Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Joe Kernan: GAA must up game to stave off soccer threat

Kevin Nolan turned his back on a potentially lucrative career with Blackburn Rovers to re-join Dublin

If emigration is currently proving a major worry for the GAA authorities in so far as it is making a significant drain on playing resources at club and county level, then the biggest sporting body in the country is certain to be saddled with another huge headache next year.

The onset of the Six Nations Championship and the Republic of Ireland’s participation Euro 2012 will intensify the battle the GAA is currently waging with the other two major sports in this country for the hearts and minds of young players.

And while the Association can take a morsel of comfort from the FAI’s confirmation that it is losing the battle to keep young players involved in soccer at a significant level, there are certainly no grounds for the slightest element of complacency.

Indeed, even the return to the GAA fold of several players who flirted with soccer careers in England must not be allowed to breed even a hint of smugness.

Kevin Nolan, who was named as man of the match in the recent All-Ireland final, had been earmarked as a player of immense potential at Blackburn before re-joining the Dublin team while Wexford’s Ciaran Lyng, one of the best forwards in the country, was plying his trade in the colours of Preston North End not so long ago.

St Brigid’s club goalkeeper Shane Sutton transferred his expertise from Ipswich to the Leinster club and Armagh’s Brian Mallon had a trial with Celtic.

But even though these and indeed a number of other high-profile players embraced the GAA code again, this could certainly not be deemed a trend.

Instead, the Association is bracing itself for a twin blast of rugby and soccer high-level marketing that could entice young players into both sports.

There is no doubt that here in Ulster the structures to attract and retain youngsters into the GAA are sound, yet when players see the interest that is shown by Swansea City in someone like Cliftonville’s Rory Donnelly, they must be forgiven for thinking ‘that could be me’.

When the Republic of Ireland soccer side thrived under Jack Charlton, new clubs sprang up, impressive grounds were opened and scouts flocked to view burgeoning talent.

If the soccer ‘boom’ gradually declined, then it was replaced by an explosion of interest in rugby which now holds appeal for all sections of the community here in Ulster — not something that always applied in the past, let it be said.

It is to the credit of rugby’s administrators that their schools structures, coaching camps, marketing strategies and provision of facilities are such that they are proving a magnet for young people.

It’s hardly surprising that the GAA in Ulster is concerned about the number of potential players it is losing to rugby, particularly in urban areas.

This is helping rugby to grow and to reach out and I have no doubt that if its existing marketing and promotional drive is further expanded it will become a bigger threat to the GAA.

When you consider that not so long ago live televised rugby was the exception rather than the rule and that nowadays you can hardly switch on without seeing a live game, this shows just how far the sport has come.

And it can be expected that neither the soccer nor the rugby authorities will take their foot off the pedal in their bid to bring new participants under their respective banners here.

Rugby in particular boasts attractive under-age competitions that will ensure players in many cases can graduate to a high level while soccer is served in this way to a lesser extent.

And it is in Ulster that the allure of rugby is most pronounced with many schools which were formerly ‘GAA only’ institutions now boasting capable rugby teams coached by teachers committed to the sport.

Just to show that it is not all ‘one way traffic’, St Gall’s and Antrim midfield ace Aodhan Gallagher is lending a valuable hand with the prized rugby curriculum at Methodist College where he is a teacher.

GAA players are turning out for the Harlequins club in Belfast and other sides while during the current two-month close season some county players are ‘keeping their hand in’ by lining out with soccer sides.

They are amateurs, of course, and are entitled to do so.

Should Ireland manage to recapture the form they showed against Australia in particular in the Rugby World Cup recently and if Giovanni Trappatoni’s stoic defensive strategy succeeds in frustrating Croatia, Italy or Spain to any great extent, then the GAA could subsequently have a much bigger battle on its hands than it ever thought possible.

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