Meeting with county top brass an important step
FOOTBALL REVIEW COMMITTEE: County chairpersons are the latest focus group to interact with Eugene McGee’s committee, writes SEÁN MORAN
LAST NIGHT in Croke Park the Football Review Committee (FRC) met with arguably the most important focus group in its deliberations on what – if any – problems are facing Gaelic football and how to address them. This weekend the county chairpersons are in town for routine meetings and got the opportunity to interact with the FRC.
The turn-out from the counties was expected to be good with just Roscommon unable to be present.
The exchanges will have been important because not alone was the input coming from the highest-ranked officials in each county but with an eye on securing the acceptance at congress of whatever proposals emerge, Eugene McGee and his committee won’t have met with a more influential audience.
This is all the more important given the emerging indications that the FRC are going to be asked to do more than simply reflect the concerns of the wider GAA about the future of its most popular game and instead frame concrete proposals based on those issues which have prompted consensus views.
“The reason I appointed the committee,” says GAA president Liam O’Neill, “is that I wanted an independent group to identify what are the issues in the game but apart from occasional meetings I haven’t got involved and I’m not going to limit how they go about their business.”
There is also within the GAA a strong belief that the FRC should become more of an advocacy group for the proposals they help to bring about – simply because it would be time-consuming and repetitive were it necessary for a second body to be appointed to devise ideas to meet the stated concerns and also to draw up an implementation programme in time for next April’s annual congress.
From his appointment at the end of April, committee chair Eugene McGee – “I don’t know Liam O’Neill well but I was surprised he pulled this out of the hat,” said McGee this week, “maybe he spoke to 10 other people who turned him down” – emphasised the importance of listening to the concerns of all sufficiently interested to communicate with his committee.
“It’s the biggest engagement in the game’s history,” he says. “It gives all of these people the chance to contribute and in a way it’s almost an emotional experience to receive messages, saying that they’re delighted to get the chance and that they’ve never before been able to make their views known. We were contacted at one stage by an old man who’d played in the 1950s and I talked to him for half an hour about his views. I’m amazed at how attached so many people in the country are to the game of football.”
Statistics bear out the workload taken up voluntarily by those involved, as they sift through the submissions. On the FRC website, the questionnaire has drawn approximately 3,000 responses.
Five hundred e-mails and 300 letters to the committee have also been processed. As part of an academic project in DCU, 1,500 hours of football, including DVDs of 55 matches chosen for comparative purposes, have been watched.
On top of that there have been meetings with an exhaustive list of identified stake holders drawn from all levels of involvement and of which last night’s colloquy with county chairs was just the latest.
On taking over the presidency earlier this year, O’Neill was immediately and unreasonably under fire for saying – at his first press conference – that some aspects of modern football – defensiveness and excessive use of the hand pass – are boring. There is within the game a touchiness that whereas hurling gets uncritical acclaim and automatic status as a cultural treasure, football – despite being far more popular and bringing in by far the greater revenues – is constantly criticised and belittled.
That is to misunderstand O’Neill’s motivation in appointing the FRC, an initiative designed to find out what the association thought of the game and if the consensus was that nothing needed improvement that would be the finding. Football is not beyond improvement. One of the most common criticisms the committee heard is that concerning discipline and cynical fouling. There is a strong case for this being a desirable headline proposal.
At present perception and reality converge in the view that indiscipline and gamesmanship are inadequately punished: in other words it pays to break the rules. Yet the GAA has been reluctant to accept simple provisions like the penalising of serial yellow cards and sin bins.
O’Neill himself chaired a committee that nearly succeeded – coming in just seven votes short of the required two-thirds majority – in introducing disciplinary reforms. What was successful was the highlighting of widespread concern about the direction of the games.
Many passionate contributions from the floor called on the GAA to protect skilful players, children up to adults, from pulling, dragging, tripping and all of the drearily familiar cynicism. That will have been four years ago by next year’s congress and it’s clearly time to get the matter back on the agenda.
Other matters that have been widely discussed include a functioning advantage rule, the mark to reward high catching (although there is data suggesting fielders have become more successful at playing on once they have won the ball in the air), the tip-and-go free, countdown clocks and hand passing.
If there is a concern about the breadth of the canvass it is that related issues will command all of the publicity and divert what started as a survey of where the game stands down a siding where there is no useful destination.
For example the structure of the championship is amongst the issues being looked at. There is no more compelling subject for many GAA enthusiasts. If newspapers receive as many proposals on how to reform intercounty competitive structures as this one does, what must the in-trays of Croke Park be like? The problem with anything that infringes on the traditional provincial system is that it has very little chance of being accepted.
There is a concept – admirable in all respects other than its chances of being accepted – that envisages counties migrating into four geographical conferences so as to give four symmetrical groups of eight.
It is a valid concern that a worthwhile package of measures, which has a good chance of being accepted, should not be undermined by hypothetical discussions on championship structures, which might well suck much of the media oxygen out of the atmosphere and create a climate of negativity around other more realistic proposals.
McGee is wary of wasting too much energy on ideas that will struggle for broad approval.
“The point of this was to get the view of the public and the stakeholders. What do they think of Gaelic football? What would they do differently? I think if we can get change in four or five of the things that arise, they’d love it.”
Eugene McGee (chair), Kevin Griffin (secretary), Declan Darcy, Ciarán McBride, Paul Earley, John Tobin, Tim Healy, Tony Scullion, Killian Burns.