to be county players who have suffered most from the ratcheting up of demands within the game at its top levels. Young intercounty athletes have been the worst affected by the problem of burnout and the curse of multi-eligibility – with different teams making separate demands, just about bearable if the manager is sympathetic and intolerable if not.


The GPA weren't architects of the world in which talented grade players could be playing for up to a dozen teams nor did they lead the charge to prevent proposals from the 2007 Burnout Task Force from being accepted. In the question of, for instance, the merging of the under-21 football championship with the minor in an under-19 grade, that was shot down because it didn't suit various counties.

In fact Dessie Farrell was one of the most vocal speakers in favour of the task force's proposals at the 2008 special congress.

Speaking about his particularly striking submission to the Burnout Task Force, former Meath All-Ireland winner, current selector and surgeon Gerry McEntee said in 2007 that when he was in charge of Dublin club St Brigid’s he saw the impact of the fixtures’ pile-up on county players.

He referenced the research work of former Tyrone footballer Lynette Hughes, who in the course of her PhD studies for the University of Ulster conducted a seminal survey of burnout.

“One of the findings of Lynette Hughes’s research was that 30 per cent of players returning to their clubs after being away with the county felt they were resented. I know that that because I felt that way towards the Dublin fellas in Brigid’s – that they weren’t as enthusiastic about the club training as I’d hoped. I could feel that in myself even though I’m supposed to be one of the people who understand this. They were drained.”

It took until last year for the under-21 football championship to be decoupled from the senior county game.

The idea of a closed season for intercounty activity was accepted the same day and it wasn’t the idea of county players to set about undermining that provision from more or less day one even though they were the ones being summonsed to illicit training sessions.

Another report, debated on the same day nine years ago this month, concerned club fixtures and all the proposals accepted – extra time up to championship semi-finals, All-Ireland quarter-finals by the August bank holiday and smaller county panels, were one by one rolled back in the years that followed.

The essence of the club fixtures problem is that too many players are eligible to play for too many teams and at one level – intercounty – increasing demands are being placed on players as they try to manage competing commitments.

Every team for which these players are eligible wants them available. Fitting all these fixtures into the one calendar has been impossible. Third-level colleges are facing crisis because of restrictions on their county players, many of whose scholarships could in the future be jeopardised as a consequence.

The GPA didn’t bring this about and if anything they have stepped in to deal with the consequences of players under pressure but even they would accept that it’s been strictly cure rather than prevention.