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An old road out of Newbridge

An old road out of Newbridge

As the dust settles on a frenetic week of activity in the GAA world, it settles on a much changed landscape, the contours, and topography of which will take some time to be fully revealed.

On Saturday night, Cian O’Neill’s Kildare charges put the happily ever after ending on a saga that had more in common with one of Aesop’s Fables, than it did with an early round qualifier game of football.

O’Neill’s very bold and public stance, refusing to submit to the Croke Park edict of giving up home advantage in favour of a Croke park Double-Header, created a maelstrom of confusing communications, gave birth to an epic hashtag newbridgeornowhere, but potentially has forever changed the way that the GAA Fixtures intelligentsia interact with teams, their players and their supporters.

And it could all have been so different. Had the Kildare footballers gone out in a blaze of glory against a classy Mayo squad, no-one would have batted an eyelid. The excuses had been ironed and ready for Sunday Mass: distractions, hullabaloo over tickets, pressure heaped on by media speculation. A facile Mayo win would have been a victory too for Croke Park, the building, and its administration. The Brass would have been able to point to the easy margin of victory, and claim that home advantage was really no advantage at all.

As it stands, the CCCC will find it much more difficult to re-schedule fixtures away from smaller provincial venues in the future. Kildare’s epic win will embolden the ‘small guy’ in GAA, however forlorn that flicker of hope may be. It will also add fuel to the fire of the conspiracy theorists, wanting to place more thorns in the soles of the Multimedia Giants suspected to be at the root of this furore.

In a summer where the invincibility of Dublin becomes ever more inescapable, the hamstringing of the smaller counties with regard to fixture scheduling is becoming harder and harder to sweep under the Croke Park turnstiles. The intimate surroundings of Newbridge proved to intensify the proceedings, although one barely full stand raised questions about the true allocation of tickets.

If there is to be any intrigue left for SKY and other media partners to drum up in the week before a mid-summer qualifier, it can only be in the unpredictability of the bigger teams playing in unfamiliar, more rustic grounds, with partisan local crowds and smaller confines working to provide at least a spritzing of randomness, if not competitive balance.

The true roots for the GAA’s decision to back away from their hard-line stance will perhaps remain unknown, but it is unlikely a GPA statement made any real impact. It certainly had nothing to do with Health and Safety. Perhaps it was the eventual realisation of the long-term consequences of losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the GAA faithful, wind-assisted by a climate of discontent over the crystallisation of a GAA Elite. And certainly, the much maligned Kildare County Board did the GAA a huge solid in not exposing the ridiculous fairy tale spouted by Alan Milton on
Wednesday.

There was a way for the GAA to emerge from this fracas with real credit and kudos. If I was in the Communications Team a statement might have gone like this:

“Hands up, we made a mistake (admit the blame early.) In arranging the fixtures for this round of qualifiers, we made hasty assumptions about Newbridge’s inability to host this fixture, without fully exhausting this possibility with Kildare County Board and the Gardaí. Under the pressure of timescales, we opted for a double header in Croke Park we were certain we could deliver on, that would accommodate all spectators with ease.

We realise provincial venues are the lifeblood of the GAA, and we commend Cian O’Neill for sticking by his players. We look forward to Saturday’s fixture with full confidence that the Health and Safety aspects are catered for 100%, and that the Kildare supporters will get a chance to see their team play in their own County”

Instead, we got a defensive, aggressive tone from Alan Milton, which did nothing to defuse the tension of the previous few days. He effectively chided the Kildare Team for having the temerity to persist with an option that was going to greatly reduce the capacity of the fixture, limit the ability of Kildare fans to attend the game. Perhaps Alan has not considered the cost implications of travelling to Dublin, and trying to avoid the various bag checks and handling restrictions that effectively force parents to feed their children at games in Croke Park via the horrendously over-priced and low grade fast food outlets that litter the concourses.

In what was a crucial piece of communication, Milton also cast half an eye to the future, laying groundwork for future saying “I’d like to see this as a one-off”. The only way that will come to be true, is if the Hierarchy truly learn their lessons, and realise that players and fanbases have been pushed to a breaking point, and that home advantage in fixtures against elite teams is the only ace in the smaller county’s deck.

By Saying it would be ‘remiss and negligent’ to arrange a fixture without fully guaranteeing the safety of patrons, Milton and the Croker Braintrust totally ignored the way in which the process dismissed Kildare’s sovereignty and ability to host fixtures, negligence indeed. And instead of being able to hail the unpredictability of the championship, celebrate the presence of a lower league team in the Super 8’s with ‘football being the winner’, Croke Park have once again made themselves the enemy of the people.

If the appointment of former finance Director Tom Ryan as the new Director General made GAA and fear the Accountants were firmly in charge, this episode did nothing to dissuade them. I also found it odious trotting out the great Kilkenny man Ned Quinn to face the wrath of the media, no doubt handed a ridiculous script of PR-speak, sullying the name of one the great GAA administrators of the last 50 years.

To ward off future catastrophes, the GAA must properly learn to tame the monster they have created, the GPA. The de facto county player trade union could have made life much more difficult for the GAA. It has done very little to further the cause of better player welfare in a commercial environment that has ridden rough shod over player concerns see: Kildare’s hurling fixture 7 days after their Christy Ring Final, Dublin’s perennial Croke Park advantage, Fermanagh and Cavan’s game being switched as a result of Newbridgegate, never mind the ways in which TV scheduling has stretched game times over increasingly inconvenient times.

It is time for a CBA in the GAA, a collective bargaining agreement that fully addresses player concerns in a structured manner, instead of a panicked firefighting of flammable issues that sucks the positivity and momentum out of the games, the reason that we are all here. County Boards may well fight to earn a direct share of the TV money that the Super 8s and other competitions generate.

Of course, the idea of the Super 8s was to eliminate as many of the poor teams as possible, and sell TV ads on a competitive, well balanced mid-season competition. The sooner the ‘second-tier’ counties realise this, the better, as the only way for them to offer players a reaslistic goal to fight for, is a sensible, meaningful competition that allows them to generate income, while not slipping into GAA ignominy like the Christy Ring, Rackard and Meagher competitions. With the success of the Joe McDonagh Cup, these counties will remain in GAA oblivion and obscurity forever.

The close season will focus on two men still picking out new office chairs and desk ornaments, the new DG and freshly minted GPA Chief Exec Paul Flynn. Whether the 32 year old has the political nous and business acumen to go toe-to toe with the GAA big guns, remains to be seen. It will also be fascinating whether Flynn feels the motivation to mess with a system that almost ensures a semi-final at worst for Dublin every year. What is certain, is that the balance of power has shifted. Supporters now have a glimmer of hope in not being totally forgotten about in the next mutation of GAA fixturing, if the lobby groups act decisively with a new administration keen to steady the ship.

Player power has taken on a whole new meaning, and for once, that’s a good thing.

GAA Wrap columnist.

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