The Losing Streak

Australia's head coach Michael Cheika.
Australia's head coach Michael Cheika.

The senior inter-county game has not only been sucking the life out of the GAA and killing the clubs, it has been sucking the life out of those who play it.

I gave a lecture on sport and ethics in Trinity College on Saturday. I have to say it was a lot of fun. At one point during the talk I was about to embark on an anecdote that couldn’t be told publicly.

Have a drink in moderation. Sometimes not in moderation at all. Go to the pictures. Socialise with friends. Train less. Rest more. Buy some chickens for f*** sake .....Anything to lift the gloom imposed by the nasty little cartel that has come to dominate the county game.

Joe Brolly

“Anyone here from the press?”

After some nervous laughter, a lady put up her hand.

“You breathe a word of what I’m about to say and I’ll come after you with everything I have.” (Audience laughter).

“I know a lot more sinister people than you do young lady (more laughter). So do not f*** with me.” (Explosion of laughter.)

Afterwards, she came up to me and said, “I’m from the Irish Catholic newspaper.”

In the Q&A section following the lecture, Karol Mannion, ex-Roscommon footballer and All-Ireland club winner with St. Brigid’s said he got out of the county game because it was taking the players’ lives from them. When he began with Roscommon they were a vibrant, imaginative team playing free-flowing football in Division One of the National League. As he put it, “It was part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle.”

They drank after league games together. They got full now and again and were able to meet and socialise in their locality. They even, on one famous occasion, got naked together in a hotel, walking casually through the place in the nip. A bemused hotel manager went to the games room to be greeted by the sight of two playing members (for want of a better word) calmly playing snooker, stark naked.

Nowadays, players are punished by managers for being seen in a bar. Last year, two Clare hurlers were appallingly treated after being in a bar midweek, apparently drinking spring water, before a weekend game they were not even slated to take part in. It is typical of an enormous, dysfunctional transformation in our culture, created by out of control managers, permitted by docile county boards and a GAA elite that is working hand in glove with an entirely professional GPA.

As the fixation on winning has taken hold, elitism has replaced participation and an entire ethos is speedily being corrupted. When elitism replaces participation in this way, then the focus moves to a tiny minority. In turn, a vast, unhealthy pressure has been exerted on that minority. So, county players are now cordoned off from normal life. You never see them out and about, unless they are en route to training or a match. Their lives have become entirely micro managed. I was given a mid-year weekly diary for one of the county teams last year by one of the backroom team. Each week, the players were given a timetable containing minute detail. One segment read as follows: “Tuesday morning: Out of bed by 8am. Eat breakfast at home” before prescribing exactly what that breakfast should be.

I remember once at the Slieve Russell when we were in our pomp, a waitress asked the great Tony Scullion if he wanted the continental breakfast and himself and ‘Big’ Brian McGilligan roared with laughter. Within minutes, vast Ulster fries were sitting in front of the boys. In those days, neither Dungiven nor Straw were particularly influenced by eating habits on the European continent.

The point is that this ultra monastic life style is not only unnecessary, it is counter productive. Too much pressure. Too much boredom. Too damaging an impact on the healthy development of our young men.

Before the rugby world cup final a fortnight ago, Aussie manager Michael Cheika described his team as, “a mixture of lovers and fighters.” After every game, they socialise together. A balanced lifestyle is considered essential. His No. 8, David Pocock - reckoned by experts to be the best 8 in the world - chimed in. He is co-founder of 20/20 vision, a rural development program in poverty stricken Zimbabwe.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “Michael is right. It’s a game. Its there to be enjoyed, it can offer so much to us, but there is a lot more to life than chasing a rugby ball around the place.”

Pocock’s training load is under 8 hours per week (according to Mike McGurn, High Performance at QUB, ex-coach of the All Blacks and Ireland, all senior intercounty teams significantly exceed this). He spends much of his free time on his farm in Canberra with his partner Emma, where they have nine chickens and their garden provides their fruit and veg. He has a very full life outside of rugby. He is currently studying Ecological Agricultural Systems, his passion. He is also heavily involved with the Climate Change Movement. Recently, he was arrested by police when he chained himself to a monster digger to prevent desecration of an ecologically important site. Imagine one of our senior intercounty players doing that? No. Our boys have to stay out of sight (save for endorsing products) and stay silent.

As Gaelic football has been twisted from something healthy and good and satisfying into an all consuming obsession, the newer universities in particular have made it a flag waver for recruitment. A good footballer can get his fees paid, digs, even a car just so he can play football. It is only a matter of time before degree courses in “Flower arranging” are available to All-Stars. One top class county player told me recently that the beauty of UUJ was that it didn’t interfere with his farming.

Players need their lives back. Have a drink in moderation. Sometimes not in moderation at all. Go to the pictures. Socialise with friends. Train less. Rest more. Buy some chickens for f*** sake. Chain themselves to railings somewhere for a good cause. Streak down the main street on a Sunday night. Anything to lift the gloom imposed by the nasty little cartel that has come to dominate the county game.