Mayo GAA is coming off the back of one their most successful decades on the field, claiming All Ireland titles at minor and u21 level, six Connacht senior titles, a National League win and five All Ireland final appearances.
To ensure success like that continues and that more importantly, the clubs in the county continue to not only survive but grow, Mayo GAA have conducted an extensive review of the demographics within the clubs at underage level since 2012.
A draft of the study has been sent out to clubs for consideration ahead of the adoption of the report at a future date. The study was compiled by the Mayo GAA Competitions Control Committee (CCC ) and in connection with the Bord nÓg in the county and is a deep dive into the health of the playing numbers and demographic considerations that have to be looked at going into the future.
Mayo GAA vice-chairperson, Con Moynihan, who was part of the team that put together the report, spoke this week to the Mayo Advertiser about what is in it and what they are looking to do to ensure that it gives a roadmap to success both on the field and off it, for clubs around the county.
The building blocks
"What it comes back to really is, when they started off the Go Games back in around 2012, we asked the clubs for their numbers so they could match them up for different teams.
“After that then we expanded it to start looking at numbers for clubs in general. At the end of 2019 I had all these figures over the last seven or eight years and then had the idea during lockdown last year. There was a concern at that time that player retention was going to be an issue and whether people would come back to football.
“So the idea came about to put it all down on paper and see could we learn anything from it. It all tied itself together and we had the time to do the bulk of the work in lockdown and then when we got back to football, it was put on the back burner until January, when we got other bits and pieces in, like the numbers for the Cúl Camps last year.”
No one size fits all
The report found that there has been a big growth in those playing Gaelic Games at young ages in clubs - with urban areas in particular seeing a big growth in players. It is trying to find the right fit for each club on its own terms that is going to be the challenge over the next decade, Moynihan says.
“Every club is different, it is about seeing what each club needs in terms of things like facilities, coaching etc over the next ten to 12 years.
“It is about seeing how we can manage the large urban centres and the small rural clubs and the medium size ones and to try and keep each going and keep them alive.
“It’s about keeping people playing football at an underage level. There was one year we had eight different B teams at u16 level and then when we got to minor, there was just one or two - where did the 90 odd footballers go in those two years?
“The smaller rural clubs have done really well in their player retention, because they really have to keep their numbers.
“We have only started taking the nursery figures since 2018, which is the under sixes. It is interesting to see this year and then see in 2022, will a lot of them stay. But we already know that the high retention rates are from that age six up to u14, but it is about what happens after that.
“Everything becomes really competitive after that age in all things like football, soccer and exams in secondary school - there is a slight drop off at u16 but there is an alarming drop off between u16 and u18 and again we want to see why that is - is it life pressures or other sports etc?”
Giving games to encourage staying with the game
Keeping those who have played up to minor level playing on, is something else that the report looks at and the introduction of an u19 competition is something that Moynihan hopes will aid that.
“Another thing that we are looking at is the new u19 team which we think will be crucial in bridging the gap.
“Looking forward, we’ll probably see that third level education will be changing in a big way going forward, with online etc. We had a big issue with kids in college finishing at 4pm on a Friday and then them getting back to play that evening, that might not be an issue in the future and may help people keep playing.
"We have two clubs - one in the north and one in the west - who it looks like will be entering a B team for the first time this year; and it also looks like the two urban clubs in Castlebar and Westport will have C teams again this year and possibly one or two others.
“It looks as if those lads are staying around for the summer because, in a way they have to with the current climate and it will be interesting to see the uptake and hopefully it might spur them when they are 20/21 to stick around.
“There are very few clubs that will get a large amount through from one underage team, but it does happen and the best examples I can think of is that Ballaghaderreen and Ballintubber played in a 2011 division one league final at, I think, u16.
"I think there is eight and six from those teams playing senior football now. I suppose it is probably testament to the middle-sized clubs they had to keep those players, but success also helps that. Ballintubber won the county title in 2011 and Ballaghaderren won in 2012 - those guys were coming into an environment that showed a pathway for success and higher level was there.
“It might not have been the same for some clubs, but with Junior A, B, C now, there is a chance for success for smaller clubs and we have a hugely competitive junior and intermediate championships."
Putting in the coaches and coaching the coaches
Getting more coaches on the ground in clubs is a key recommendation of the report, but because one model will fit one club, it does not mean it will fit another, adds Moynihan.
“The recommendations in the report are based around all needs. When we look at coaching the likes of smaller clubs, these would benefit from our Games Promotion Officers (GPO ) going out to them; while our larger urban areas probably need a lot of man-power and players and coaches in the clubs up-skilled.
“Whereas you might get away with two coaches or three per age group where you have a small number in a small club, but if you have 45 or 50 players in a large club, you need five coaches and that could be over three or four age groups; that’s 20-odd coaches that need to be up-skilled.
“In the smaller rural clubs, the guy who takes the u14 probably takes the u15, but in the bigger urban clubs, that is just probably not feasible.
“We are trying to put in a business case for six extra coaches, five in football and one in hurling - and hopefully we will and this is where we need the input from the clubs.”
The report says that currently, Mayo has six coaches, with five posts covering football and one covering hurling. This is broken down to a county GPO, with a GPO in the South, East and North divisions and on GPO post half time in the Erris region and half time in the West Mayo region and a county wide hurling GPO.
The report is looking to expand that team by doubling it with three GPOs being put into west Mayo, where there is currently only one half time post; a new GPO going into South Mayo and the creation of 1.5 new coaching posts in the north Mayo region, along with an extra hurling GPO for the county.
Explaining how it might work and how clubs could work together to get the best out of it, Moynihan said: “Basically, something like the Dublin model, where the club contribute a certain amount of money, the county board contribute a certain amount of money and Croke Park contribute the rest.”
Making sure they get the right details in from clubs on their playing numbers is key to the board's application for funding in this regard, along with sitting down with clubs and seeing where to best put the coaches in place; they could even be split amongst a number of clubs, if it works.
“That is something we are looking at, it is a matter of sitting down with the clubs once we get the feedback in and getting business cases together and speaking to the clubs then; and saying something like, maybe two clubs go together, and, if club A is contributing 60 per cent of the club cost and club B is giving 40 per cent of the cost, then club A gets them three days a week and club B gets them the other two. It is something we have to sit down and think about, we have feedback in for April 23. Hopefully then we get time over the summer and are able to sit down in the rooms and get the business cases in to Croke Park for 2022."