A friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, arrived at the door last Sunday morning. Looking a little worse for wear after celebrating breaking his own personal best in the increasingly popular triAthlone he declared that while he had never in his life been in America he was in some state last night.
Now this wouldn’t be the right forum to impart any details of his shenanigans the previous evening but his declaration did put me thinking of the two summers I spent kicking ball in Boston back in 2000 and 2002 and the weekend trips to the Big Apple in 2001.
Back then it was a common practice for hundreds of club and county footballers to head Stateside to sample the cocktail of travel, football, fine weather, and a lot more besides.
Of course county players whose season had ended were in big demand and it was the norm for clubs in New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco to provide flights, accomodation, a job, and very often a couple of grand to entice players over.
For much of the past decade, however, fewer and fewer players opted to cross the Atlantic due to both the Celtic Tiger and the introduction of the qualifier system which keeps players involved in the championship longer.
This year this trend seems to be reversed as the lure of the States is very much back in vogue. With limited chances of securing employment on this side of the Atlantic, more and more students, and indeed out of work GAA stars, are jetting off. Paul Greville hung around until Westmeath’s run in the qualifiers had ended but to the best of my knowledge he is now residing in the Big Apple. He will be a big loss to the club championships here.
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s when emigration was rife, Westmeath was hit especially hard. It wasn’t by accident that Westmeath were one of the strongest clubs in New York in both hurling and football.
Indeed I had the privilege of playing in a quarter final, semi-final, and final in Gaelic Park for Westmeath in 2001 as a weekend player. Ballymore’s Brian McCabe was part of that side and a legend on the playing fields in both codes in New York.
The Westmeath club disbanded a number of years ago but now, probably prompted by the economic downturn here, it was re-established last year. Former St Loman’s Mullingar and Westmeath footballer Vinny Gavin is spearheading the revival and he has gathered a side comprising players from various Westmeath clubs and indeed from other parts of Ireland.
The relationship between the GAA on both sides of the Atlantic has been of the love hate variety. While the GAA has allowed New York partake in the Connacht championship it has also taken steps to limit the number of players leaving these shores in the summer months.
Weekend sanctions to New York are a thing of the past, while players on county panels will only be given a 60 day sanction if they are entitled to a J1 visa, in other words if they are in full-time education.
While I can fully understand why clubs or counties here would be reluctant to let their players leave, I would be firmly against placing barriers in their way. The best way to keep players on these shores is to provide meaningful games throughout the summer at both club and county level, something which is not happening at present, and to be more proactive in providing employment for our young players.
The age old battle between club and county usually results in the club player losing out in terms of matches during the summer months when one wants to be playing. Club championships can be put on hold indefinitely if a county gets a decent championship run as we have seen recently in Waterford. Little wonder then that club players get browned off and decide not to hang around the following year.
Even county players are getting fed up as the current qualifier system seems to have lost much of its appeal. A revamped All-Ireland championship could certainly play a part in players deciding to stick around.
Connemara Gaels was the club I played with in 2002. The likes of Sean Óg de Paor and Deckie Meehan had worn their colours in previous years while our own John Keane starred for them in 2003 before winning his all-star in 2004. I still maintain contact with the club and after struggling to entice players over in recent years they had few problems this year with the likes of Offaly’s Brian Connor, and John Molloy and Robbie Fox from Athlone and Garrycaste respectively amongst their ranks.
The one thing that really struck me about my time in the States was how the GAA community there really looked out for each other particularly in terms of providing employment. In the difficult economic climate which prevails here at present I think clubs need to be more proactive in using their contacts to secure work for students and unemployed players. Supporters too can play their part by giving preferential treatment to GAA players if they are in a position to provide employment. A little more teamwork off the field might lead to stronger teams on the field.
At a time when football in the county is very much in transition and hurling showing signs of improvement it is vital that we have a full hand to pick from next year. We can’t afford to lose any of our talented players to emigration.
Students heading over for the summer months is less of a concern than the prospect of losing a player long-term. Most, if not all, clubs in the county are affected to some degree this year and from what I’m hearing it will be an even bigger issue next year. God knows if the weather doesn’t soon pick up here I might pack the bags myself. Taxi.