Saturday 25 March 2017

Clubs fear prospect of footing the bill for Lilywhites' spending spree

Something has got to give in Kildare after the county revealed the extent of its debts, writes Dermot Crowe

A YEAR ago at Kildare's annual convention, the secretary Kathleen O'Neill advised of the need to reduce spending, fuelled not least by spiralling county team costs, but the situation has deteriorated.

Yesterday's convention saw the issue of costs back on the agenda and had O'Neill warning starkly in her report of this being a "last chance" to arrest the slide. Even the convention looked like it might have to be deferred as the county waited for accounts to be signed off.

Meetings were being held with senior officials in Leinster Council and Croke Park up to late last week to discuss matters of mutual concern relating to the accounts and local observers said they were unsatisfied with the lack of clarity available. A motion from Eadestown went before delegates at convention in Naas last night seeking monthly bulletins so that they can keep track of spending.

In 2010, Kildare was the sixth biggest spender on county teams but also showed the third largest spending increase from 2009. This prompted O'Neill's frank call to reduce costs, "however painful". She has now admitted that the "remedial action" required of Kildare did not take place. Local estimates say their overall debt could be approaching the half-million mark.

Kildare is not unique in this respect. Overall expenditure on county teams has exceeded €20m in recent years and while many counties have embraced austerity measures, the total spend is still high across the country and has only decreased marginally, even in recessionary times. Estimates of the cost of a single training session have veered in recent years from €1,500 to as high as €3,500. County and Croke Park officials feel that level of spending is unsustainable.

There is concern at national level over the power and influence of Club Kildare, a fundraising vehicle for the county which operates independently of the board, in the context of a general desire to see all revenue streams go through one centralised channel. Again, this is not a new concern nor is the existence of a supporters' club unique or novel.

As this debate continues, a report on illegal payments to managers from the director-general Páraic Duffy still has to see the light of day one year after being scheduled for publication in early 2011. On a more micro level, GAA members on the ground are feeling the pinch and worried about the impact of county team spending on their own resources. There is a conflict of interest at play that's not easily resolved as modern success comes at a hefty price.

In Kildare, grassroots members are delighted to see the county team do well but their primary responsibility is to their own clubs and protecting those interests. With Kildare set for a series of cuts to reduce debts and ready to launch various fundraising schemes, clubs fear they will be asked to deliver a bailout.

Club delegates voiced some of those concerns at the November meeting of the county board but a planned meeting of club chairmen and secretaries prior to convention to discuss the financial situation further did not take place.

In the most eye-catching venture to reverse Kildare's financial fortunes, a new finance committee headed by Kildare Central Council delegate Marty McEvoy is to seek donations of €1,000 from 1,000 sympathisers. McEvoy said he was working on a package which would make this a more attractive proposition for those donating and promises to reveal the details shortly. But there are concerns that some of the people being targeted are those on whom clubs already depend for support. The services of former EU commissioner and Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy are being availed of, as are those of former ESB chief executive Pádraig McManus and Tegral managing director Paddy Kelly.

"We are looking at how we can exploit other commercial markets and there's some high-powered people who would be committed, passionate Kildare GAA people who are looking to work at that with me," McEvoy stated recently. "We're shaping a significant plan to reduce our costs and increase our revenues with a view to turning around our finances. That's the bottom line."

Clubs feel out of the loop, however. "I suppose the more real issue is that we are in deficit and we are not the only county," says Eadestown chairman Pat Doyle, who was moving that motion at last night's convention seeking more regular updates on the financial accounts. "A meeting of club chairmen and secretaries was supposed to take place ahead of convention; that didn't happen. While all this has been going off, the county players are in Newcastle on a holiday. The players have put in a lot of work in fairness to them, but it sends out all the wrong signals. They are away and we are having a convention showing a loss of €200,000."

Doyle says the clubs are already paying levies of €2,000 and €3,000 over a five-year period for the development of a centre of excellence at Hawkfield. He is sceptical about the scheme to raise €1m through donations. "Throwing money at it is not the answer, we need to get costs under control, get a structure in place. Make the delegates and clubs aware of what exactly is happening so everyone is absolutely clear. The Meath model is very good. We had losses last year and the year before and you can't keep haemorrhaging cash."

Last year Meath club delegates raised concerns over the potential cost of the management team headed by Seamus McEnaney which featured a selector and trainer from outside counties. But the board treasurer eased fears by outlining precisely what the package would cost -- €11,000 per month from January to September -- and also showing where savings would be made. To illustrate his point, he said a training trip to Portugal that cost €30,000 in 2010 would not be repeated in 2011.

In Kildare, there were misgivings about county players helping to raise finance for their last team holiday because it could bleed clubs dry. But the county team's liaison officer, Morgan O'Callaghan, himself chairman of Allenwood, said the current trip to Newcastle was being financed by the players and did not depend on fundraising. He believes the €1m fundraising plan to wipe out the county board deficit is not ill-conceived.

"I think they probably have specific people in mind, business people, and there are a lot of people in Kildare who would be big county fans but might not support their club. There are a lot of people like that who probably don't get tapped by clubs so there is some potential there. And I suppose Charlie McCreevy and Pádraig McManus have their own circle. Even a lot of the racing industry would not have any great (GAA) association but might support that venture once off."

Moorefield chairman Peter Whyte was heading to last night's convention bringing a message of concern from his club. "Every club is struggling to make ends meet. That is countrywide. My problem is that people have to realise we go to the same people every time.

"Now the people we were going to, the club people, are going to be asked to go again and alleviate this debt. It is wrong to do that, to put the onus back on the clubs. There has to be a broader aspect."

He said he found out about the €1m fundraising plan in the newspapers. "Last year I remember asking where we were going to make cutbacks and I was assured they were looking at ways and means of spending less. Normally we have a financial report for discussion ahead of convention but we didn't get one this time."

Whyte said delegates at the November county board meeting had appealed for greater trans-

-parency in Kildare's financial affairs and a better understanding of the financial activities of Club Kildare.

"Before you start looking at ways of generating money in 2012, you need to look at what went wrong in 2011 and 2010, all those things. How did it happen? Why did it happen? Then deal with it and kick on and solve it. If you ask for €1m, where are you going to get those people?"

The Kildare county treasurer did not respond to calls.

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