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Waterford hurler Noel Connors recently completed his PhD thesis ‘Glimpsing the alternative – an anthropological explanation of the GAA’.
Waterford hurler Noel Connors recently completed his PhD thesis ‘Glimpsing the alternative – an anthropological explanation of the GAA’.

Dr. Connors says amateur status vital for a healthy GAA


By John Harrington

Waterford’s early exit from the Hurling Championship this summer didn’t leave a void in Noel Connors’ life.

He was far too busy finishing a 120,000 word thesis for his PhD in Waterford IT to feel in any way at a loose end.

Entitled ‘Glimpsing the alternative – an anthropological explanation of the GAA’, it’s an in-depth study of how the GAA and its clubs organise themselves, and the values they hold most dear.

His four years of hard work finally concluded last Wednesday, so he’s now Dr. Noel Connors to give him his full title, which may or may not catch on in the Waterford dressing-room.

Connors’ life has revolved around the GAA for as long as he can remember, but his four years working on the thesis opened his eyes more than ever to the invaluable role GAA clubs play in the community.

And the biggest take-away from his countless hours of research is that the amateur status and ethos of volunteerism of the GAA is its very life-blood.

“I think if we end up losing sight of our amateur status, that I do feel we will end up losing our soul,” said Connors.

“We’ll sell our soul to be like every other sporting organisation, that’s lost its community, lost its vision, lost its reason for being set up.

“I think if we do that, we’re going to sell ourselves out. I think that’s it in a nutshell.

“People would have said that from the outset, but obviously you can’t say it, you have to have some material to back it up.

“It’s very much about ‘understand yourself, don’t try and change too drastically’, but also the fact that I don’t think autopilot will work in the GAA.

“Obviously such a powerful unique organisation, it’s to embrace it and not to lose sight of why it was set up.

“That’s probably one of the most important things I’ve learned over the last four years.”

Noel Connors, GPA, Munster Council Chairman Jerry O'Sullivan, representing the GAA, Cork hurler Patrick Horgan, and Ger O'Mahoney, Senior Partner, PwC, at the PwC GAA/GPA Player of the Month Awards for JUne. 
Noel Connors, GPA, Munster Council Chairman Jerry O'Sullivan, representing the GAA, Cork hurler Patrick Horgan, and Ger O'Mahoney, Senior Partner, PwC, at the PwC GAA/GPA Player of the Month Awards for JUne. 

Arguably the greatest threat to the amateur status of the GAA is the practice of unauthorised payments to club and inter-county team managers.

Some have suggested that the role of an inter-county manager nowadays is so demanding that it should be made a paid position, but Connors doesn’t agree.

“I don’t think any manager goes in, or should go in, with the mentality of actually making money,” he said.

“I think there’s a lot easier ways to make money in life to spend it in front of 82,300 people!

“If you put as much time into training teams as you do into making money, I think you’ll probably make a lot more money than you will being an intercounty manager.

“I think that's the realisation of most people going in there. It’s grand for us as players to go training, an hour or two beforehand, go get something to eat afterwards, train hard in between, go home and recover and think about the following day.

“Whereas managers, that’s certainly not the case. I think if you’re in it for the money, you’re probably looking at the wrong place.”

The Waterford hurlers, of course, now find themselves in the position of waiting on a new managerial appointment after Derek McGrath’s five year tenure ended after defeat to Cork in the final round of the Munster SHC championship.

Noel Connors and Derek McGrath celebrate victory over Cork in the 2015 Munster SHC semi-final.
Noel Connors and Derek McGrath celebrate victory over Cork in the 2015 Munster SHC semi-final.

During that time McGrath forged a famously close bond with his players, but Connors doesn’t think that will make it any more difficult for his successor to get a full buy-in from the panel.

Regardless of who is named as Waterford’s new manager, Connors believes the culture of the team has to be player driven if they’re to win silverware in the coming years.

“Derek was with us for five years, and he was probably with some of us for a lot longer, with club, college, etc,” said Connors.

“What he’s done for Waterford over the last five years, the last four years in particular has been incredible.

“I think we have to reflect and pay a lot of dues to Derek on that. Perhaps we haven’t given him as much recognition as he deserved, being in All-Ireland semi-finals is nearly an expectation for Waterford, getting to All-Ireland finals, which wasn’t always the case.

“It was a cultural change, that maybe he had done over four or five years. We kind of reached that expectation of being there.

“But I do think that there are some fellas that are at a stage of their career now that they know how to be successful, it’s about a culture driven by players.

“So, I don’t think there’s a lot of pressure on someone to come in and do something extraordinary. It’s about facilitating that environment about getting the best from the players.

“So, for whoever comes in, it’s not an expectation of trying to change the world, it’s about facilitating players and players driving the whole movement.”

Noel Connors in action for Waterford against Galway's Conor Whelan in the 2017 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final. 
Noel Connors in action for Waterford against Galway's Conor Whelan in the 2017 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final. 

Injuries, withdrawals from the panel, and the lack of a home venue all conspired against Waterford in this year’s Championship, but they remain one of the most talented bunch of hurlers in the country and Connors is confident they’ll be genuine contenders for years to come.

“Of course,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anybody that’s into GAA that would ever criticise how competitive the Munster Championship is. You look at the teams in it.

“Three of the last four team are represented by Munster. If it was ourselves or Tipp in the position, I think we’d be competing quite well as well.

“So it’s just that the Munster Championship is the Munster Championship.

“It’s tradition. It’s just a dog eat dog place. Any of the five teams could go out and win a Munster Championship, never mind competing for the All-Ireland, because that’s certainly the case.

“Look, it is what it is. It’s probably going to be the same for the next number of years, and it’s something that we must embrace as well, because we always seem to criticise poor performance and poor games.

“In the last ten years we’ve really enjoyed the Munster Championship and that’s something we must continue to enjoy.

“For us, as players, we have to keep putting in the hours and going beyond expectations, to keep the Munster Championship the way it is.”

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