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Players moving to soccer a major concern

By John Campbell

Recent warnings sounded by high-profile GAA personnel including President Liam O'Neill and Director General Paraic Duffy in relation to player welfare have gained further credibility given the current trickle of players to football.

While 2014 has still to get under way, there are growing concerns that what is currently a small trickle of players to soccer could become a flow unless the GAA takes remedial action.

The latest Ulster county player to sign on the dotted line for a soccer club is Antrim's Kevin Niblock, who has just joined Cliftonville.

And when he dons the red jersey of the north Belfast outfit, he can expect to encounter some familiar faces on the Irish League circuit that he might otherwise have faced in a GAA environment.

Derry forward Eoin Bradley is currently proving a potent marksman with Coleraine, Billy Joe Burns, who was weaned on GAA with the St Paul's club, is a regular for Linfield and Sean O'Neill, until quite recently the regular Antrim goalkeeper, is proving a big hit with Crusaders.

The obvious attraction for players who change codes is the prospect of financial rewards and given the commitment that is expected from county players nowadays, it is hardly surprising that some are opting to ensure that they are remunerated for their sacrifices rather than making them on a purely amateur basis.

A number of players who have so far resisted the temptation to change codes have expressed reservations with the general standards that apply in terms of player welfare within the GAA and indeed several have expressed criticism of the Gaelic Players Association claiming that it is an elitist group rather than a body concerned with the welfare of all players at different levels within the sport.

GAA President Liam O'Neill, while admitting that the GAA does not 'own' its players, nevertheless makes it clear that some counties are dragging their feet.

And Director General Paraic Duffy has just recently indicated that the GAA is under more intense pressure from sports such as soccer and rugby now – and this is in addition to the 'poaching' that is conducted by Australian Football League clubs as a consequence of the International Rules series.

"Not only is the GAA in competition with other major sports in terms of playing personnel but it is also vying for its share of media publicity. It is important that the Association enjoys the oxygen of publicity but there is no doubt that other sports are competing for the hearts and minds of our young players," concedes Duffy.

Oisin McConville, Benny Coulter, Sean Cavanagh and Dick Clerkin are just a few GAA personalities who see player welfare as a core issue.

This particular disturbing aspect of the GAA was brought into sharp focus when Michael Murphy captained Ireland to victory in the International Rules series over Australia in October in Cavan and 24 hours later found himself lining out for his club Glenswilly in the Donegal senior football championship final.

"This is madness," asserts Oisin McConville. "You wouldn't find it happening in any other sport.

"This being the case, you cannot blame some players for going to a sport in which they might get a few bob for their trouble when the opportunity arises."

Kevin Niblock's defection from St Gall's and Antrim to Cliftonville means that the GAA in Ulster is stripped of one of its most talented resources.

But perhaps this might just provide a further wake-up call.

Belfast Telegraph


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