Football, hurling, camogie, Croke Park and Semple Stadium back in action - you wouldn't guess that the GAA has a problem... war is around the corner.

All looked good and happy and right in the GAA world last weekend.  Football and hurling and camogie were officially back, and back with a serious bang as we got National League action all over the country. 

Dozens and dozens of games. Dublin and Kerry's footballers going at it again in Croke Park. Tipperary and Limerick hurlers back at it in Semple Stadium.

You’d never guess that the GAA has a problem, would you?

No, I’m not talking about the club crisis, which is threatening the very core of the association as the CPA (Club Players Association) says enough is enough, and if the GAA’s bosses do not put in place a reasonable fixtures program that accommodates both the county game and the club game, then there’s going to be war.

That war is around the corner.

Our dozy leaders in the GAA are uncaring or disbelieving, or both.  What’s more worrying and disconcerting is that the same men -- why isn’t there any woman with any power anywhere to be seen on Croke Park’s powerful sixth floor? -- are also watching county footballers and hurlers, also shouting that enough is enough.

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For too long since the turn of the millennium, the GAA has watched its amateur footballers and hurlers being forced to work and live as though they are professional athletes.

The top handful of teams in each code have demanded more and more from their players, and their players have said okay.

However, for everyone else who is trying to catch up, the same demands are also on the table.  In every single county in the country.

Most of these teams have no chance of winning anything but, nevertheless, their players are being flogged. Senselessly. 

Take the Westmeath football team as one quick example. In the last 12 years, they have been promoted five times. Progress, yeah?

Not really, because they have also been relegated five times. And this is what’s happening outside of the elite few. 

There are counties like Westmeath who have absolutely no chance of winning anything, who are bouncing up and down between divisions two and three in the League, who have no chance of ever winning a Leinster title in the immediate future and…guess what?

They’re working their socks off as hard and diligently as the likes of Dublin and Kerry and Mayo. And why? 

Why the hell are they doing that?

Because the GAA has no answer to that question, players are answering their own questions themselves. This spring over 60 players have quit county football and hurling. All of these men are fairly sure they have better things to be doing with their lives.

The former Mayo star John Maughan, who is now managing Offaly in Division 3 of the League, explained last week why more and more players no longer see county football as a dream.

“Our guys have S and C tonight (Monday) and Wednesday,” he began. “They’ve then got collective training Tuesday and Thursday. The match on Saturday, and recovery on Sunday.

“There is no downtime now because you can’t afford to. The benchmark has been established by the winning teams and as long as they keep driving the agenda and pushing it along, every team has to buy into it.”

That’s one manager speaking. The players are also speaking up, but the GAA is not listening and is doing nothing to modify or restructure competitions which would allow different counties to find their place in the GAA world, and maybe relax, perhaps even have their players enjoying what they’re doing.

Three years ago, Meath goalkeeper Paddy O’Rourke quit the game at 27 years of age. He had been seven years on the team. Playing for Meath had always been his dream. 

The Skryne man, from my own home parish, is from rich football stock. His uncle is Colm O’Rourke.

Four of his uncles played county football. His father, Padraig, also had a brief fling with Meath in his day. 

Like the rest of us, the O’Rourkes had to listen to the sobering words of one of their own. One word used by Paddy was the word “isolation.” Probably the most serious and worrying word he used when he explained his decision to quit the county game. 

“If we’re honest in Meath, we’re not getting any closer to where we want to go,” he stated, boldly and honestly.  He said that there was no chance of Meath winning anything, anytime soon.

“So, I finally came to the decision…you are losing so much of your life. Never mind the amount of evenings you’re spending training and at the gym, it means you end up isolated from your family, from your friends, from your club. And for what?”

It was a courageous decision for Paddy O’Rourke to take.  Same as it has been a tough but necessary decision for more and more footballers and hurlers to take since. 

Some like Cathal McShane in Tyrone saw a better life for himself playing Aussie Rules. The vast majority, however, just saw a better life for themselves not playing at all.

Like O’Rourke, they just wanted their lives back.

Bottom line?  It’s not possible for teams all over the country to keep up with Dublin. Or Kerry, or the handful of top teams. 

Too many teams are running and running to standstill. Too many are also running out of players.

The GAA has changed. The craic is gone. There are no pints, no late nights. Nothing at all that can get in the way of trying to win. 

One All-Ireland winner in 2019 told his manager midway through the year that he would not be able to make it to training on the Saturday. He actually had a wedding to go to.

“No problem,” the manager told him. “Fire away, enjoy the wedding… but you’ll be with us once everyone’s finished in the church, okay?”

For one man on his way to win an All-Ireland medal at the end of the year, that was okay.

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