The GAA's decision to impose a €2000 fine on Longford club Dromard, who allowed a soccer camp to take place on their grounds, was heavy-handed and petty, writes PAUL FITZPATRICK.
The GAA re-launched its Lá na gClubanna this week - but that wasn’t the only correspondence from top brass to the foot soldiers on the front line.
The news broke this morning that Dromard GAA club in north Longford has been fined €2,000 for allowing a soccer camp to take place at its grounds last summer. The penalty was handed down by the GAA’s Central Hearings Committee after the event was ruled to have contravened Rule 5.1 (a) of the Official Guide, governing the uses of association property.
The rule states that such property “shall be used only for the purpose of or in connection with the playing of the Games controlled by the Association, and for such other purposes not in conflict with the Aims and Objects of the Association, that may be sanctioned from time to time by the Central Council.”
According to a report in The Irish Times, “Dromard argued that the 3G pitch on which the summer school took place is a community resource but as club property it is vested in the GAA”.
The Anglo-Celt attended the event, on a beautiful August morning. We interviewed Carragher and he was charm personified - although his GAA knowledge wasn’t up to much. For one, he was surprised to hear the game was now being televised on Sky.
“Is it? I’ll have to get watching that won’t I if it’s on Sky Sports! Joey Barton is a big fan of that isn’t he... Was Niall Quinn a Gaelic footballer?” he asked.
Had he ever played it?
“There’s time yet. A few of my shots went over the bar anyway so that probably would have been a goal in Gaelic or something.”
Did he ever think he’d end up here, in Longford, at an event like this?
“When you finish you get involved in different things, we decided to to do the soccer schools so of course when you do that you get round to the places that are passionate for football. As you said this area in the past was more Gaelic football and football is now becoming more prominent so hopefully we can help that.”
That last quote is unfortunate in the context of this morning’s news. Dromard broke the rules and were punished accordingly. Case closed? Not really.
We all know that breaches of the rule are widespread - GAA clubs across the country surive on the takings from five-a-side soccer on their astro-turf pitches and in their halls, for example.
There are precedents there. A few years ago, the Mallow club in Cork allowed the Irish rugby team to train on their facilities and got away with a slap on the wrist, yet Dromard are hit with a substantial fine.
Why did one club whose facilities were used by mega-rich professional sportsmen get away with it while another, whose pitches hosted what was effectively a charity event, gets nailed?
(1/2)Following on from the statement released by the Central Hearings Committee, Dromard GAA have decided to exercise their right to appeal— Dromard GAA (@DromardGAA) February 4, 2016
(2/2) the sanction to the CAC. The club will be making no further comment on this matter.— Dromard GAA (@DromardGAA) February 4, 2016
From a GAA point of view, the optics are terrible.
On the one hand, the association recognises its unique position as the glue that binds many communities together – witness the laudable mental health initiatives, the fact that defibrillators in rural areas are often sited at the local club grounds, the way the association are attempting to address isolation among the elderly.
Yet, while they are happy to open Croke Park to rugby, soccer, American football and rock concerts, we can deduce from the Dromard decision that these are – strictly – all about revenue.
The GAA President at the time the rule was temporarily suspended to allow rugby and soccer into Croke Park was Sean Kelly. In an interview with The Irish Examiner last April, he looked back on the decision.
Journalist Kieran Shannon conjured the “catastrophic” image of TV cameras at the airport as the international rugby or soccer teams prepared to jet overseas to play a “home” match when Lansdowne Road was closed. Again, it was about optics – and money.
“The GAA would have got huge stick. We’d have lost a lot of support, not just from individuals but what we might call Corporate Ireland. Sponsors. Business people. And government as well...” Kelly said.
“One of the legacies is that the support for sport has grown in the country. There’s a greater appreciation of one another, a greater crossover among the sports.”
That appreciation doesn’t extend to a small soccer club in Co Cavan, however.
UCL Harps FC hosted the Carragher event. Founded in 1994, they field boys and girls soccer teams at underage level and are currently constructing their own pitch at Dernaferst, Gowna.
Many of the committee members, including chairman Enda Boylan, and coaches, come from strong GAA backgrounds. Nobody got rich from last August’s enterprise. The cost of flying Carragher’s team – including 10 coaches – over was in the region of €9,000.
“The main thing,” as someone close to the club said at the time, “is that the children had a fantastic time and they got so much out of it.”
The cost of the camp was covered by fundraising, including a banquet in a local hotel where fans paid €120 for a three-course meal, a free bar and “unlimited access” to Carragher for photos and engagement. A comedian provided entertainment; by all accounts, the audience – most of them Liverpool supporters – went away happy.
After costs, where did the money go? To Carragher’s 23 Foundation, a charity which the former Premiership star, who also donated signed photos and gear on the night for an auction for Irish charities such as GOAL, set up.
Back when he retired, Carragher made £1m from his testimonial match and pledged never to touch it. Rather, it rests in an account and the interest it earns, along with the proceeds from his soccer schools, goes to helping needy causes on Merseyside.
So, along with bringing enjoyment, through sport, to a couple of hundred children, the event – and this is important – raised funds for a worthy cause and was not a money-making racket.
UCL Harps draws players from Leitrim, Cavan and Longford (three provinces, hence the acronym) and members are said to be enraged by the news of the fine imposed on their neighbours. Dromard, it is reported, feel similarly aggrieved.
Boylan, when contacted by The Anglo-Celt, said only that Dromard GAC “helped us out when we were stuck”; he wouldn’t be drawn further.
Yes, Dromard did wrong but it was hardly the most heinous of sins. Day by day, the GAA looks more like a schoolyard bully, heavy-handed, petty and cruel in its retribution.
Clubs - not all, but many - are on life support but in the gleaming offices and committee rooms of Croke Park, there seems to be a ‘do not recussitate’ policy. It’s a real shame.
UCL Harps’ motto is 'fortitudo in unitate' – strength in unity. Unfortunately, and regardless of what any former President may say, we must assume that’s not strictly the GAA way any more.