Thursday 19 October 2017

Martin Breheny: Duffy departs after decade of presiding over change

Director-General used innate sense of diplomacy to win support for initiatives close to his heart

Duffy’s interaction with the GPA was important in achieving a deal with the players’ group Photo: Sportsfile
Duffy’s interaction with the GPA was important in achieving a deal with the players’ group Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

There was a certain irony that the announcements of Páraic Duffy's planned retirement as GAA director-general and Pat Gilroy's appointment as Dublin hurling manager should come on the same day.

Their names were linked ten years ago too as heavyweight candidates for the GAA's top administrative position in succession to Liam Mulvihill, who had been DG for 28 years.

Alongside predecessor Liam Mulvihill at the former Ard Stiurthoir’s final press conference in 2008 Photo: Sportsfile
Alongside predecessor Liam Mulvihill at the former Ard Stiurthoir’s final press conference in 2008 Photo: Sportsfile

Duffy, who was already working in Croke Park as GAA Welfare Officer, secured the post, taking over in February 2008.

Outwardly, it looked a like a time of relative calm within the Association. The divisive issue of whether Croke Park should be opened up for rugby and soccer had been settled three years earlier and the stadium was then happily hosting Irish international teams, generating an income stream of around €9 million per annum for the GAA.

Still, as ever with the country's largest sporting organisation, new challenges were presenting themselves.

Duffy made it clear from the start that while his main role was to implement policy as decided by the GAA membership, he would not be a mere facilitator.

He would offer his own ideas, challenge perceived wisdom and never lose sight of the need for the GAA to continue evolving and renewing itself.

His style came as no surprise to those of us who knew him from his days as Monaghan PRO back in the late 1970s. Many counties had no active PROs back then but when Duffy was appointed in Monaghan, he brought a new dimension to the role. But then he understood the importance of communications, something that's sadly lacking in many counties in these allegedly more sophisticated times.

Nor was he afraid to make bold decisions as he later showed during his term as Games Administration Committee chairman.

In 2003, he persuaded the committee to switch an entire round of Allianz League fixtures from Sunday to Saturday to avoid a clash with an Ireland-England rugby Grand Slam clash in Lansdowne Road.

He did it by using the logical argument that it made sense to avoid a clash with such a major attraction and while there were many in the GAA who had idealistic objections to allowing another sport dictate their schedules, Duffy's quiet diplomacy worked on them.

It was no surprise then that when the GAA decided to appoint a full-time welfare officer in Croke Park, Duffy was offered the job. It ended his time as principal of St Maccartan's College, Monaghan and launched a GAA administrative career which later took him to the highest office.

The appointment of a welfare officer arose from the ever-increasing power wielded by the Gaelic Players Association (GPA), an organisation formed in 2000 out of frustration over how players were treated.

Duffy's later interaction with the GPA as director-general was hugely important in achieving the 'peace in our time' deal, which saw the players' group receive substantial funding from the GAA for its various programmes and activities.

It's unlikely that he will oversee a similar outbreak of détente with the newly-formed Club Players' Association before he steps down next March.

He would argue that the difficulties experienced by club players have always been high on his agenda and that many of the changes introduced in recent years, and those to come in 2018, will greatly improve the situation.

Nor did he ever hide his frustration with counties whose sloppy fixture-making causes problems for club players.

He believes that while serious challenges arise in trying to run off multi-layered competitions, a lack of proper planning often made the situation worse than it should have been.

The introduction of the 'Super 8' (a term he dislikes) to replace the All-Ireland football quarter-finals was his idea. But then he has always been willing to propose change to long-established practices.

Back in 2001, he chaired the committee which devised the All-Ireland football qualifiers format.

Traditionalists decried it as an unwelcome concept but Duffy, who got the backing of other major powerbrokers, sold it well enough to win a Congress vote. Sixteen years later, it's still in place.

He will be out of office before the 'Super 8' or the reformed hurling formats, which he also championed, get their first outings next year.

So too with the change to the minor age limit and the earlier dates for the All-Ireland finals.

One area he found especially frustrating was the manner in which the rules on illegal payments to managers - both at county and club level - continue to be broken.

He set out his stall early on, stating in 2010 that it was unacceptable to have a rule in place, only to have it ignored.

"Expressing a determination to address the issue is meaningless unless followed by effective action," he wrote.

He later brought forward a number of proposals on how the problem might be tackled and while new protocols were introduced, there is no guaranteed means of implementation if club or county officers ignore them.

Another loophole exists when the payments come from outside the GAA.

"It's easy to say that Croke Park should do this or that, but ultimately you rely on the people elected in each county to run the association there. You expect them to apply the rules," he said in an interview with Irish Independent last May.

"If they don't, then you have a real problem, one that will get bigger as time goes on. You can't proclaim a set of values and then act contrary to those and still retain credibility.

"This is not just an issue at inter-county level. In fact, it's a lot worse with clubs, where there is a whole plethora of mercenaries who go around counties from one club to the next. We know what's going on, but try and get evidence and you hit a brick wall," he said.

And while he has always argued that any move towards professionalism would be disastrous for the GAA, his comments in that interview may prove prophetic.

"We're trying to swim against the tide in a world where elite sport means professional sport. We are probably the only sporting organisation in the world that can attract the crowds we do and still remain amateur. Inevitably, there are going to be challenges. We're fighting in a sporting world where money is king," he said.

From April next, it will be up to someone else to lead the battle against creeping professionalism.

Irish Independent

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