Murphy keen to fan the GAA's growing flames in Europe
By John Harrington
Despite the chilling effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, new GAA clubs sparked into life all over Europe in 2020.
Zagreb in Croatia, Saint Columb and Strasbourg in France, Ulyanovsk in Russia, Torrevieja in Spain, and Budapest in Hungary have been added to the quickly growing list of Gaelic Games outposts all over the continent.
The newest members of the European GAA family have accelerated a growing trend in so far as most of them have been founded by non-Irish and draw their players from the local population rather than Irish ex-pats.
“We're at a place now in Europe where about 60 per cent of our 4,000 players are non-Irish,” Gaelic Games Europe’s Chairperson, John Murphy, told GAA.ie
“We've reached the tipping point and we'll see more and more locals getting involved in the coming years.
“The Galicians and the French have really driven it on if you want to pick regions that really stand out as representative of growing the sport. And then you’d also have a country like Germany where hurling is getting really quite popular.
“And there's some great stories behind the new clubs that were established in 2020. Take Simbirsk Celts in Ulyanovsk in Russia.
“Ulyanovsk is where Russia’s Olympic athletes train at the Russian Olympic Academy and they actually started playing Gaelic Football as a pass-time between sports.
“So, you have all of these people who just love sport and have fallen in love with Gaelic Games.
“In a year like 2020 where a lot of clubs are struggling and a lot of people are isolating and remote, to find people who have so much determination to start a club in a time like that I think bodes very well in Europe.
“The embrace of the games by natives is a huge thing and it's something to be held up as to how our culture can spread.”
Cork native Murphy was elected GGE Chairperson last year and is hugely passionate about growing the game further on the continent in the coming years.
Around a quarter of Europe’s 90 GAA clubs have youth teams, and it’s here he hopes to see the greatest growth in the short-term in order to ensure an even brighter future in the longer-term.
“Absolutely,” says Murphy. “In GAA clubs even in Ireland if you don't have a youth set-up then you're done. For us, Covid was a very good way of identifying that the Irish tap could turn off.
“You have some clubs that would benefit from the influx of Erasmus students or, right now, you'd have a lot of English-speaking education in Europe so Budapest and Warsaw have very strong teams based around colleges there.
“In other places it's more about the natives. Youth teams build a longevity and a sustainability to clubs, same as at home.
“So, we're very much focusing on it. We're hoping to run our first formalised European Youth Games in 2021.
What we have is five divisions in Europe - Nordics, Iberia, North West, Benelux and then Central East and we’re hoping to have youth clubs play one another in regional championships.
“We have 24 clubs actively engaged with youth. Even talking about the subject of youth development more, we're seeing more clubs come to us who are interested in starting up.
“The Youth Championships in the US, New York, Britain, and Asia are one of the big success stories they have had in terms of sustainability and we want to replicate that and get ours up and running. So the aim is to do that in 2021.
“Ideally you'd want to have one centralised tournament, but we just want to get it started this year with the cluster approach in each of the regions to at least give the kids the opportunity to play games and make friends and allow the parents to network.
“I think that's one of the things that undersold around the GAA, the network.”
Networking is certainly high on the agenda in Europe where Gaelic Games are as much a social outlet as a sporting one.
Competitions are often played off in a blitz format that encourages clubs from across the continent to get to know one another and form relationships.
And though everyone plays hard once a ball is thrown in, a premium is placed on fun and participation both on and off the pitch.
“I would say with maybe the level of professionalism that has creeped into the game in Ireland at inter-county level and even at senior club level means it's not so much a labour of love to play the game any more,” says Murphy.
“Playing for your county is an honour, absolutely, but the lads are putting 30 hours of full-time work into that and basically have two jobs.
“You're also seeing that feed a bit into the senior club championships. Look at the condition of some of these senior club teams, there's no lad overweight or carrying a few Christmas pounds anymore, these lads are doing bleep tests and the rest even at club level.
“Whereas I would say that in Europe we still maintain the fun and we have that camaraderie of it doesn't matter if we beat the sh*t out of one another on the pitch for 60 minutes, we'll still go for a beer after.
“That's actually a huge appeal to me, especially with people coming over here, that fun is still a big part of the game in Europe.
“Yes, there's competition and everyone loves to win, but at the end of the day you can all have a great night out together. The pure joy of playing the game is still what it's all about in Europe.”
There are obvious challenges to growing the game in Europe where you’re dealing with a vast geographical swathe of countries, multiple languages, limited funds, and the challenge of finding adequate venues to play the games in.
Murphy’s attitude is that where there’s a will there’s a way, but that it also pays to be smart.
“We need to share ideas,” he says. “We run on a shoestring budget, but there's a lot of ingenuity around.
“One of my favourite examples is Munich who have a youth club. And in order to help the parents so they don't have to buy a new hurley every year, a parent can rent a hurley for a child for a few euros and then at the end of the year the child gives back the hurley.
“The following year they have grown a bit and need a bigger hurley so they rent one again which is a lot less expensive than buying a new hurley every year. It's a little thing, but it makes a difference.
“It saves the parents money and it keeps the assets in the club so the club always has hurleys for kids.
“We have 24 youth clubs, so there's 23 other clubs who could do something similar. For me, the GGE should be about giving people a platform for recognition and being collaborative.
“Yes we provide guidance and strategy, but also a platform who are doing great things already.”
Becoming GGE’s Chairperson at the height of a pandemic could be viewed as unfortunate timing, but Murphy isn’t the type to baulk at challenges.
He’s a can-do type of character, and prefers to dwell on the potential opportunities he believes GGE could avail of from the other great upheaval of our times, Brexit.
“I'd have five pillars I want to look at strengthening – youth; more native initiatives; brand awareness - we have some great stories but nobody knows them; commercialisation; and regionalisation,” he says.
“The commercialisation is interesting, I think. With Brexit happening now there's going to be a lot more Irish companies who view Europe as their primary market. I think we should be engaging with them more.
“There's a lot of Irish companies with people abroad and having lived internationally myself I know a concern for a company with putting employees in a new country is how are they going to settle in. Are they going to want to leave? What kind of community can they have?
“The GAA can address a lot of that. We've seen it in Amsterdam where lads arrive here and all of a sudden they've something to do on the weekends so they have a sense of purpose outside of work and they have a community and a home away from home.
“I think there's a big opportunity for Irish companies to work with us with more closely to help their employees feel more settled and for us to use the connections to drive more local initiatives and get partnerships with these companies going forward.
“We have an opportunity to work more closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs. I think Brexit is kind of a blessing in disguise for us because a lot of companies are going to leapfrog to Europe and given our shoestring budget it makes sense for us to develop relationships with those companies.
“Finally, the regionalisation. When you have clubs in Moscow and Lisbon it's very hard to have a detailed development plan for that to grow. So the aim is to give a framework to help regions flourish but also adapt to the local nuances.
“There is a linguistic adaption needed in Spain and other countries. The regulations and rule books need to be in Spanish, the same in Germany, et cetera. Hurling seems to be more popular in Germany and football in other countries so the aim of the GGE is to create a framework but then allow the regions to be a bit more dynamic.
“I use the analogy of a start-up company versus one that's long established. The GAA in Ireland where it has been there for 120 years and has its own long established structures and framework is almost like a General Electric whereas Europe is more of a start-up company.
“We need to be a little more lean and agile in how we grow. So we have to walk that tight-rope of what do we think is structure and what do we think is overloading and infringing our growth.”