Monday 24 October 2016

Sport needs giants - now more than ever

All great managers have an X-factor, it's what marks them out. That's why the news this week that Clare has found it necessary to engage the services of a PR maestro is so perplexing

Eoghan Corry

Published 27/06/2015 | 02:30

Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald reacts to a decision by linesman Diarmuid Kirwan, during the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship quarter-final between Clare and Limerick at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Co Tipperary, back in May. Photo: Sportsfile
Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald reacts to a decision by linesman Diarmuid Kirwan, during the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship quarter-final between Clare and Limerick at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Co Tipperary, back in May. Photo: Sportsfile

One of Davy Fitzgerald's predecessors as manager of the Clare hurling team, Ger Loughnane, was once asked where the players would go for their annual team-building excursion abroad.

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"Somewhere they know nothing about hurling," he replied, "Thailand or Tipperary."

It is easy to imagine the reaction of a practitioner of the dark arts of PR to that statement.

Leaders in sport, as in other less consequential areas, lead by inspiring people. It is one of the great traditions of hurling that the spoken word is an essential part of that inspiration.

It is part of the game. When Limerick comedy team D'Unbelievables built one of their most famous sketches around a hurling dressing room pep talk, they were just acknowledging a part of a uniquely Irish childhood experience and at the same time paying tribute to the symbiotic relationship between the clash of the ash and the lash of the tongue.

One of the most popular speakers on today's corporate motivational circuit is Brian Cody. Without props or powerpoint, he can bring a room full of smart-suited conference delegates to silence, spellbound with his descriptions and anecdotes about change management, yield and reward correlative logarithms, behavioural modification among stakeholders and (chortle) employees, and turnaround expectation deceleration.

Not that he would deign to mention any of those words. Instead he says things like: "It is so dangerous dealing with success, success makes you soft if you let it."

Brian Cody won't be hiring a PR guru any time soon.

That's why the news that Clare, managed by one of the larger-than-life figures in the GAA, Davy Fitzgerald, has decided to engage the services of a PR guru - not "hire" but engage the services of - is so dispiriting.

We should be worried by this development. If hurling becomes urbanised, we will be all the poorer for it.

We will no longer have the prospect of seeing one of the great national institutions illuminated with the passionate fire of the parish.

Mark Dunphy is one of the best PR advisers in the country, and entered this sporting world in the GAA tradition of volunteerism rather than as a commercial venture.

The nature of his arrival into the GAA communications sphere is a symptom rather than a cause.

Official GAA statements and rehearsed player interviews have become more anodyne.

Access to players has been curtailed by managers and their increasingly over-elaborate bureaucracies.

This is a pity, because hurlers are different. Not all of them are poets, but a surprising number are.

To play the sport at a high level needs an agile mind, and some of the most intelligent sportsmen I have ever interviewed were hurlers.

Their parents, sisters, brothers and extended family would frequently join the conversation, because interviews took place in hurlers' homes.

They, more than Gaelic footballers and especially more so than soccer players, were illuminating interviewees.

The personality of the game matters.

The spectacle of hurling is not enough in itself to place it as a big ticket attraction in Ireland with stadium and TV audiences to match and make it a wide-eyed international tourist attraction, rather than in the backwater where shinty and so many other single-nation pastimes are stranded.

The nature of journalism has changed from those days, as much as the nature of high profile sport.

The relationship between those playing and those covering sport may have been closer than is healthy betimes, and it is illuminating to recall that one of the Irish soccer players being found with a woman in his room the night before a crucial World Cup finals fixture could go unreported in any media.

Some things have not changed that much. Hurlers' personalities are too important to the state of the game to be curtailed by the intervention of a PR guru.

Sponsors, among others, expect a clean, strife-free trajectory from training ground to podium.

Most sponsors have never been in a GAA dressing room, where even the iron hook on which you hang your jacket is part of the complex series of random relationships between the personalities assembled there by chance, not as employees or even volunteers, but brought together by their skills and the force of their personality.

High-achieving sportsmen are obsessive - by their nature, they have to be. Managing the Rubik's cube of relationships requires a personality of the force that PR gurus would find difficult to constrain.

The battle for the soul of sport had already been lost long before a PR guru was brought in to work with Davy Fitz.

Davy needs no communications advisor. It might be questioned whether any Clare person needs a communications advisor.

All the more odd that this should happen in a county where the fortunes were transformed by a manager who was the personification of iconoclasm. Ger Loughnane transformed the saffron and blue from the suffering and blue, guiding the county to two All Irelands.

We cherish sports because of its ability to throw up a few surprises in an increasingly choreographed world.

But the informality and unpredictability that we celebrate on the occasion is being choked by heavy-handed management of everything leading up to and following the occasion, the vanillafication of sport, where everything around the event has to be banal and monochrome.

Davy is just the sort of iconoclast who brings colour and texture to sport and helps it, illuminating lifestyles that are increasingly predictable, monitored and regulated.

Where would Brian Clough or Big Jack fit in with a media manager vetting their statement? Sport needs giants. Larger-than-life individuals. It needs them now more than ever.

Irish Independent

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