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Inter-county players must say enough is enough

As the GAA and GPA sit on their hands, inter-county players must band together and stand up to managers who are driving a wedge between club and county

As the GAA and GPA sit on their hands, Shane Stapleton says it’s time for inter-county players to publicly band together and stand up to managers who are driving a wedge between club and county.

A while back, a fellow I know began dating a girl from London.

She came over to Dublin to get a taste of what our country and society is about. In many respects, we’re all the same either side of the Irish Sea, but of course we’re wildly different too.

“In England, we grow up being told if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all, whereas you crucify each other,” she told me one day.

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She explained gasping in discomfort at the manner in which us Irish people slate each other — as we tend to do in a harmless, joking fashion — before becoming accustomed to it.

The conversation moved on to how in America, a young kid saying he wanted to be president some day would be considered a go-getter, and encouraged to shoot for the stars. This attitude is something to be celebrated, and she explained that this is largely the case in England too.

In Ireland, if you dared utter such ambitions, the snide retort would amount to little more than “did you hear that f****** eejit? Thinks he’s going to be president”. We all know this to be true. We’re many brilliant things in Ireland, but we’re also a nation of begrudgers.

The idea of putting yourself out there to be shot at is deeply uncomfortable here — “would you look at this clown!” and so forth — but we need strong leaders to do just that.

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Right now, that means finding a way to break the inter-county manager’s stranglehold over players and clubs. Up and down the island, county teams are calling training when they are not supposed to, and nothing is being done about it.

Inter-county players may not want the responsibility, but they are the ones with the power to change this. Media, the CPA (Club Players Association) and ex-players have been banging the drum for years, but only those inside the tent can truly make a difference.

As we’re seeing across the world, people feel emboldened to mobilise for a cause. In many high-profile movements, those leading the charge are finding a huge wave of momentum and support behind them.

The club v county schism in GAA cannot compare with the Black Lives Matter cause, for example, and no one for a second would suggest that. The lesson we can take from it is that we are in a moment in time where people will get behind what is just.

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Should an inter-county player come out today and demand that inter-county managers cease contacting players until September 14 — until which point no training is allowed at the elite level — then he would be celebrated. A tough thing to do alone, but it would be supported.

It may also light the fuse for real change. Clubs are getting a progressively shorter end of the stick, and some time in the future they may end up in the same dire situations as club rugby sides. The top has crushed what’s at the bottom in that code, but we still have time in the GAA.

We are at a crucial juncture, however. Games activity has been suspended since March and everyone has had time to reflect on where we are at. People know what is at stake, and understand how tenuous things are. The value of the club has been seen in communities up and down the island.

We have all seen county managers explain how clubs should come first now, and yet some are still calling training sessions multiple times per week. There will be situations where players get flogged the same week as county championship games, and even county finals. There is nothing surer.

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This past weekend on The Sunday Game, Michael Duignan — now chairman of Offaly GAA — called on the GAA and GPA to show more leadership.

Gaelic Players Association chief executive Paul Flynn is on the Covid Advisory Committee that stated there will be no inter-county training permitted until September 14, but this week a GPA survey returned one of four core principles as “any inter-county training session organised before September 14 must be covered by the GAA Injury Benefit Scheme”. There is an alarming disconnect here.

This is why the CPA has had to be formed, because grassroots issues have not been satisfactorily addressed. Should the GPA ever want support across the entirety of the game, they must show leadership that works for more than the elite level. As a club player, I want fewer funds going to an organisation that I feel is not serving the game as a whole, and let that money filter down to club projects instead.

The GPA would be celebrated if they changed course right now, at this very moment, but it doesn’t feel as though this will happen.

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So it must come back to players: the most high-profile influencers who can push for change. Players from a vast swathe of counties know each other on a personal level through college, commercial events, and everything in between. Should they choose to, they can stand together across the board. A few phone calls, a WhatsApp group, a joint statement… you get the gist.

Perhaps if even one county panel organised a protest at this club v county debacle, others would follow. If the Galway hurlers could oust a manager just a few years ago, and the Clare hurlers release a statement against their own county board last winter, and if there are many more examples of standing up in GAA codes both male and female, then it can be done.

The public will back them to the hilt, and no manager will dare drop them all. The fantasy of the all-powerful inter-county manager will be exposed for good.

People will not say of players that “this lad is getting a bit big for his boots” or be snide (and it’s the same for the camogie and ladies football) because the issue is too far-reaching and means so much to so many.

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History will look favourably on those who drive the change. Without it, clubs are left to circle the drain.

In the video above, Shane Stapleton and Michael Verney will both train on GAA grounds with their respective clubs on Wednesday evening, and talk about their thoughts on this. The discussion also looks at the leadership in the GAA as county managers look for player access long before the September 14 date of return.

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