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Eamonn Sweeney: Describing GAA players as elite or world class is just waffle
It's a long time since I've seen anything as dispiriting as the reaction to Stephen Hunt's article in this paper last week.
The Ireland midfielder wrote a good piece suggesting, among other things, that GAA players would have difficulty adapting to the lifestyle of a professional footballer. This was, in part, a reaction to a typically ludicrous piece of blather by Joe Brolly which stated that as role models for young people, soccer players were far inferior to GAA stars. By comparison, Hunt was measured and intelligent and unlike, for example, Jerry Kiernan in the past, wasn't disrespectful towards GAA players.
However, it's apparent that there are plenty of people out there who regard anything other than 100 per cent hero worship of the GAA and its players as a form of heresy. Which is a bit of an irony considering that they usually feel entitled to bang on about the moral inferiority of soccer at the drop of a hat. So Hunt suffered a lot of witless abuse on the web which continued even after he had the decency to go on RTé radio and explain what was obvious from the get-go anyway, that he wasn't slagging off GAA players but making a point about the difference between the lives of amateur and professional sportsmen.
What was really disappointing was to see past and present inter-county players getting in on the act. Mattie Forde, for example, called Hunt a "wally," and mocked him for playing with Ipswich Town. Considering that Ipswich are currently second in the Championship, we can only deduce that Forde believes playing for Wexford footballers was the equivalent of playing for Manchester United. Or perhaps Barcelona. Mayo wing-back Colm Boyle called Hunt a "clown" while Kilkenny hurling corner-back Paul Murphy and Monaghan midfielder Dick Clerkin joined in the whinefest.
But the inconvenient truth is that, from a sporting point of view, Stephen Hunt has achieved a great deal more than the people who slagged him off. He is in his 15th year as a professional footballer in a career which saw him play several seasons in the Premier League during which he acquitted himself well.
It's worth pondering exactly what that says about Hunt and his talent. We are talking about a man who went overseas and carved out a career in one of the strongest professional sports leagues in the world. Soccer is the most popular game in England, a country with roughly 10 times the population of Ireland. In fact, anyone who's ever watched a bit of non-league soccer over there will note the amount of really excellent players who didn't make the grade. The pool of talent is deep.
VIDEO: Independent.ie panel discuss Stephen Hunt comments
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Add in the fact that the most talented young footballers in Scotland, Wales and the two Irelands are seeking a living there. And not just them but players from all over Europe and, increasingly, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Making a career in English football is extraordinarily difficult. It's not the same as getting picked for Mayo or Kilkenny or even Wexford.
I love Gaelic football and hurling, the former especially. I've defended it numerous times in this column against the growing band of cynics who suggest the game is going to hell in a handcart and boring the life out of the spectators, Joe Brolly being a prime example. The sad thing is that the players who let rip at Stephen Hunt are admirable sportsmen in their own right.
Yet I suspect that the problem here is what we might term The Forde Delusion, the idea that because the crowds at GAA games are so big, the hurling and football championships are on the same level as the Premier League.
And that's simply not true. How could it be? Major soccer leagues attract the best players from all over the world. Gaelic football and hurling, on the other hand, are played in one small country. By comparison to soccer or rugby or golf or tennis or a hundred other sports, the pool of talent is exceptionally shallow. Which is only as you'd expect in the world's 121st biggest nation.
I don't mean to diminish Gaelic games by noting this, just to put these sports we love into some kind of global context. There are wonderful things about the GAA - the passionate support, the exciting nature of the games, the link between club and county, the strength of the parish structure. But there is no point in pretending that its players are in the same class as professional footballers.
Gaelic footballers and hurlers are amateurs, wonderfully hard-working and dedicated amateurs, but amateurs nonetheless. This may sound obvious but the hordes attacking Stephen Hunt seem to have forgotten that the man inhabits an entirely different sporting universe from the one where GAA stars do their thing.
Personally, I think many top footballers and hurlers would flourish were their games professional. But we'll never know that because the fact of the games being restricted at a serious level to one small island means professionalism probably won't ever happen. GAA players are amateurs, by and large, not because they want to maintain a healthy life/work balance but because there's nobody out there willing to pay them.
There are demands associated with holding down a job and playing a part-time game as well but the demands of professional sport are even higher. The average professional soccer player will play around four times as many matches as a GAA player in a season. And the professional is subject to a pressure the amateur sportsman will never have to cope with, the knowledge that should he perform badly his job is in jeopardy. There are few working environments more ruthless than that of professional football. Of the many talented youngsters who leave this country to try and make it in the pro game, only a handful succeed.
There are some GAA fans and perhaps some players too who labour under the notion that if inter-county players turned to soccer they'd make it in England no bother. But when you look at how few players from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland make the big time, the lunacy of the idea that there are hundreds of potential professional footballers knocking around this country is apparent.
That's unless you believe that GAA players are a kind of a master race. Which, I'm afraid to say, probably isn't the case. I know that in the current climate this may be something of a controversial statement.
The advantage someone like Stephen Hunt has is that he knows exactly how good he is because he has been tested by international competition. Whereas the slight lack of reality among certain GAA people about hurling and football's standing results from the fact that the games take place inside something of a bubble. The parochial nature of the Association is its great strength but it can also be a weakness.
It's striking, for example, how many inter-county players live and work pretty close to where they were born. In the circumstances it's easy to develop a somewhat exaggerated sense of your own worth particularly when the likes of me are banging on how about how great you are.
A real top-class sportsman proves it internationally. We wouldn't think as much of Brian O'Driscoll if his biggest test had come in annual jousts against Munster, of Seán Kelly if he'd stayed at home and won a few Rás Tailteanns or Roy Keane if he'd never ventured beyond the League of Ireland. It's not the fault of GAA players that they don't have an international stage to perform on but in its absence describing them as 'world-class' or 'elite', which does happen from time to time, is just waffle.
So is the idea that amateur players can be just as fit and accomplished as professionals. Again this depends on the idea of the GAA as some kind of miracle-working organisation. In reality, the gap between our players and those from Australian rules in terms of conditioning is pretty obvious when they compete. And Australian rules, being a one-nation sport, is hardly in the top bracket internationally.
Gaelic games are wonderful for what they are but there's no point pretending they're in the same ballpark as major professional sports. That pretence just means that when someone like Stephen Hunt introduces a bit of truth into the conversation he's treated like a curly-headed Salman Rushdie. Maybe it's time to grow up a small bit.
Little love behind new dating game
They don't get much wrong in Kerry. In his report to tomorrow's annual convention, county secretary Peter Twiss hits the nail on the head as regards the GAA's crack-brained idea to finish all competitions within a single calendar year.
Twiss notes: "By insisting that the All-Ireland club championships be completed by the end of a calendar year, there will be no option but to shorten the life span of county championships and reduce the number of games. What is progressive about this? I don't know."
People have been calling for changes to improve the lot of the ordinary club players who seem of late to have been assigned a back seat by the Association. But the calendar year proposal is the change no-one asked for. Have you ever heard anyone say, "What we need is for the All-Ireland club finals to be switched from St Patrick's Day to December?" Club players are looking for extra games in June, not in the run-up to Christmas.
One justification of the proposal is that it will save provincial champions the hassle of having to continue training in the New Year. But, even taking junior and intermediate competitions into account, this directly involves a mere 24 clubs whereas many more than that will be adversely affected by the telescoping of the season. And it's not certain if you're actually doing the clubs in the last four much of a favour anyway. Did Kilmallock and Austin Stacks, for example, think after their epic Munster campaigns that it would be great to have two more games in December? Or did they welcome the chance to regroup?
The biggest argument against the proposed change is that it will spell the end for one of the great occasions in the GAA calendar, the club final double-bill in Croke Park on St Patrick's Day. It's ironic that an organisation which spends so much time and energy trying to get spectators in to competitions like the Railway Cup and the international rules, that no-one is really interested in, is prepared to dispose of an occasion whose popularity has grown organically over the years.
In any event the calendar year proposal won't solve the big problems which bedevil the association at grassroots level, that of club players condemned to inaction in the summer months because gutless county boards cave in to the demands of grasping inter-county managers, and of county championships turned into elongated blitzes as though they're merely an afterthought.
Hopefully, more counties will join Kerry in voicing their opposition to this scheme. It's a common lament of Croke Park media groupies that Central Council are prevented from passing visionary proposals because they're forced to get the assent of the great unwashed at Congress.
But, as Twiss points out, "It is good to have reviews and fresh thinking but the people left to solve the day-to-day issues with fixtures - ie the CCCs around the country and at provincial and national level - should be consulted a lot more before ideas become policy."
Supporting change just because it's change is every bit as silly as opposing it for the same reason.
Just say no folks.
Nuanced debate lost in cyberspace
One thing which struck me looking at the reaction to Stephen Hunt's column was how remarkably bad-tempered it was and how reluctant the partisans on both sides were to admit their opponents had any point at all. On one side you had people blustering that Hunt hated the GAA and was a crap player who played a crap sport. And on the other you had lads going on about 'bog ball,' in an equally insufferable manner.
There was nothing unusual about this. Colm O'Rourke's column about the Gaelic Players Association a couple of weeks back met with a similar response. It wasn't enough for people to disagree with O'Rourke, he had to be the enemy. Instead of addressing, and if possible disproving, the points he made it was easier, and lazier, to dismiss him with a one-line insult.
One of the great things about this country used to be the ability of two people to argue the toss, at length and with some passion, about sport but to remain civilised about it. I wonder sometimes if that day is gone or if it's just the internet which has become the domain of the bully and the blowhard. Perhaps a man who's got one eye on his work and the other on a comment section or message board doesn't really have the time or inclination to examine both sides of an argument. The truncated nature of Twitter communication certainly doesn't lend itself to nuance.
Online GAA arguments aren't the only ones which suffer from a consistently dyspeptic tone. Pretty much any debate about Roy Keane degenerates into a slanging match between those who regard Keane as a 'traitor' and those who see him as a noble warrior fearlessly prosecuting the war against mediocrity. One side thinks everything Keane does is right, the other that everything he does is wrong. The fact that Keane might be right sometimes and wrong sometimes doesn't occur to either of them.
But with the Season of Goodwill coming up perhaps it's time for combatants to engage in an internet version of that football game from the Pipes of Peace video. Consider the possibility that the person arguing against you might be doing so in good faith. And for God's sake don't insist that you deserve an apology because someone wrote something you disagree with. That's just childish.
Above all, think on these words from the great 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, "With regard to human affairs, not to laugh, not to cry, not to become indignant, but to understand." Because that lad you're berating on the internet might be right and you might be wrong.
It's possible you know.
Devastated GAA star gets 48-week ban for UK match
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Joe McGillycuddy in action for Glenbeigh/Glencar in Kerry.
A YOUNG GAA player has been left "devastated" following the handing down of a 48-week ban for playing in a 'sevens' tournament in England on the weekend of the All-Ireland.
Joe McGillycuddy, who plays with Kerry club Glenbeigh/ Glencar, was hit with the ban when he told the GAA he had played with the Leicester-based Naomh Padraig club in a seven-a-side tournament against St Jude's, despite being registered with the Kerry club.
Mr McGillycuddy, who lives and works in Leicester but commutes home to play with Glenbeigh/Glencar, said he wasn't aware that it was an officially sanctioned GAA competition.
He now faces losing out on participating in his club's upcoming clash against Brosna in the Kerry Junior Championship semi-final.
Should his team progress, he will also miss out on being involved in any county, provincial or All-Ireland club championship matches.
Two four-time All-Ireland winners, former Kerry star Sean O'Sullivan and McGillycuddy's clubmate in Glenbeigh/Glencar Darran O'Sullivan, have condemned the decision, taken following a hearing of the case at Croke Park last Thursday.
A subsequent appeal to the GAA's Central Appeals Committee was unsuccessful, leaving McGillycuddy with the only hope that his case will be reconsidered under the Reinstate Rule.
This allows a player who has served a period of suspension to be reinstated because of the hardship caused by the ban.
Chairman of Glenbeigh/Glencar GAA club Aidan Roche said the decision was particularly disappointing as it was McGillycuddy who had "put his hands up".
He said: "We decided to be totally honest and upfront about the situation once we found out because we didn't want it to cost the club further down the line should we progress in competitions and Joe having played for us in them.
"We're very disappointed for Joe personally but we will just have to let the matter lie for the moment until we see how the coming weeks pan out for the club," he added.
Former Kerry star Sean O'Sullivan tweeted: "It's decisions like this will turn guys off playing the game ... joke".
Kerry footballer Darran O'Sullivan tweeted: "Absolute joke that my club mate has received a 48-week ban for playing in a 'Mickey Mouse' Sevens competition for an English club at the weekend."
He said his clubmate had been rewarded for wages lost and the cost of flights home by getting a ban for playing in a "nothing, kiss-my-a***" competition.
McGillycuddy has made himself available to his home club throughout this season, regularly flying home from Leicester to Co Kerry for matches.
The Glenbeigh/Glencar club has also invested heavily in the player, who is seen as a key member of the squad that has gone from Division Four to Division One, so his loss is a major blow.