O'Neill eyes new era of innovation
Incoming president won't be afraid to take risks in GAA's top office
It wasn't the last place you might have expected it to happen, but Laois certainly wouldn't have been high on a list of potential pioneering counties.
It seems strange to look back across the GAA landscape now more than a decade on and recall how every fixture in every county was delivered to every club by post.
The next president of the GAA had the vision to change all that. It may seem simple now but in the year 2000 tasking every club in a small county like Laois to find access to a computer and then open up an email to locate the official fixtures was quite revolutionary.
Liam O'Neill was Laois secretary at the time. Tonight in Mullingar he'll become the 37th president of the GAA.
"I remember over the Christmas holidays in 1999/2000 creating 45 Hotmail addresses for the clubs in Laois. We were a bit like the way the country is now. We had to make savings," O'Neill recalls.
Laois saved between IR£5,000 and £6,000 by sending their weekly fixtures through cyberspace.
Most of the computer access came through the network of primary schools threaded throughout the county, but what amazed O'Neill was how club people embraced it.
"A rich farmer rang me one day when he had a problem with his email. He told me he had 'prodded' it once and it didn't open. I told him to 'prod' it again and it worked."
The first fixtures in Laois were sent from an internet cafe in Vienna, where O'Neill was on educational business in early 2000.
"That gave me a great thrill. It showed the possibility there was at the time. It was around the time the the GAA's Strategic Review was being produced and I remember Peter Quinn saying that he wouldn't have expected such an innovation to have come from Laois."
The move towards emailing fixtures to clubs, simple as it seems now, may be a small insight into how O'Neill works.
As a GAA administrator he has never been afraid of risks, never afraid of failure. He headed the GAA's disciplinary reforms in 2009 that saw automatic substitution for a yellow-carded player.
The reforms lost a Congress vote for a two-thirds majority by just five votes. A relatively benign championship that followed killed any hope that the proposals would resurface.
It was impossible to see the vote as a defeat given that a sizeable majority wanted change. O'Neill saw subtle changes in games of football that didn't require rule change.
"We actually killed the frontal charge and head-high challenge with ridicule," he says. "It got to the stage where there was outrage if either offence took place. Players knew it just wasn't acceptable any more because of the experiment."
The process taught him that such experiments are better undertaken over a longer period.
"We were better off going with it over two years where the idea is mooted and explained first of all and then tested in a subsidiary competition. Then go back and talk to the major stakeholders to see what is required before an agreed position can be taken to Congress," he says.
"I worry about Gaelic football. I worry about the tackle, or rather the lack of it, and wonder how long will it be before people give up on the game.
"There is a fear of yellow-card syndrome but our system was better because it allowed a replacement. Players have to take ownership. It came from the top down in administration terms the last time; the next time it has to come from the bottom up."
The disciplinary experiment kept him busy and his profile high after his presidential election defeat to Christy Cooney in Sligo three years ago. He looks back on that defeat philosophically now.
"I can look at the positive side and say that it gave me three extra years as an administrator within the GAA trying to effect change," he says. "Having to face the hall in Sligo was difficult but when the result is announced in these things it's over."
Between the rolling out of Go Games, the forthcoming Hurling Development plan and discipline, it could be argued that no defeated candidate has ever been as busy.
This time around, the challengers faded away one by one, leaving him as the first unopposed president-elect.
Does he feel he assumes the position of president-elect without a mandate?
"To me a GAA president is elected to serve, not to govern. There is unanimity, but it's not about mandates."
Principal of Trumera NS in south Laois, the end of his presidency will bring him to his 40th year as an administrator in the GAA, covering every level of the game. One principle has always remained true to him.
"If you give different people a chance in administration, you will get innovation from them. I find, if you give people leadership, they will be delighted to follow," he adds.
The challenges that will face the GAA on his watch are there for all to see. O'Neill would like to see solutions to the fixtures crux that grips the games in the first three months of every year.
"What's happening now is not sustainable. There's a simple way to solve it if we are brave enough to make hard decisions," he says.
"We could preclude U-21 players from playing in the league until the U-21 championships are completed and run the U-21 competitions off quicker. We could take a year off minor and U-21 grades, have U-17 and U-20 instead. But are we brave enough to give these suggestions a chance?"
O'Neill accepts that exams dictate that the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cups can't be brought forward, but he believes the number of years a player can be involved in third-level games should be capped to three years.
"There was a time when Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cups were a breeding ground for inter-county players. Now they are a showcase for inter-county players where colleges trade players almost American Football style.
"We know the vested interest groups will circle the wagons on this. But it requires brave decisions all round."
He feels the ability of clubs to pay back big loans is still manageable and accepts that the drive for better facilities will lose some momentum.
"I'm not overly concerned about finance. I think we have the collective ability to pay off what we owe. We have to find ways of getting more people involved in our games. If that means facilities being used on a shared basis then so be it," he says.
"There was a time when a club meant a team, but now a club has many teams at adult and underage level. I'm in a two-teacher school with 30 pupils in a rural area. If we get one or two boys each year filtering into our teams we're happy. There are vast housing estates in Dublin that wouldn't get that.
"I'd like to see a model where clubs sponsor a number of teams from within their areas so that they cater for more potential players. It's not a case of just taking the best. We have to come up with more innovative ways to use our facilities. We have to give everyone a chance to play. We have to fill our stadia."
O'Neill is circumspect about the payment for managers issue and believes a scarcity of finance will eventually scale down any problem that exists.
As the GAA's management committee continue to stall any part of director general Paraic Duffy's discussion document from reaching the public domain, O'Neill says any discussion on the issue should focus on "keeping the rules that we already have on it."
"I would not like to see any situation whereby we would pay our managers. I think eventually clubs will come to their senses," he says.