'I know what clubs want. I will listen'
Seán Walsh won't be as 'naive' this time as he makes a second bid for the GAA presidency
In his playing days, Seán Walsh was a midfielder who featured in three county finals for the divisional team in north Kerry, Feale Rangers. Those finals correspond to the golden era of Kerry football. The first fell the year the county won the All-Ireland final by defeating Dublin by 17 points, 1978, which began a run of four All-Irelands back-to-back. Feale Rangers regained the county championship in 1980, when Walsh marked John O'Keeffe of Austin Stacks, and he was on the team that lost two years later to South Kerry, having Ger Lynch for company.
That win in 1980 marked Feale Rangers' last for almost 30 years, a wait ended in 2007 when current county manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice kicked the winning point. Walsh is now a recognised administrator, having served terms as chair of both county and province. To many players who came after he had retired, he became closely identified with his time chairing the county board. Some still refer to him as 'Mr Chairman' and Páidí Ó Sé, around the time the county panel visited China, more memorably dubbed him 'Chairman Mao'.
Later this month he will have a second stab at the GAA presidency, having come up short in the last election, finishing well behind the winner, Aogán Ó Fearghail, and bumped into third place by Sheamus Howlin of Wexford. Runners-up have fared well in the past, often winning at the second attempt, but he needs to vastly improve on the 57 votes he mustered three years ago. "Obviously, it was a disappointment," he says. "It's different now."
How? "Well, I won't be as naive."
In what sense? "You wouldn't be taking everything at face value."
The promise of votes? "Exactly."
But that's still a risk now? "That problem is still there. There was a groundswell for Aogán that time. They will tell you what you want to hear. But I am very, very happy where I am in the campaign at the moment. I've had a very good response. With five candidates you don't know. But I am very happy where I am at the moment in relation to the campaign."
Walsh didn't retire from football until 42 but by then he was already working in administration, having become his club's secretary at just 17. Born and raised on a small farm in Moyvane, one of a family of ten, he was still a player with Moyvane while serving as a development officer with the county board and he played all through the 12 years he served as his own club's chairman. The only reason he retired, he says, was to go for county chairman, which he did successfully a year later in 1998.
The previous year Kerry had won their first All-Ireland in 11 years, which was followed by another in 2000 with Walsh as county chairman, but then a turbulent period followed which saw a heavy defeat to Meath in the All-Ireland semi-final of 2001, and then troubling losses to the new vanguard of Ulster opposition provided by Armagh and Tyrone. The last of those defeats asked fundamental questions of where Kerry were headed and brought the end of Páidí Ó Sé's reign, with Walsh instrumental is seeing through the change he deemed necessary.
While there was plenty of support for change, bringing down Ó Sé was a courageous move. In his time as a county minor selector, encompassing the All-Ireland win of 1994, Walsh had worked with Darragh Ó Sé and later his brother Tomás. Calling time on their uncle's management required clear-mindedness and a tough decisive nature. The next year under Jack O'Connor the move was vindicated when Kerry won the league and the All-Ireland, ushering in a new spell of dominance.
"When a decision had to be made I made it," he says, "but to this day, the three Ó Sés (Darragh, Tomás and Marc) I count as among my best friends." When Páidí Ó Sé died, the graveside oration was given at the family's request by Walsh.
His roots are rural north Kerry where he still lives. In his childhood in Moyvane there was no underage team below 14 but the adult team played division one league football in Kerry, whereas now the adult team is in division five, weakened by the standard burdens of rural clubs in the west of Ireland.
Club fixtures, if he wins the election, are likely to figure prominently on his watch. The new Club Players' Association (CPA) has ramped up its demands and called for the abandonment of proposals going to Congress and a fresh review of the growing crisis of inadequate club fixtures programmes.
"First thing I would say is this: we have nothing to fear from the Club Players' Association. The CPA is a bit like the GPA in why it was formed. The GPA was formed out of frustration that there was nothing happening for county players. And that's why it came about. I had no problems with players in my ten years as chairman of the county board. And I stand on my record as being a players' man and you can contact anybody. And ring Dara Ó Cinnéide in the morning if you want to. Or anyone.
"The GPA was formed out of frustration. The CPA has been formed out of frustration in a different way in that there is not a structured games plan for club players. But the reason there isn't is because there are fellow club players on county teams playing in qualifiers and taking up the Sundays. And until we get that right we still have the frustration.
"The point I want to make is if you go back to their (CPA) launch and look at what they wanted, every county board and board secretary would like to have that in their fixtures schedules. The only thing I would totally disagree with them on is that we cannot bring forward the All-Ireland final to the first week in August. We cannot afford to hand over these two months to anybody else. I see no problem with a structured fixtures programme, which they're entitled to, and which any administrator worth his salt would like to see them have. But I do not agree in bringing forward the All-Ireland finals.
"I'd move them forward two weeks as in Páraic's (Duffy) proposals. I think they have to come forward but not as far as the first weekend in August. I would be totally opposed to handing over the months of August and September to our competitors.
"If we don't shorten our inter-county calendar the championship structures we have at the moment will not be sustained into the future because the club player will rail against it. We have no option but to tighten the inter-county scene."
How though? "Players will tell you they are quite happy to play every week or every second week. Playing championship matches every month or every five or six weeks can't last any longer. It just can't. We have to find a way around it. And contrary to what people think, making a fixtures plan for county and club players is not easy.
"The CPA has to realise it is difficult to make a structured plan that will last and won't be changed. Every county board in the country, every CCC in the country, has a fixtures plan in place and passed. The only thing that will change that is a run through the qualifiers or replays or the county manager dictating to the county secretaries to move matches. And that is the only thing that can change fixtures. Most of the fixture lists don't change."
Walsh says the county player is as complicit in wanting club fixtures held up as the county manager. "He wants to give all his focus to the county. And the other thing is, if you get a county that gets to an All-Ireland quarter-final or semi-final that hasn't been there for 10 or 15 or 20 years, everybody in that county is happy to sit back and let the county team rule. They will crib after but they are quite happy once they get to it.
He describes the call on Duffy to withdraw his proposals as "a bit rash" by arguing that Congress is "the overriding body. Every county is represented at Congress." By implication that means every club, and every club member. In many cases this outrage over fixtures is not being ventilated. "County board delegates are there who are quite happy to see club games called off," admits Walsh.
"They are not shouting from the rooftops about it. The CPA has a voice and will be putting out its position. They are well able to articulate their complaints. They will be doing that on a continual basis and when you keep doing that something will have to give. But I think Páraic Duffy has too much put into this for a group of people, only formed a short time, to ask him to withdraw it. That shouldn't happen."
During his time as Moyvane chairman, the local GAA pitch was renamed in memory of the local footballer Con Brosnan who won six All-Ireland medals. North Kerry has traditionally bred hard and uncompromising men, with Moyvane producing other famous footballers like Jim Brosnan and Bernie O'Callaghan who played for the county.
"We always laugh about it in Kerry; if you want tough and rough men, particularly in the centre-back positions, you came to north Kerry," says Walsh.
On a wall in his home there are different photos of Walsh in the company of John B Keane, Pat Jennings and Richard Harris. More recently he has been keeping the company of the country's leading referees in his role as the National Referees' Committee chairman.
"I see them being criticised on a weekly basis and I know from working with them on a daily basis how hard they are working to make their game better," he says.
He says the GAA often takes too much criticism and its good deeds are overlooked or underappreciated. "The GAA distributes €40m back to counties. Like, that's a huge amount of money," he states. "Some counties are struggling because they don't have the same capacity to raise money as other counties and that needs to be accounted for. But we are an organisation that is doing a lot of good."
In the early 1980s he spent six months in hospital with TB, not long after playing in the '82 county final. "I didn't think I'd get back playing again," he says. He did. "But what you did in the past doesn't give you the right to be GAA president," he says at one point. "I know what clubs want. I know what counties want. I will listen and I can take people with me. Any president who can't take people with him will achieve nothing."
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