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Opinion: Reaction To AFL Recruitment Shows How We've Lost Sight Of The GAA's Purpose

Opinion: Reaction To AFL Recruitment Shows How We've Lost Sight Of The GAA's Purpose
By Gavin Cooney Updated

Remember January? Back when Aidan O'Shea had yet to have the audacity to take a photograph in public, and we had nothing to talk about?

To fill the void, there was a week-long frenzy of hand-wringing over a leaked player contract from St Brigid's in Dublin. It asked each player to sign a contract featuring a list of demands you'd assume are implicit, which included an agreement to show up on time, and to give 100% at every session. The existence rather than the content of the contract earned most scorn; this was taken as the latest proof that the GAA had now gone Orwellian in its approach to underage success; that there was far too much emphasis on winning.

This weekend brought the relationship between player and coach at underage level into focus once again, albeit from the other perspective.

David Clifford's absurd talent was on show again a couple of weeks ago, outscoring Cork by himself in a minor semi-final in Pairc Ui Rinn. The Cork fans applauded him off, but it led to disunity in the Kingdom. Mark O'Connor has already left to play Aussie Rules, and the great fear is that Clifford will follow.

Such anxiety was the topic of Tomás O'Sé's  Irish Independent column on Saturday, in which he bemoaned Tadhg Kennelly's role in the poaching of top talent in Gaelic football. O'Sé admitted his obsession with Kerry affects his view on these things, but the thrust of the column came back to a central idea: it's just not fair. 

When you think of the time and effort out into those young players by club coaches, college coaches, by parents, by the county board, it's just plain wrong that someone can swoop down from outside and take them away.

This opinion is not restricted to just O'Sé.




Myriad of our commenters agreed that Clifford is free to what he pleases, but that his being approached was unfair on the coaches who give up their time to coach underage teams.

Feeling sorry for those coaches is probably a natural human response, but it is also to lose sight of what the GAA is truly about.

On a competitive level, losing Clifford means Kerry are less likely to win an All-Ireland. This is not solely Kerry's problem, either: Aidan O'Shea's selfies might not have been in the news this week had Pearce Hanley been available in September.


It's an amateur sport, meaning that it is about those who play it first and foremost. Those who coach, watch, and complain about photographs come after.

Underage structures are there to produce people first, and players second. Youth football, hurling, and camogie is about understanding personal responsibility, learning how to work as part of a team, taking pride in your community, and expressing yourself. It should not be a series of summer-long boot-camps necessary to win an All-Ireland.

I'm not suggesting under-16 teams sit around in a circle, chanting Hare Krishna, renouncing the evils of materialism for these are not mutually exclusive ideas, and are generally compatible with success, under the New Zealand mantra that "better people make better All Blacks".


Any belief that young players are being coached to sell out Croke Park and win medals is a tacit surrender to professionalism.

This is not professional football, where the rich clubs who poach talent from the academies of smaller clubs must pay a compensation fee to allow them to do so. Amateur sport should not be transactional.

The fact that East Kerry, St Brendan's and Kerry have coached a kid who can feel confident enough to move to Australia to make it in professional sport at the age of 18 should be taken as the highest possible compliment.


For those of us who prefer Gaelic football to Aussie Rules, it will be disappointing to see Clifford leave, should that eventuality arise. But as elite Gaelic football becomes the preserve of schoolteachers with the time to dedicate to training, we can't lose sight of the fact that there are countless Irish people excelling in a multitude of different fields, partly owing to what they learned playing Gaelic games from a young age. The GAA is the only major Irish institution that can be proud of how it has raised young people over the last half-century.

If Clifford leaves, it's a blow to Kerry's hopes of winning an All-Ireland.

But it's the ultimate proof that the game is healthy, and that in Kerry, people are doing their jobs.


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