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Make the GAA Great Again: We can't ignore game's 'deplorables' in 2017

What will bubbling dissatisfaction among GAA community mean for the game, asks Tommy Martin in his final column of the year.

All-Ireland final weekend has always been the centerpiece of the GAA calendar - but are certain parts of the community feeling marginalised?
All-Ireland final weekend has always been the centerpiece of the GAA calendar - but are certain parts of the community feeling marginalised?
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

2016′S VERSION OF the now-annual GAA player power row came so late in the year that you could call it a Christmas special. As with most examples of the genre, it was a little dated, but like Father Ted escaping the Dunnes Stores lingerie department, you tuned in anyway.

Holmes & Connelly vs The Players was indeed a repeat – originally broadcast in 2015, it came with juicy additional scenes in the shape of the former Mayo management team’s previously unpublished gripes.

Interestingly, while Christmas specials normally appeal to young and old alike, this one seemed to split the generations. Many older GAA commentators and observers, like Martin Breheny, whose superb scoop this was, and Colm O’Rourke, sympathised with the ousted pair. Younger observers, such as John Fogarty of the Irish Examiner and Colm Parkinson, the enfant terrible of GAA analysis, have castigated Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly for dressing up their score-settling as serving the good of Mayo football.

While it’s only natural to relate more to those closer to one’s own age, the content of the Holmes and Connelly interview highlighted the generation gap. At times, it read like an exasperated Dad giving out to an indolent teenager. Rows involving elongated Mass services, social media obsessions and a general wish that they would just-bloody-well-do-what-they’re-told are the classic stuff of intra-familial angst.

It might, however, be too simplistic to view this as a battle of the generations, as much as their detractors have tried to present certain Mayo players as narcissistic Generation Snowflake ingrates.

More likely this is part of the general effort within the association, to borrow from one of 2016′s more enduring slogans, to Make the GAA Great Again. MGGA, like MAGA, is a movement of people saying they’ve had enough of the elite and their idea of progress which, rightly or wrongly, they feel has left many behind.

Although never stronger on the face of it, the GAA is assailed on all fronts by grassroots dissent. They sign a lucrative new media rights deal and are slammed for continuing with Sky Sports and dispensing with Newstalk, whose radio coverage was highly regarded.

Their inter-county championships grow in popularity and attract massive media and commercial interest, yet the structures are incessantly criticised.

They skilfully tame the once-threatening GPA beast, but with the player grants scheme are scorned for diverting funds from the needs of the many into the pockets of the few.

The teams themselves, whether inter-county or in the top echelons of the club game, have never been better prepared yet many feel the games have become tactically constipated and county panels too powerful, ego-driven and professionalised.

Most of all, the careering juggernaut of the inter-county scene has laid waste to the club game, which has been portrayed as a demoralised rust belt of underemployed players and mangled fixture lists.

Those who want to MGGA are not necessarily opposed to the Mayo players in their quest, whether for All-Ireland glory or extra Twitter followers, but they do wonder if the association that Aidan O’Shea and comrades are a part of is the same one that they are.

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9 January sees the launch of the Club Player Association, which claims to have attracted tens of thousands of expressions of support for its aim of defending the rights of the humble club person. Could it turn out to be the GAA version of the sorts of popular movements which shook the world this year?

In case you’d forgotten, 2016 was the year in which public anger at being ignored by elites boiled over.

Whether it was here in Ireland, where the slogan ‘Keep the Recovery Going’ was met by face palms, or Brexit Britain, or the ‘basket of deplorables’ in the USA, those at the top got kicked in the unmentionables without being quite sure why.

The GAA is at risk of the same fate because they too are struggling to represent all constituencies. Can they be a multi-million euro business and a community-based movement? Can they be about the county and the club? Can they put the needs of quasi-professional sportspeople on the same level as your local under 8s?

The GAA’s own deplorables are bored of handpassing, miss high-fielding and 15-on-15, are sick of overtraining, have had enough of all-powerful county set-ups, don’t want to pay TV subscriptions, or read boring interviews with players plugging their endorsements and are fed up playing county finals in mid-winter.

Sure, some of them are of the older generation, and like the Brexiteers want to turn things back to a past that probably never existed. But MGGA is likely to gain support across the board and one wonders if it will be as successful in 2017 as MAGA was in 2016; which is as good a cliffhanger as any to end a Christmas special on.

– First published 12.16

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Tommy Martin

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