“He is not welcome there [Sigerson Cup football weekend] but there is nothing we can do to stop him,” said outgoing GAA President Nickey Brennan when asked about Nixon’s intentions the other day. “We have no relationship with this individual. We met him once to see what he was about but we have a relationship with the AFL and we are meeting them later this month.”
Brennan should really cop on to himself. The GAA has much, much bigger problems than the fact a few gifted, young fellas every year are willing to try their hand at Aussie Rules because they fancy being paid to play a sport. Given that at last count, there were ten Irishmen down there, this isn’t something the association should be looking to regulate because the laws of natural selection apply. It’s all very well newspapers running headlines about Nixon having 90 players on his hitlist. The truth is very few will be ultimately good enough to endure in Australia, a point evidenced by the fact only four of the Irish exiles featured as regular starters for their clubs last season.
Not to mention those who go and fail to sustain will come back having benefited from the experience and the process. Witness the way Australian sojourns impacted on the likes of Anthony Tohill and Colin Corkery, just two who returned to their native counties in the early nineties as even more formidable prospects than before.
The fact the denizens of Croke Park still see the need to sit down to talk about this traffic with their equivalent blazers in the AFL and to publicly denounce the likes of Nixon is ridiculous. The Australians are offering a tiny minority of teenage starlets the chance to earn money for their talent. The GAA can’t (and shouldn’t) do that. Some of these players will think it’s worth a gamble, more won’t. Cork’s Michael Shields needed only half a season at Carlton to realize it wasn’t for him. Tyrone’s Kyle Coney was exactly six weeks into his two-year contract with the Sydney Swans when he came to the same conclusion.
“I was scheduled to go back on 2 January but the time came to make a decision and I decided not to go back,” said Coney. “I want to be playing football for Ardboe and Tyrone. About a week after I came home for Christmas, I said to my family that this is where I want to be playing football.”
Tyrone football fans are no doubt thrilled at Coney’s about-turn and nobody is downplaying the impact the departure of a talented player has on a county. In Cork, hurling aficionados will always wonder about how Setanta O hAilpin might have developed. In Down, the available evidence suggests Martin Clarke, now a bona fide Rules star with Collingwood, would be contributing enough to make an already resurgent county team genuine contenders before long. Every side that has lost a young up and comer to Australia can talk ruefully in those terms but it still doesn’t explain the exaggerated reaction to the trend.
Everybody seems to conveniently forget young players have always been lost to counties at inopportune times. In the early eighties, generations of star minors in both codes left the country in search of work all over the world. Some, like Larry Tompkins, returned to deliver on all that promise. But many more didn’t. Forced by the terrible reality of the time to seek out employment whereever they could, these men never made it home to resume their playing careers. Another generation suffered the same fate back in the 1950s and it appears, given the deteriorating economic situation, we may be in for a rerun of the emigration epics.
Against that depressing background, railing about a handful of youngsters getting lured to Australia by the promise of a few bob, a decent lifestyle, and a shot at stardom in another code is completely misguided. Let them go and pray that they’ll do well for themselves. They’ll certainly have a far better chance of making a go of it than the thousands of their compatriots who may soon find themselves boarding planes in the quest to find jobs.
That Brennan wants to try to control the free movement of amateurs in search of work is wrong-headed and potentially actionable, So, rather than seeking out meetings with the AFL then, he would be better off convening an EGM to consider how the GAA will cope with the recession and its likely adverse impact on playing populations, sponsors and even attendances at big games. That’s serious business. That’s stuff that could seriously alter the fabric of the association forever. In comparison, the presence of an Aussie Rules’ scout at the Sigerson is very, very small beer indeed.