Joe Brolly

JOE BROLLY: Collective insanity

SEAN MacCumhaills tweeted the following message on their social media on Christmas Eve.

“We invite applications from suitably qualified persons for the position of Reserve Team Manager. To express your interest in this position please send an e mail with your name and contact details to: before 6pm on Wednesday 11th of January 2023.”

The GAA has gone mad. A collective insanity. Reserve Team Manager? Suitably qualified persons? I was tempted to email them attaching a long and professionally drafted CV, with a cover email concluding “It has always been my dream to manage your reserves and I hope that you will make that dream a reality.” In the manner of a soccer player arriving at a new club, kissing the jersey badge (this year Arsenal, in a few years Man City, a few years later LA Galaxy) saying his childhood dreams have now come true.

I was reminded of when Michael Glaveys in Roscommon won the Reserve Junior B Championship some years ago and they invited me to give out the medals at their big do.

The club had sold so many tickets that they had to hire a second function room at the hotel with the proceedings televised on a big screen. None of the funds raised were wasted on either me or their triumphant reserve team manager, Gerry Fitzmaurice (from the Roscommon team of the late ‘70s and ‘80s that ought to have won an All-Ireland). To a huge ovation, Gerry got up to say a few words. He described the fun they had throughout the year, and got the biggest laugh of the night when he let the crowd into what he described as “the secret of our success.”

“There was no pressure on me at the start of the year because we only had the bare 15, so everybody was happy. But as the word spread and the fun got better, we had 16, then 17, and eventually a squad of 22, so now I had a conundrum: How was I going to pick the team? Eventually, I suggested we should organize a bit of training and that we should put it to a vote. The boys got into a huddle and had a quick chat. The captain told me they wanted to do a secret ballot. The motion was simple enough: Will we train or not? So we tore up pieces of paper and the boys wrote yes or no on them, then left them on the table. The motion was defeated 22-0.”

We laughed when creationist Edwin Poots lasted three weeks as DUP Leader, a full two weeks longer than it took to create the world.

Compared to Pat Flanagan, Edwin looks like Sir Alex Ferguson. Pat, who has been in more places than Phileas Fog, was announced as the Ballinabrackey senior football manager on the 19th of December. For the avoidance of doubt, that’s the 19th of December 2022. This was quite a coup for the Meath club, and in an atmosphere of considerable excitement, Pat met the senior squad and committee on that same date and outlined his plans for the coming season. It was a short season, as it turns out.

On the 22nd of December 2022, four days later (if one rounds it up) the Sarsfields Club in Kildare announced, in a triumphant tweet, that their new manager was… Pat Flanagan.

“Sarsfields GAA are delighted to announce the appointment of Pat Flanagan as our Men’s Senior Football Manager. We are also delighted to announce John Doran as our Men’s Senior Trainer for 2023. We wish them both and their management team all the very best in the upcoming season.”

The tweet concluded with a large green loveheart, presumably a symbol from the club of their great love for Pat.

Confusion ensued. Were there two Pat Flanagans? The photographs of the new manager on the respective clubs’ tweets looked remarkably similar. Perhaps they were twins, separated at birth? Was it a practical joke? David Rispin, the respected local GAA reporter with LMFN and avid Meath Podcaster, tweeted “Am I drunk?”

The Ballinabrackey club, presumably after making a few bewildered calls, announced via social media that it was indeed the same Pat Flanagan who has been in more places than Bus Eireann.

“Ballinabrackey GAA wish to note its disappointment in the news that our manager for 2023, Pat Flanagan lasted only four days in the job after meeting the players and executives to finalise the coming year.”

No one should be surprised. Now that managing in the GAA has become a profession, managers will go to the highest bidder. Increasingly, we resemble League of Ireland clubs, where the senior manager is a full time employee and the only people not paid are the players. Two years ago, having coached underage teams in my club for 15 years, spent countless hours on individual coaching and fund raising and all the rest, I was invited to apply for the post of senior manager of the club. By then, we had two u-16 A championships, two minor A finals and it seemed the logical progression. We were interviewed by a panel of club people we knew very well. I got a phone call from the head of the selection panel two days later who started the call with, “This is the most difficult phone call I have ever had to make.” I said, “Is someone dead?” The club hierarchy had decided to hire an outsider to take the “job” as they called it. I was asked if I would sit down with the new man and give him a rundown on the club and the players.

What used to be an “honour” and a “duty” has become a mere business transaction. No one had died, but in a way, it was like a death, casting a pall over a club I love and weakening the essential bonds of loyalty and togetherness. The fact the appointment turned out a disaster is neither here nor there. A line had been crossed and things would never be the same. It was a deep humiliation I am still trying to shake off.

Around a decade ago, I had strongly campaigned for a rule that only a club man could manage his club, and only a county man his county. It was a simple rule that meant eligibility for management was the same as for playing. It would stop the fledgling managerial industry in its tracks and more importantly, it would protect the amateur ideal that is supposed to be our core principle. The proposal was ignored. Now, we have a professional managerial cartel. Many of them have retired altogether from their day jobs, so good is the package. Why teach when you can earn twice as much tax free?

None of this happens at underage level, where heart and soul is the core. On Sunday at St Paul’s, our hearts were bursting when our minors became Ulster Minor Club champions for the first time since 1990. The boys had Eunan O’Kane’s number 11 jersey with them in the dressing room and draped it around the cup afterwards. Eunan, perhaps the greatest minor footballer Derry ever had, drove Dungiven to that Ulster title, having helped drive his county to the All-Ireland Minor title a few months beforehand. The manager, my old friend Emmett McKeever, who tore nearly as many jerseys off my back in training as his brother Kieran, was only one of a host of connections to our teams of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Every face was familiar. The Dungiven family, independent, ferociously loyal, ferociously committed to the people in the community. All in it together for the common good. How it should be. How it is supposed to be. Hard earned funds raised from the community should be for the common good, not the enrichment of an outside manager.

Celebrating Watty Graham’s great Ulster Club win at the final whistle, I was brought back to reality when the Watty’s captain, in his victory speech, singled out their manager Malachy O’Rourke and said he had transformed “our club”. I thought of all the great volunteers in that club who had nurtured those lads for the last 25 years. All that fundraising and coaching and agonising. The unquestioning loyalty and the unquestioning gift of their precious time. Enda Gormley travelling the country, from Corofin to Crossmaglen, to learn best practice. Him and Fergal McCusker and Damien McCusker and many others that created perhaps the most imaginative underage training system ever seen on this island. A system and management that brought this small club an unbelievable four Ulster Minor Club Championship titles in a row and is now bearing fruit at senior level. Yet it is the outside manager who gets the credit, just like soccer. Send him to Ballybrackey and see how he gets on. As we saw when Jack O’Connor went to Kildare, or Mick O’Dwyer went to Wicklow, the players are the thing.

This is not a criticism of Malachy, who is a sound manager and a good fellow. It is a criticism of the GAA hierarchy, who have allowed our game to become professional for everyone except the players. It has become so blatant that clubs and counties now – without embarrassment – place job advertisements in the paper and on social media.

On Thursday, St Colmcilles GAA in Meath tweeted:

“We invite expressions of interest in the role of senior men’s football manager for 2023. We enjoyed a super 2022 reaching a first ever Division One league final and also won 3 premier championships games. Contact ”

Colmcilles needn’t worry. Pat Flanagan should be available in four days.

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