KEVIN EGAN argues that there is an urgent need for Offaly GAA to develop an all-weather pitch and county training facility.
They say that the faraway hills are green, and nowhere is that more true than in the race to accumulate GAA infrastructure.
Just as most of our neighbouring counties look into Offaly and see a county ground that is ideally fit for purpose and worthy of comparison with any stadium of comparable size, so it is the case that Offaly supporters tend to look with envy at counties like Laois, where there are several places to hold floodlit games; to places like Roscommon where the club infrastructure is excellent; to counties like Kildare and Westmeath where the training facilities for county teams are top class; and indeed to Tipperary, which ticks most of these boxes, albeit all across a much bigger county.
In a world of scarce resources, it’s impossible to have everything – yet the further time goes on, the harder it becomes to excuse the lack of a decent county training facility or all-weather playing surface in the county. By now, every club in the county has probably fielded at least one call from a different county team secretary, enquiring about the use of their facilities for one reason or another.
Historically, clubs have always done their best to accommodate these wishes for the greater good, yet the traffic on pitches is at an all-time high and clubs are finding it harder and harder to justify relinquishing their own pitches so that they can be used by county sides.
In addition, the practice of paying rent to some clubs has made it even harder to justify others turning on their lights for free. Nonetheless, this year’s Leinster Minor Football League has illustrated the need for an all-weather facility more than ever, as Offaly have had to travel to Killeshin to play a ‘home’ game against Laois, and to St Loman’s in Mullingar to play a home game against Clare. Last night, Offaly played Westmeath in a MFL game in Tubber; however, not every game of this nature would draw a crowd and so give some sort of pay-off to the host club.
This time last year, the absence of a floodlit venue capable of hosting an U-21 tie between Offaly and Laois was at issue, though in that instance, there was a tinge of suspicion attached to the decision by the Leinster council to move the fixture from Gracefield to O’Moore Park.
Last Wednesday night, this columnist attended the first round fixture between Westmeath and Longford at Newtowncashel, two neighbouring counties that played out an enthralling tie at a pleasant, club ground that was entirely appropriate for the occasion. Quite why Newtowncashel was deemed suitable for such a tie and Gracefield wasn’t is simply impossible to tell, although a quick tally of the home counties of the Leinster Council members might tell a tale.
Either way, the simple fact of the matter is that Offaly missed out, and considering the tie was lost by a single point, it would be easy to argue that they missed out in every sense.
In an ideal world, a facility similar to that at St Loman’s in Mullingar would be built, with an astro-turf field and a floodlit pitch side by side. However it’s understandable that many believe that the scope for such capital projects is severely limited right now. Nonetheless, the status quo is simply not good enough any longer and it is now, when land and construction costs are as low as is ever likely to be the case, that such a project should be undertaken.
Let’s not forget either that if an agreement can be reached with local residents in the Drumcondra area, Croke Park will host seven concerts this year, yielding a total revenue to the GAA of approximately €5 million. Neither should we forget that this year there will be an election held to determine the successor to Liam O’Neill as GAA president.
It would be nice if auction politics wasn’t a feature of Irish life, but we are who we are, so now might be a good time to start turning a few sods and reading the tea leaves to assess who out of Sheamus Howlin, Áogán Ó Fearghail and Seán Walsh might be a likely winner that could be publicly supported in the near future. Offaly could be well poised to pay it forward, so to speak.
At the risk of sounding somewhat hypocritical, while it’s important that Offaly start to look to the future and deal with this gaping hole in the county’s infrastructure, it’s equally important that any debt burden for this development isn’t foisted back onto the clubs.
Clubs remain very precariously poised, particularly at this time of year when registration and insurance fees are all due. Where once upon a time there were no shortage of sponsors willing to pour five figure sums into the local club and every family in the parish was a member of the club lotto, things have changed immeasurably in recent times.
Disposable income is a rare thing and many local businesses are fighting to keep their head above water, so discretionary payments to local sporting concerns have had to be cut out of many household and business budgets.
Yet, it’s notable that the most successful clubs are the ones that look to fundraise outside of their usual benefactors, and to offer much more than simply a variety of lottos/draws/raffles etc. In this spirit, the Offaly county board needs to look beyond the captive audience that is the clubs and instead look to either provide a meaningful service or else exercise the goodwill of the population at large.
That’s much easier said than done, but in a country where participation in personal fitness and interest in American country and western singers is at an all-time high, there is no way that a sporting organisation with several high quality arenas can’t find some way to fundraise by exploiting these two trends, or at least doing something other than passing the begging bowl around a variety of clubs that themselves are agonising over how to balance the books.