The Gaelic Players Association’s purpose is to represent the interests of all of our players, protect their welfare on and off the pitch, and support their development as people. I’ve been in the role of CEO of the GPA for nine months and I’m delighted to say that we are making great progress in delivering on our purpose.
However, the demands on our players have never been higher. And the players’ need for the GPA programmes and services has mirrored this. Everyday I hear from players about the balancing act they play on a daily basis with juggling work, county and club commitments. Like many in the GAA community, Championship structures and fixtures are on the top of players’ agendas.
This is why we are enthusiastic about the newly-formed GAA Fixture Review Taskforce. It is made up of stakeholders from every unit in the GAA to review the fixture calendar for both Hurling and Football.
The Taskforce aims to deliver a report that will lay out a road map to remedy the long-standing fixtures and structural issues that are impacting player welfare and the enjoyment of our games. The Hurling Leagues and Championship structures in Leinster will be key components of these discussions, but the one with the most significant momentum is the Tier Two football Championship.
This is why the GAA’s Special Congress in October concerns us.
Why push through structural changes – including the proposed Tier Two football championship – when a dedicated committee, comprising representatives of the GAA, GPA, CPA, third-level institutions, and other stakeholders has been established to address exactly this?
From a player’s perspective, I fully empathise with the need for a structured programme of games during a clearly defined season. I understand the frustration that both county and club players have around fixtures and Championship structures which is why the work of the Taskforce is so important.
The GAA Fixture Review Taskforce needs time to review the overall structure of our competitions. And time is needed to listen to the views of players, and other GAA stakeholders, before putting the question to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote.
While 60% of players supported a change to a tiered football championship, a number of concerns were raised. Namely that the current proposals differed to those presented in 2018.
Our members had agreed that the objective of any Tier Two championship should be to facilitate more Championship games for teams in Division 3 and 4 while also providing sufficient assurances of promotion and TV coverage of championship games.
We have been open with the GAA in our willingness to work together to influence positive change for players, administrators and wider supporters of our games. This must be done without damaging the integrity, popularity and commercial appeal of our flagship competitions.
Through the Fixtures Task Force, green shoots of change are finally emerging, and this is all the more reason why we must avoid perpetuating any existing problems with an isolated solution.
There is clear evidence that many counties are already running an efficient programme of league and championship fixtures for club players in both hurling and football. For example, playing with my own club Fingallians in Swords, I’m experiencing a comprehensive league schedule that runs simultaneously with the inter county schedule, as is the case in many counties. In other words, as a player, I know when matches will be on.
These structures need to act as a model for other counties where club leagues are held up as the inter-county season continues. Delays should be the exception not the norm. The responsibility lies with the clubs in each county – through their representation at county board level – to guarantee that an appropriate programme of games is in place to meet the needs and ambitions of their county players and teams.
The relationship between the GPA and Club Players Association is vital in this regard. We’ve had a number of positive engagements in recent months, and it is clear that there are areas of mutual interest that can be harnessed to drive positive change. Again, we need time to do this.
The GPA previously put forward proposals for a revised ‘Champions League’ type football competition. The changes proposed aimed at improving the players’ welfare by tightening up the calendar, improving the games-to-training ratio and enhancing the playing experience at club and county level. Many of the principles proposed then remain in place today.
We are currently working with a group of player representatives to review the original proposal and make this more relevant to the playing environment of 2019. This would consider the integration of a potential second tier Championship, while also allowing lower division teams an opportunity to compete for Sam Maguire. All of the players’ ideas will be shared with the Fixtures Task Force.
Structural reform is clearly required, and although it won’t be straightforward there is a great opportunity with the Fixtures Taskforce to make recommendations that lead to positive change into the future.
The inter-county player, who often gets the blame for the fixtures issue, is the one who needs to be protected the most.
As it stands, inter-county players are under extraordinary pressure from demands placed on them by the GAA’s master fixture calendar. All GPA members are proud club members first and foremost, and with 35% currently full-time students, many represent their college too. The ESRI report highlighted that our inter-county games are at a tipping point as players face increased risks to their physical and emotional health and wellbeing.
Our members are investing 31 hours on average a week into their preparation while making huge sacrifices. They’re honoured to do this for the privilege to represent their county and community.
Sometimes this is lost amidst all the commentary.
This is the reason why the GPA programmes and services are critically important to all players. We help them to find that balance, to maintain focus on their careers and support them in their development as people first and players second.
In many cases it is only the 70 minutes of game time that people see of our great players. When the lights go out and the crowd goes home these guys need to be supported to develop as people and professionals too.
Cracking the fixtures issue, will be a big step in right direction. Let’s not rush to a quick fix at the Special Congress for a long-term problem.
– Paul Flynn, CEO Gaelic Players Association