Colm O'Rourke: Conflict born of frustration
Clubs in Meath are right to be angry, but Eamonn O'Brien was the wrong target, says Colm O'Rourke
T here was a time and it was not that long ago when Meath GAA did its business quietly. There was a certain unity of purpose. Decisions were made for the common good and there was a sense at least that everybody rowed in the same direction.
Now there is frustration at the conduct of most county board affairs, where the flow of information to clubs is very limited and where many of the personalities involved appear to those on the outside to be jockeying for positions of power and influence. This in turn leads to a lack of leadership in all areas and no structure of accountability in dealing with any of the major issues such as coaching, underage planning, fixtures, development squads and Meath teams at all grades.
In many ways, the easy target last week for a lot of that frustration was Eamonn O'Brien, who was treated abysmally by his own people. It is not that club delegates had any other agenda in at least wanting debate on the issue of the Meath senior team management, but having been denied input on a range of other topics, the clubs bit back this time.
They vented their displeasure, though, at the wrong target. Eamonn O'Brien, Bob O'Malley and Donal Curtis had served their county well, so had Sean Kelly, the trainer who had already resigned to further his studies. These are decent, honourable men who had nothing else on their minds except to try and improve Meath football. They did not do it for money, ego or a lust for power, they treated players with respect and were shown none of that in return last week.
Of course there were plenty of things I disagreed with them on but in terms of selecting players on a team it is a case of everyone having different views. There is nobody with a monopoly on the wisdom of selection. I know how often I got it wrong with teams.
The Leinster final has been raked over plenty of times. Most know at this stage that I felt the right thing to do was replay it and if Meath were not good enough to win on the second time round, then so be it. There is a price to be paid for doing the right thing in life -- otherwise everyone would do it all the time -- but if you look beyond short-term advantage, then there is always a benefit.
Another criticism of the team management centred on the lack of subs being used in games but that is all subjective anyway. It cannot ever get away from the fact that this group of men was trying to do the right things for the right reasons and at the very least should have been given another year to continue.
It may appear from the outside that this was a coup by the clubs but this is far from the case. Most clubs had not mandated their delegates to vote one way or the other and the assumption has been that of the 29 votes in Eamonn O'Brien's favour, 13 came from the board's management committee, meaning clubs then voted two to one against him. But this was a secret ballot so we will never know what way votes were cast. It is possible, so, that this assumption is wrong and that members of the management did not vote for O'Brien, and that more clubs did. We will never know, though. Remember the shambles that greeted the manager's appointment two years ago? Then, we had a management committee who could not even agree among themselves on who to back.
At that time, a group was set up to appoint a manager. To my mind, this group hadn't enough experience of what was required in managing a county side and this led directly to the farce from which Eamonn O'Brien emerged to lead with a quiet dignity. What county, with one of the greatest managers of all time in Seán Boylan in its midst, would not even seek his opinion? The best leaders always look to get people to make decisions in their areas of speciality. That does not happen in Meath. If the board repeat this method of appointment, no self-respecting person will appear for interview.
A few things have annoyed delegates to county board meetings recently and contributed to this decision which I think is as much an anti-county board one as an anti-Eamonn O'Brien one. Many of us who wish to help put proper structures in place for underage football in Meath sought advice from outside. There was a very successful forum in Trim earlier in the year out of which Liam Harnan put a system in place with some excellent people to bring big numbers together at under 16 level for intensive coaching. He resigned because he felt he was not getting proper co-operation. His letter of resignation was not read out at county board level even though it was sought by delegates. They could have made their minds up then on whether he should have thrown in the towel or not but instead there was no transparency and that feeds annoyance.
After Meath were beaten by Kildare, clubs sought a week off for their county players. Instead they were rushed back into do-or-die championship matches the following weekend. Of the 11 outfield Meath players from the Kildare defeat who play with senior clubs, only one ended up on the winning side. Many fancied clubs were put out of the championship because of this unnecessary haste. After what appeared to be a great rush to finish the championships, things have slowed down. There was a three-week break between the quarter-finals and semi-finals of the senior championship with a month between the semi-final and final of the intermediate championship. No wonder clubs were angry.
And there's more. An initiative on supporting schools which was supposed to have got off the ground last week has still not been activated by the county board, even though the volunteers are all in place.
Meath is a county with the very best in most things -- great clubs which are much more efficiently run than the county board, fantastic club facilities, brilliant people at all levels of the game and a growing young population who love playing football with an army of supporters in the wings if only they were suitably roused. And there is tradition of winning too -- even if Seán Boylan often managed it despite, not because of, the system.
With proper organisation, Meath should be in contention for Leinster and All- Ireland honours every year. Instead there is a board where petty rivalries are evident and with a complete lack of direction. It would be ungracious and unfair not to acknowledge the huge amount of work these people take on voluntarily but there is something clearly wrong when the brightest young talent in Meath -- of which there are very many and who love the game -- will have no truck with Meath County Board.
As I see it, the only hope for the future is the appointment of a full-time administrator from outside the ruling class. When I put this to some of these men recently, I was fobbed off on the basis of the cost of it, even though there are central funds available to help with such an appointment. Other smaller and less successful counties have managed it. One good man could help revolutionise the county board and radical change is needed.
The focus now shifts to the players. Will they stand up for what they think is right? It is their careers on the line and they should be mobilising. At the very least they should be demanding a former player of their choice to be on the appointment committee. It took a lot of sacrifice on players' parts in Cork to show how things should be done. It would be a pity if others acted like slaves.
Writing all of this about my own county gives me absolutely no satisfaction. Anyone who is as actively involved in the promotion of Gaelic games as I am cannot help but be completely annoyed and frustrated at the way football is run in Meath. People from outside counties too, who are well organised, find it amazing that there is no help in any shape or form to football in St Patrick's Classical School where I am principal and which had 11 former students on a Meath team this summer. We made a small contribution to their development through very organised skill training and competitive matches during the winter when most young lads are idle. We work hard at promoting football and hurling and will continue to do so but it just shows the complete lack of policy in this area.
The contrast with the school system in Kilkenny is quite startling. They understand that a well-funded and resourced second-level school system benefits everyone.
All in all, it was another bad week for Meath GAA. Eamonn O'Brien just got caught in the crossfire. Did anyone even say thanks to him or Bob O'Malley or Donal Curtis or all the others who put countless hours into the team? It was the least they deserved. In the end, they walked away with their dignity intact. Not everyone else could say the same.