Dermot Earley from the Gaelic Players Association was one of only two delegates to the GAA Congress on Saturday who spoke against the introduction of a three year trial period of change for the structure of the All Ireland Football Championship. The other was the Cork County Board representative who seemed determined to oppose pretty much every change on the agenda.
There were 11 delegates who spoke in favour, for a variety of reasons. The momentum in the room was such that what had seemed likely to be a knife edge vote was passed by 76% to 24% and will come into effect from 2018.
Away from the upper levels of the Hogan Stand the voice of players was more angrily expressed. As is often the case with social media there was a bit of ‘chicken little’ and the sky falling in about the reaction.
Suggestions that players had been completely ignored, that the decision was all about money and that the club game was now dead certainly made it into the online ‘twitter reacts’ summaries but was there much more depth to them than that.
There is no doubt that the emotions are heartfelt and who are we to question players who train and prepare as hard as any professional but all for the love of a game that they saw Saturday as not loving them back.
There is a great passage in an Oscar winning song from Glory two years ago which talks of the energy of youth and the wisdom of the elders.
“No one can win the war individually
It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy
Welcome to the story we call victory”
That’s the kind of discussion which will take place now, with the process of change begun to give it real momentum.
If as has had been called for the changes to the structure had been put on ice it would have meant further apathy among fans, falling attendance at games and a real threat to the enduring appeal of the GAA beyond its heartland.
Now though those threats will hopefully be reversed and the conversation can become more positive to improve rather than negative to protect.
Players will have their voice heard. The GPA has grown up over 20 years to become a measured and intelligent voice which has brought great improvement for the players at the top of the game without toppling over the basis on which the GAA runs as an amateur organisation.
The club players have their opportunity to put forward positive suggestions about how the fixture list can be effectively reshaped. It will be a challenge but there is an opportunity.
Anger is always better for a soundbite than calm but it is in the latter that real change is built. There is no single voice, no absolute on what a ‘better’ fixture list would look like.
Are players better served by inter county fixtures being run off in a tight window and the majority of time given over to club fixtures? Possibly but a playing career within a club is a short part of your life in the GAA and taking away the big days of following your county may cut off the interest for many and damage the game in the long term.
The number of players at juvenile level is at an all time high yet the number playing at beyond the age of 16 fell by 20% between 2014 and 2016 in the latest Sport Ireland Sports Monitor. That’s an entire full forward line of players on every team in the country.
Is that because of the lack of fixtures, it has a part without doubt.
Is it because of competition from other sports, again there is no doubt. In three weeks time Ireland will play sell out matches in Rugby against England and in soccer against Wales. Young faces will light up with recreating the best moments of those the following Monday in school playgrounds.
These are threats which the GAA in its entirety needs to address and will over the next months and years.
In an interview in yesterday’s Sunday Business Post former CEO and leading light of the Gaelic Players Association Dessie Farrell was perceptive in saying
“The appetite for change and reform is not only coming from players now, but it’s also coming from officials.
“You have to respect the GAA, it’s a big organisation and it caters for wide and varying views.
“It’s not always easy to deal with these things and while we may be critical at times at how slow they are to change, they do generally get it right and sometimes that’s not a bad approach.”
Change is coming. This was the second structural change in 133 years that was passed on Saturday. The third will come quicker and will reflect the overall mood of the Association to recognise the fixture issues that put club players on hold for too long.
It will be hammered out not on twitter or in the screen grabs of online debate but in the time honoured way of heated discussion followed by reflection, the occasional angry call of strike followed by a willingness to see all sides.
A way to the future will be found that the greatest number of those who love the game, whether playing now or wishing they were, whether watching on a smartphone or coaching on a sideline, can get behind.
Saturday was not an end but a next step on the road to reform. It was a step forward.