Breheny’s Beat(down)

(For a more wide-ranging viewpoint on the governance of the Association, check out realGAA.)

Every blogger is a frustrated journalist and journalist watching is a never-ending source of frustration, none more so than Martin Breheny of the Indo. This is not to say the bould Martin is a bad hack. He never damns you with faint praise, which was important when Waterford were being patronised at various points over the years; you could rely on Breheny to give us a cold dose of reality. He also has no favourites. Think he’s anti-Waterford because of the aforementioned damnation? His joy at Waterford’s Under-21 success in 1992 was enough to make a growing boy weep with delight, going so far (if memory serves me correct) to select it as his most memorable moment of the year – a year when Donegal won their first ever All-Ireland.

What makes Breheny frustrating is his belief that he, and he alone, can save the GAA from itself. Not a year passes without some list of What The GAA Must Do To Survive. Considering Congress rarely takes its cue from the media it’s unlikely any of his prescriptions have been administered, and yet the GAA still stands.

A recent article saw him produce another ten point plan to avert disaster. I won’t fisk his viewpoint and you can read the fleshing out of his arguments here. I’ll look at the bullet points and see how far my vision for the GAA is from that of Ireland’s most opinionated Gaelic games pundit.

1. Recognise the GPA as a formal wing of the GAA.

As the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Beeb’s version of Robin Hood might say, a clue: no. What form does Breheny think this ‘recognition’ should take? Would the GPA have a voting block in Congress? Directly negotiate with Central Council? With individual County Boards? Each member of the GPA already has a voice in the GAA – it’s called ‘membership of a club’. Inter county players carry great weight with their peers in clubs because, well, they play the game very well. Let them exercise that weight if they want to bring about change in the association and be done with these end runs around the existing structures.


2. Amateur status: time for realism [managers are being paid, why not players].

Breheny would be in the “why fight the inevitable” camp when it comes to pay-for-play and all the attendant guff you get with that stance, i.e. the assumption that it is inevitable based on little or no evidence other than shouting that it’s inevitable. In fairness to him on this occasion he asks for the GAA to “commission a study of the impact it would have on the Association”. The idea that nothing in the GAA would change but that the oul’ players would have a few more quid in their pocket is preposterous and any commission would inevitably demonstrate that. If people are happy with the changes that might have to be wrought to support pay-per-play, e.g. a rationalising of the number of competing teams to be able to sustain a professional setup much as has happened in Irish, Welsh and Scottish rugby, then fine. At least we could have an honest debate. Bring on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission!



3. Four green fields: why are they different sizes? [The provinces are lopsided and need to be redrawn or abolished.]

Redraw them? Forget about it, especially in football. Many counties have picked up long-awaited provincial titles in the last two decades, Waterford not least among them. Do you think they would have gotten the same kick out of winning the South East Championship, a tournament ripped from the moorings of a splendid history? There is a coherent argument to be made for abolishing the provincial titles altogether as part of a revamped championship. As with the amateur status argument though, be careful what you wish for . . .

4. Inter-county schedule: still flawed after all these years.

He has a point here. It’s one of his favourite hobby horses, and it makes a lot more sense the more the GAA uses increased number of big time matches as a means of promoting the game. The situation whereby two provincial championships traditionally stage their finals on the same day in the middle of July – Ulster and Connacht football – was dumb decades ago and is completely bonkers now. In addition, one drawn match always seems to cause panic as matches get squeezed into the same weekend. What the answer is I don’t know. But an acknowledgement from Headquarters that it’s no use having multiple golden egg laying geese if they are all wedged into a too-small coop would be a start.

5. Hurling: take it out from under football’s large shadow.

This is a popular viewpoint among many hurling afficiendos, the logic being that the parallel administration of the games is harmful to hurling as the sport is dominated by football types. Yet I can’t help but feel that hurling is totally dependent upon the link with the most popular sport in the country. The illusion of equality is crucial. Imagine, for exampl, if Croke Park were allocated according to competing demands from the two games. The only time hurling would get a look-in would be on All-Ireland final day. The rest of the time, the lure of clash between (say) any two teams from Ulster or Kerry v anyone else would swamp just about any clash in hurling. The harsh truth is that hurling’s profile is heavily dependent on proximity to the football behemoth. This is especially true in the case of Waterford. Would Dan Shanahan have been as much of a celeb had he been playing football in a county with an equivalent ranking in the football hierarchy? Hurling needs the link with football more than football needs hurling. It’s doubtful whether hurling would benefit from severing that link.

6. Chain of command: as strong as its weakest link [a more integrated hierarchy within the association, with the buck stopping somewhere].

Hard to argue with this. The people at the top of the GAA are incredibly weak. When it comes to affecting change in the association the President, armed as they are with a popular mandate, should be in a strong position. Instead they seem to be hamstrung by the need to be all things to all men (and women). While I didn’t like the tenor of Seán Kelly’s behaviour during the debate on opening up Croke Park to soccer and rugby – all that ‘hand of history’ guff would make you sick – he was surely entitled to take a lead on the matter. The idea that he should be all things to all members of the association is ludicrous. The British Labour Party couldn’t be taken seriously while every decision needed to be rubberstamped by its Party Conference. People in the GAA need to elect officials to actually take decisions and live with those decisions (see point 10).

7. Croke Park: don’t lock the gates when Lansdowne Road is completed.

I’d be mostly in agreement with Breheny here, although I’d question whether the IRFU and the FAI would want Croke Park once Lansdowne Road is built. It’s correct to say that the GAA should not be leaving themselves open to the accusation of being backwoodsmen or whatever nonsense the ill-informed conjure up regarding Croke Park. But he underestimates the IRFU’s attachment to D4. At no point in the whole Bertie Bowl saga did the IRFU waver in their desire to have their own venue. It would never do to be routinely facing the RFU President’s XV in a rented premises. As for the FAI, the likeliehood of them needing more than a 50,000 capacity on a regular basis seems fanciful in the medium term. So keep Croke Park open, but don’t anticipate any big ticket gigs.

8. Stadium Development: stop the waste.

This is one of my great bugbears in the GAA, and one in which Breheny has my complete agreement. People in Waterford can occasionally be heard whining about the poor facilities we have in the county. Now, Walsh Park and Fraher Field need to be better. Better terraces, better toilets, better roofs. But they don’t need to be bigger. Develop a few super grounds like Thurles or Clones, but county grounds should be modelled on the likes of Parnell Park or Nowlan Park – big enough for a county final crowd. If Waterford GAA starts building a 40,000 stadium, even Brendan McCann will have to take his place behind me in lying down before the bulldozers.

9. Population imbalances: can the county system continue?

In a word, yes. Would he advocate the abolition of international soccer because the Republic of Ireland can’t hope to compete with Brazil? Yes, it’s unequal that a player from Dublin will have to wade through perhaps thousands of players to get to his county team while one from Leitrim only has to beat off tens of his peers. But since when was playing inter county sport an end in itself? You play the game – any game – because you enjoy it. Has anyone ever felt slighted because he never got to play for his high population county while some lesser light got to play for a smaller county? The GAA would not want to be incorporating the needs of such a chimera when considering its structures.

10. Discipline: it’s for others, not me.

Well, yes. The GAA seems to be making progress on making punishments stick earlier on in 2008, such as when they faced down efforts to have the culprits in the latest Dublin – Meath brawl let off because they’re really a good bunch of lads and they’d never harm a fly (etc). It’s a case of three steps forward two steps back as the Paul Galvin affair demonstrated when a set of straw men were erected (we were told that it was outrageous that his work was brought into it when no one other than a few web trolls did that) so as to be knocked down when the time came. But it is a net gain of one step and when even the Kerry County Board are berating loud mouths from their own camp for their lack of respect for due process, you can hope that the tide is turning. I wouldn’t bet on Martin Breheny admitting as much when the time comes though.