Padraic Joyce: Club Players Association long overdue

Padraic Joyce with his father and daughter after a match

Words such as brilliant and long overdue were my immediate response to the announcement of a Club Players Association. The man who has set up the movement, former Monaghan selector Declan Brennan, called me to ask for my support and I will be delighted to row in behind them.

While I was playing for Galway, I knew that the club scene was suffering but it wasn’t until I left the inter-county set-up at the end of 2012 that it truly hit home for me. As a GAA player who has enjoyed some success in his footballing career, nothing much beats winning with your club. The nights out on the town after a club game with the lads you battled with, grew up with, shared classrooms with and now work with were always some craic and created a huge sense of community.

I’d decided to put a big focus on Killererin after I retired from Galway in 2012 but you’re left in no man’s land for months of the year. The only show in town is county and the clubs lads are left waiting to see where his cards fall. Club players can’t even book a holiday which leads to problems with the other half, and teams are training away without having a date to aim for — we all know the issues. The burning issue really and truly for club players is fixtures, never mind if you are from a dual county and a footballer holds up the hurling championship or vice versa.

This is a typical year for club players: you might start your training season with the club in January or February, play one of two league games before the first round of championship in May, maybe squeeze in another round of club championship before the county’s lockdown for inter-county championship. There might be a league game of two during the summer if we can get the county players available for a day, and then when the county team gets knocked out of the championship race, it is all hands on deck for a few weeks as you will be playing soon! Then your county minors are still going well so we can’t play until they are finished as some clubs have one or two them. Throw a few dual players into the mix from other clubs and the championship is held up again. Then your second or third round is on in early September and it is every weekend then until all the games are ran off. Madness at its best.

Corofin won the county championship last weekend defeating Salthill but the Galway senior team have been out of the senior football campaign since the 30th of July. The Galway hurlers stayed going a few weeks longer and the likes of John Hanbury would be playing for St Michael’s, the Mannion brothers for Caltra, and then our minors were involved until All-Ireland final day on the 18th of September, and some of them county minors were playing for Salthill.

Meanwhile, since the championship games in May until the next round in September, some club players have been to America for three months of the summer and come back and might have only missed one club game maximum. The home club player has slogged it out training with 14 or 18 players the whole summer — some coming this week, more coming next week. It is absolutely crazy and ridiculous what we are doing with our club players and mentors.

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Change is needed drastically. For one thing, county managers have too much influence in some counties and they shouldn’t have the power to cancel club games.

Think about it this way: a round of club is cancelled and inevitably the county team will go away for the weekend and play a meaningless challenge game somewhere. That will result in maybe 20 players getting a game out of the 30 on the panel, as opposed to all 30-plus getting games if they could all go back to their parishes for the weekend and play championship or competitive league football. A healthy club scene leads to a strong county team, no doubt about that.

From talking to Declan, the only objective of the Club Players Association at the moment is to find a better way of incorporating club fixtures into the GAA calendar. The GPA have been on the road since 1999 and have managed to avoid getting their teeth into this issue. For a long, long time the GPA have had the power and recognition from the GAA so they have been in a better position to do something about this.

It’s going to be a mammoth task for the CPA but the one thing they have going for them is weight of numbers. Whereas the GPA has between 30 to 60 members per county, the CPA can potentially draw from thousands of club players in each county. Bring that together and it can’t be ignored.

When we think of club players we must get into the mentality of thinking about all grades and levels. Here is a situation: my own club Killererin just won a Junior B north board final against Tuam’s last weekend, and now we’re due to play against Killanin in the county final next weekend. One of the Killererin players is getting married next Friday. A day I’m sure he has been looking forward to for some time and the celebrations with his wife to be, her family and friends, his family and friends. Now he might have a county final to attend the day after his wedding on Halloween bank holiday weekend! Over half of that Killererin team will also attend the wedding and, as you know, most Junior Bs don’t sip Mi-wadi too well.

So across all levels, change is needed. Consider Kilmore winning the Roscommon Intermediate title after a replay last Saturday but then having to face Galway’s Monivea Abbey in the Connacht club on Sunday. How about the same provincial council's decision to inform Tourlestrane that if they draw with the Mayo champions on Saturday week, then the replay will be the following day even though the Sligo championship was completed before the Mayo quarter-finals had been played?

Even during the summer, imagine being a fan of your county team up in Croke Park but you’re also a club player. You’re roaring the team on but at the back of your mind, there’s part of you knowing that a good result here will mean your club games are goosed for a few more weeks. That’s not what this should be about.

It’s hurting the small rural clubs especially. Think of the club lad who is now working away from the parish, possibly in Dublin. He gives up on the two to three hours commute up and down to play for his parish because he doesn’t know when he’ll finally be lining out. There’s only so many times you can endure the endless driving for nothing before you give up the ghost. Chances are that he will, or already has joined a club in Dublin and this has crippled country clubs more times over.

Club players from every county are heading off to America for the summer months because all they have at home is a few league games during the summer— so why wouldn’t you head off? Then they come home as we head into September and they’ve missed nothing much, possibly one championship game. That’s fine and well for the big clubs across the country but these aren’t the teams you’re worried about.

Even in Dublin, their clubs get stronger because of the country lads who find it easier to stay up in the capital. There’s a centralisation of power. Then you end up with small clubs struggling to cobble together 12 or 13 lads and end up amalgamating with their fiercest rivals for years to form a new club just to stay involved.

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One of my proudest days in football was when I captained Ireland to success in the international rules series in 2004 on the Sunday of the October Bank holiday weekend. The following day at 2pm, I was playing for my club Killererin against Carna-Cashel in a league game we needed to win out in Connemara. When I left Dublin the bank holiday Monday morning, after a two-hour journey, I was halfway to Carna when I reached my home in Barnaderg. Quick cup of tea and sandwich, then into my uncle Billy’s car, who was club manager, and away to Connemara for the game. The Carna players were so surprised to see me that by the time the shock was over for them, so was the game. I have always put my club first and I am proud to say that Killererin GAA Club is my club, in the exact same way that every other club player around the country is proud of their club. So the issue of club fixtures hasn’t developed overnight.

This journey that the CPA are embarking upon will be a long and arduous trail. They will have to deal with and consider county boards, provincial boards and the GAA decision-makers. When something is decided upon it must then get passed through the proper channels. I sincerely hope that the GAA want change for the club players because they have a terrific product on their hands and there is so much more that can be done with it to make it so much more enjoyable and appealing for more people. GAA clubs are a huge part of people’s lives and they contribute so much to society.

Something has got to give because the current situation would break your heart. That’s why I’m fully in support of the CPA.