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tough decisions The highs and lows of being a GAA All-star selector - and why we're always 'wrong'

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Manager Jim Gavin with the Dublin players and their 2019 PwC All Star awards

Manager Jim Gavin with the Dublin players and their 2019 PwC All Star awards

Manager Jim Gavin with the Dublin players and their 2019 PwC All Star awards

Yesterday, for the first time in the 50-year history of the GAA All-Star awards, the meeting to select the nominees was held via Zoom.

Most of the founding fathers of the awards have joined the great pantheon of sports writers in the sky. But I couldn’t help but think of them as we grappled with the quirks of modern technology.

I will leave it to others to decide whether our remote deliberations delivered a better result than if we had met in the plush offices of the scheme’s current sponsors, PwC.

Having been involved on and off as a selector since the late 1980s, I have accepted that as a group we cannot win. We're always wrong, regardless of what team we select. Our critics are entitled to their views.

Chances are, that 15 other people would come up with an entirely different selection. But for any criticism to be valid the critic must say who should be excluded to allow their preferred players to make the cut.

Anyway, we’re thick-skinned enough to take the brickbats. We spend the other 51 weeks of the year delivering criticism ourselves.

Back when I joined the committee, the selection meetings were marathon affairs held in the then Burlington Hotel. Often, they didn’t conclude until near midnight.

By 1994, the year that featured the infamous omission of Brian Whelehan from the hurling team, there were more than 20 selectors. Inevitably, the meetings were unwieldy and fraught with often-bitter exchanges.

By then, a clear split had emerged between the founders, who dictated the rules, and most of the ‘ordinary’ selectors, who were pushing for reform.

Some of the most heated debates took place under ‘Any Other Business’.

Repeated attempts were made to drop the rigid sportsmanship rule, which decreed that any player who had been sent off in either a club or county game – even a challenge match – was ineligible for selection.

The original rule was designed to foster sportsmanship, but it was a notoriously blunt instrument and provoked endless controversy.

Back in those days not alone were there no dummy teams announced in the championship, but players nearly always lined out in the positions they were picked for. The rules of the scheme reflected this, as a player had to have played in a specific position to be selected there.

There was absolutely no room for manoeuvre, which meant that the six best defenders, for example, might not be selected.

There were two outstanding candidates for right-half back, for example, but only one could be named. Perish the thought that the other contender could be moved to the opposite wing.

The other issue that affected the meetings was leaks. The selection meetings were usually held three weeks before the actual All Stars were announced. It was very difficult for some selectors to keep their lips sealed for that length of time.

Even in the pre social-media era, the team – or worse still an incorrect version of it – leaked out and was published before the official banquet.

This used to irk GAA bosses and sponsors and the issue became more urgent when it was decided that one of the teams would be announced live on television.

So, before the start of meetings there would be a lecture about the discussion being strictly confidential. Short of demanding that we sign a pledge in our own blood that to keep our mouths shut, there wasn’t much else could be done.

Needless to say, the pleas fell on deaf ears and in the end the team which was due to be named live on television was picked by secret ballot. It was a recipe for a disaster and Brian Whelahan was the unwitting victim.

Thankfully, the secret ballot was subsequently scrapped, though for one year inter-county players picked the team.

However, they didn’t make a great fist of it either, leaving out Jason Sherlock in 1995, so the task was given back to the journalists.

I will finish with two anecdotes. As I alluded to earlier, the secrecy issue was a perennial hot potato.

One year, there was the usual lecture from the chairman about the absolute necessity of not revealing the team. The meeting proceeded and the football team was selected. Then there was an adjournment for lunch.

There was a bank of phones opposite the gent's toilets in the hotel and on my way-out after lunch I spotted a selector on the phone.

I couldn’t help but eavesdrop. He was looking for the GAA secretary of his native county, who was unavailable. So, he passed pass on the message: ‘we only got three’ and proceeded to name the players!

On another occasion, an almighty row erupted late at night when one selector proposed that in future smoking should be banned at meeting.

One pipe-smoking member of the committee took umbrage to that proposal. The chairman wisely brought proceedings to a rapid close.

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