'You can have fellas on a coach going to a Championship game and they're on the iPhone, making bets. It's become a big, big problem'
Vincent Hogan: Looking back to those early days, does it feel like peering into the dark ages now?
Dessie Farrell: "There was a real sense of the unknown about it, a sense of taking on the GAA and not really knowing what the repercussions might be. So there was an element of psychological intimidation too. When membership forms were handed out in dressing-rooms, players were certainly intimidated by some county board officials. And we were very naive in terms of communication."
VH: As evidenced by the Congress stunt in Galway?
DF: "Well, Donal (O'Neill) kind of got labelled as the man of the dark arts after that, but it wasn't really what it seemed. We weren't really clued in to the idea of ambush marketing. I suspect there might have been a different outcome if I, as a player, had been with him. But it was difficult at the time even to get players to acknowledge that they were members of the association."
VH: County boards and team managers were universally hostile?
DF: "Definitely. And the GAA centrally wasn't helping because they wouldn't meet with us. Then we had certain county boards actively warning their players against becoming members. And managers coming out against us made things especially difficult. For about two years, it was very rocky."
VH: Was there a time when you considered walking away?
DF: "Yes, probably in the very early days. I'd gone up to the launch in Belfast and there was no real plan afterwards. Everyone else seemed to be getting on with their lives and it felt like myself and Donal were left to shoulder the responsibility of moving it to the next phase. In that first year, we had no officers in place and I remember Donal once trying to get me for four or five days and I wasn't responding. Then I felt guilty because he'd invested a lot of time. But, for the guts of a week, I was just thinking, 'no one else is stepping up here'."
VH: Did the anti-GAA perception leave you personally feeling vulnerable?
DF: "Absolutely. But my parents, Sean and Anne, were a great support to me. Basically, the office was my mother's back room and she did all the secretarial work. And dad would be stuffing envelopes, getting membership forms down to the post office."
VH: Was the biggest problem this popular perception you wanted pay-for-play?
DF: "Without doubt, that was perceived to be the agenda. It was the big stick to beat us with at the time and it took us a long time to overcome that."
VH: So, in your recall, was there a specific moment of deliverance?
DF: "A big thing for us was the Cork strike (2002). That was a defining moment for us, because it showed that players could no longer be taken for granted. Up to that point, there had been a lot of what felt like p*****g against the wind. For the first time, we had a nuclear button. Then we met a lot of hostility when we were looking for the government grants. People thought we were crazy and it took us five years to get that over the line. But, if I was to pick one other vital development, it would be Paraic Duffy's appointment as the GAA's player welfare officer ('06). Part of his job was to liaise with us and, suddenly, there was a much better understanding of where both sides were coming from."
VH: Up to then, all communication with the GAA was essentially hostile?
DF: "It would have been. But Paraic was great to deal with, still is. He's pragmatic and has always been passionate about developing player welfare within whatever constraints existed. A very good relationship developed and I think both sides began to mellow as a result. As it happened, he was then director general when official recognition came our way (2010)."
VH: At the GPA's inception, you described yourselves as an "independent voice" for players. How independent can you now be under the umbrella of the GAA?
DF: "That perception remains a concern for us, but our independence is very much enshrined in how we do our business. Otherwise, you could be suffocated, killed with kindness if you like. But player unions worldwide need that official recognition because they depend on the funding just to exist."
VH: How truly independent can you be?
DF: "Well look at the NHL in America, there's a lockout there at the minute. These arrangements are very similar all over the world. And we do disagree. In the past, those disagreements were aired very publicly. A kind of megaphone diplomacy was in play. Now it's done very differently. There's a forum there and we can have some very frank discussion, but it stays there. We'd be naive to think there won't be disputes in the future. There will be."
VH: Looking at the progress made in terms of conditions for inter-county players, will the GPA logically reach a point where there's nothing left for them to do?
DF: "That's a very good question and, maybe in 20 years, the answer will be yes. But our Player Development Programme is only in its infancy. We're only scratching the surface with it. Our vision would be that, if an inter-county hurler or footballer walks down the street of his local town, he's not just seen as a great player, but someone who is recognised as successful in their professional career and personal life too. And, on top of that, that he's very much willing to give something back to his local community."
VH: Historically, have county players not done well in terms of getting good jobs?
DF: "Well, the current economic climate is creating huge challenges. But, even going back to the '70s or '80s, the very high-profile lad might have got a job in the bank or whatever, but there was another 20 lads left to their own devices. The big challenge for us now is educating players into understanding that these are the formative years of their lives. By all means be 100pc committed to your sport, but what are you going to work at when you're finished? What's your career going to be?"
VH: Do you come across horror stories of players not doing that?
DF: "We do, that's why I say we're only scratching the surface."
VH: An example?
DF: "Well the extreme level is where players have to engage with our counselling service. We have a network of clinical psychologists around the country, which our players can access free. Some very extreme cases might require hospitalisation or access to patient treatment clinics. In the last year, we've put three players into treatment centres for gambling addiction. Well, one was gambling/alcohol.
"Now if you were to water-board me, I couldn't tell you their names -- the service is confidential and I genuinely don't know. But we are seeing the trends involved, and depression is one, gambling another. And it's mostly in the transition period where players have just stepped away from playing -- though, in the case of one or two, they're still playing. In the last six months, this whole issue of gambling has taken us by surprise. They're all coming out of the woodwork now with serious problems and the issues that stem from gambling, like significant debt and the upset in the home. There have been a lot of cases of that -- three that have resulted in in-patient treatment.
"But this is going to hit us like a steam train coming down the tracks, that's how serious it is. We're actually talking to our counsellors now to see what we can do about putting together an education programme around this."
VH: It's actually that serious?
DF: "It's that severe and that widespread and it has taken us by surprise. But we're starting to ask more questions about it now. Gambling is so accessible. You can have fellas on a coach going to a Championship game and they're on the iPhone, making bets. It's become a big, big problem. We're trying to get people who are dealing with these mental health/ addiction issues back on their feet and give them a plan.
"We're finding that a lot of players are just on this merry-go-round, just ghosting through their lives. They mightn't necessarily be the extreme cases where there is depression or alcohol abuse, but a lot of them are on this carousel and don't know what it is they want to do or where they want to go. There's this chaos in their heads and it's camouflaged by this inter-county career."
VH: With all this focus on players and the resources required to help them, does the GPA have a view on the recent evidence of county boards essentially bankrupting themselves to prepare teams?
DF: "Well our concern would be, primarily, with how the players fare. Maybe it's a microcosm of what's happening in the big, bad world generally, of problems created by very loose fiscal management. I think there's going to have to be a greater nous and drive locally from county boards. Ultimately, this desire to be successful doesn't just come from the players or their manager. It comes from the supporters, so that pressure will never go away. You can try to dampen it, but you'll still have to pay for all those professional services the modern game requires. I think county boards will have to be more creative."
VH: What about the apparently imminent introduction of Friday night Championship matches. Given the GAA will not compensate players for time off work, how will this pan out?
DF: "I don't know. The concept has an appeal, but the practicalities may be different. Ultimately, the players will have to make the decision. They're the gladiators in the arena."
VH: But if there's a 7.0 throw-in, a manager won't exactly be happy to have his players working up to 5.0, will he?
DF: "You're right, it doesn't make sense. So he'll either be taking a day's holidays or he'll have a very flexible employer, which are few and far between nowadays. Some lads might be happy to take a day off, but the majority won't. I think there's a bit to go on that one just yet."
VH: Henry Shefflin and Ger Brennan brought the Liam MacCarthy and Sam Maguire Cups to New York on GPA business last year, and the football All Stars will attend a dinner with some of the city's biggest movers and shakers next month, can you tell us the thinking behind this?
DF: "We're familiar with the concept of philanthropy in Ireland, particularly from the Irish-American community. They are generous to all sorts of causes like education, the arts, different charities. We're trying to carve out a niche for sport, because Gaelic games is the bedrock of most parishes. So it's a case of raising the profile really without treading on the toes of the local GAA scene out there.
"We're trying to harness an audience in Corporate America, very successful Irish Americans who might not have an involvement in the local scene over there, yet have an interest in the games back home and are still loyal to their own county. That's why Henry and Ger brought the cups over last November. We held a reception in the New York Athletic Club with a question and answer session as a precursor to next month's formal dinner."
VH: And the response?
DF: "The GAA story seems to resonate over there. A Tipperary man, Declan Kelly, has been a huge help in pulling some remarkably successful people together and we've come up with this idea of presenting the 'Ireland-US Heritage Award', hopefully on an annual basis. The inaugural award is going to Don Keough, an ex-president of Coca Cola, who has done an enormous amount of work over the years in bringing business back to Ireland. The hope is that some of those present might like a particular facet of our story and maybe provide a number of scholarships or help in some area we are already operating in."
DF: "Well, we ran a camp for disadvantaged kids this year, very modest but it's something we took immense pride in. We held it in DCU for 50 kids from two schools, one inner-city, the other in Ballymun. These kids never get a chance and it's a real bugbear of mine that society discriminates against them. They're not getting the access to sport that they should, so it's inevitable that they end up in trouble, and society is then left to pick up the pieces. I grew up in Cabra and a lot of fellas that lived close to me are dead now because of drugs or, in some cases, are in jail. For some of us, sport was a bright, shining light away from that."
VH: So do you have a concrete idea of what you're hoping to reap from this American connection?
DF: "Nothing specific, no. Actually this first dinner might just about break even, but, for now, it's just about creating the awareness."
VH: You guided Dublin's minors to their first All-Ireland win in 28 years and are now expected to take the U-21 job. The natural expectation, if successful, is that it could maybe lead to the Dublin senior job down the line. As chief executive of the players' union, would you see a potential conflict of interest if that came to pass?
DF: "Firstly, that U-21 thing isn't confirmed. I would like to do it, but it requires a massive time commitment and I'm going to have to decide in the next week. Regarding a conflict of interest, I think that would apply at senior level, absolutely. If you ever wanted to go down that road (implying he won't). But minor and U-21 players, generally, are not members of the GPA.
"I really like the coaching side of things and having the chance to influence young players positively. Not just on the field, but off it. But last year's minor defeat hit me really, really badly. It's funny, for the players themselves there's always another challenge just around the corner. They maybe get back up on the horse with their clubs the next week. But, for the rest of us, there was this massive ache. Maybe some of it was this separation anxiety, because there's such an emotional investment with these lads. You get sucked in.
"As a management team, we were trying to encourage them to be the best they could be on and off the field. It wasn't just about the football. Sure, if there's a 50/50 tackle, you'd better not be seen pulling out of it. But the other side of it is the respect, the discipline, the sense of humility in victory and graciousness in defeat. Those values are so transferable and I'm passionate about that type of stuff. If we could create more of those type of individuals in our games, the places we live in would be so much better for it."