Last November, Kevin McSorley was driven by the desire to further the sport of Australian Rules Football on this island after being appointed AFL Ireland president.
Fast forward seven months and his hopes for progress have been replaced with a drive to ensure the sport’s survival in this country as Covid-19 and the subsequent restrictions impacting upon sport, particularly those that involve physical contact, take their toll.
Because Aussie Rules isn’t a major game in Ireland, with a relatively small number of participants, many of whom are forced to balance their rugby and/or Gaelic Football commitments, the absence of any league action and even training so far this year means there are concerns that participation levels may fall to an unsustainable level.
At the beginning of his tenure as president of AFL Ireland, McSorley had set out his plans for the future in an ambitious and eye-catching strategic plan.
The Cookstown man was keen to address participation levels by introducing regional competitions, rather relying on just the All-Ireland League; he wanted to develop and bring a greater level of professionalism to the administrative side of the game, while also improving coaching and umpiring; he aimed to gain access to funding streams by gaining governance with Sport NI and Sport Ireland; he hoped to improve Ireland’s international standing in the game, to
bring it back to the level it had been previously and finally he aimed to protect and grow the sport through professional promotion.
“One of the things I wanted to do was to develop accountability by giving people specific roles with jobs that needed done by a certain time and setting up teams of people who are accountable,” explained the Newtownstewart native.
“It’s about organising a structure and doing what every other sport is doing because it’s never going to go anywhere, it’s never going to go anywhere if it doesn’t get organised.
“One of the big things was governance and I’ve had a fair few meetings with Sport NI and Sport Ireland and we’ve climbed a good bit up the ladder there. But until we get governance from either or both we don’t qualify for grants from either.”
It’s the lack of financial support that is particularly frustrating for McSorley, who knows that without additional monetary support, his hopes of even getting access to an oval on which to play the sport properly will do nothing but hamper the development of Australian Rules Football on this island.
“As a player, having played for 15 or 16 years and then getting into coaching, there’s things you get a wee bit frustrated with, and it’s no-one’s fault,” added the Northern Regional College sports lecturer.
“We never had proper governance, we’ve never had a proper oval and when you get to go to Australia, which a couple of us have been fortunate enough to have done, and you play on ovals, you play at the MCG, we’ve played on the Kew Oval in London, when you get to experience that and then you have to come back and play 12-a-side on a rugby or GAA pitch, it’s just not the same game.
“The first time we got to go to London, we played on the Surrey oval and I was like ‘this is a different game! It’s completely different!’ You can actually play the game right and in Australia you have ovals dotted all around like parks here.
“And the other thing that is spurring me on is that GB have overtaken Ireland in the rankings and at tournaments over the last few years. There are a few reasons for that – they have a lot of Australian ex-pats there, they have a really strong league with three or four divisions, but they also have ovals everywhere. They are playing proper football so when it comes to the World or European tournaments, which are played on proper sized ovals, we get found out because our version is a GAA version of Aussie Rules, it’s very narrow, while they are using the wings and playing it properly because they are used to it.”
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