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Black economy testingfibre of GAA's integrity

Unregulated payments to managers is the issue that won't go away, says Dermot Crowe

Dermot Crowe

Published 22/01/2012 | 05:00

MONEY has been covertly passed into the hands of managers, in blatant contravention of the GAA's amateur laws, for many years but the latest attempt to confront the issue has its roots in a lecture given by an academic in May 2009, attended by Páraic Duffy.

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At an event to mark the GAA's 125th anniversary, Professor Gearóid ó Tuathaigh, a GAA enthusiast, spoke of the challenges facing the Association on a number of fronts. The GAA had always responded and shown leadership to the changing environment and it would need to continue doing so, he argued. Unregulated payments to managers was one of those challenges cited and Duffy left the hotel that night with a hardened resolve to tackle the issue and end the fashion of ignoring it.

He knew only too well the difficulties that would pose but felt there was no choice given the jarring hypocrisy of being an organisation preaching one rule and practising another. Having had a chance to reflect on the GAA's core values, he realised the practice of unregulated payments to managers, and the nod and wink culture that surrounded it, was corroding the GAA's reputation and integrity.

"He (ó Tuathaigh) made a compelling case on the need for the Association to address this issue in a direct and transparent manner; he subsequently developed these arguments in discussions and correspondence. Professor Ó Tuathaigh's reflections have significantly influenced this paper," Duffy explained in his discussion document.

But that was almost three years ago and Duffy found that even preparing a discussion document on the issue can have its complications. In 2010, when asked for a release date, Duffy estimated six weeks. By then it was late August, the inter-county championships were nearing climax point and his work appeared to be well advanced. Six weeks later, the report still hadn't been published. Christmas came and went and nothing happened. Finally, 14 months on, it emerged on Tuesday last.

When it came, it took people by surprise. A Management Committee meeting on the previous Friday hadn't flagged its release and there has been no satisfactory explanation for the long delay. It is not conceivable that Duffy would sit on a report like this given his reputation for getting things done and one of the stalling factors appeared to be a clash of opinion at the top on the report's content and direction.

While Duffy has offered a number of options in his paper, he is believed to regard a relaxation of the amateur restrictions on paying managers as the most likely and pragmatic course of action. The GAA president Christy Cooney is believed to have differed on that score.

Cooney's view on the thriving black market of payments to managers was illustrated at last April's Congress where he described it as a "cancer" that needed to be addressed. He did not set out his own views on how that would be achieved however. He felt that way presumably from the outset of his presidency; why then did Duffy's document gather dust for so long?

It now looks likely that whatever resolution is found or agreed won't happen until the presidency of Cooney's successor, Liam O'Neill. Yesterday, with just four days' notice, county boards were due in Croke Park to discuss the document and look at the next step. A work group is to be established to canvass wider opinion and formulate proposals with a six-month timeframe suggested by Duffy as achievable.

There is no solution offered in Duffy's document that won't cause concern about the wider implications. "You couldn't disagree with a lot of the sentiment," said a county chairman on Friday, "it's the practicalities that are the problem. At the end of the day, it's like the closed season. No matter what you bring in, you are depending on the people at local level to administer it, you can't go round with a big stick; you have to depend on the quality of the people in each county.

"Now, personally, I think the era of inter-county managers is exaggerated. Where I see the bigger problem is at club level. I can understand a club that thinks it has an opportunity once in a while of winning a county championship getting in someone of quality. What I can't understand is a club -- at any level -- that knows it hasn't a hope of winning bringing someone in; why don't they put that (money) into coaching at underage level?"

He admitted his own county wasn't abiding by GAA rules. "We are not paying the basic 50 cent a mile and phone bill because if we did we would not get somebody to manage -- it's as simple as that. Inside or outside the county. We are paying a bit more (than official limits). But money has never come from anybody other than the county board. We wouldn't be over extravagant. I would consider us just ahead of what the top clubs are paying, maybe €100-150 a night, to bring in the guy we want."

He sees problems with a standardised payment structure given prevailing attitudes. "Say they decide to pay top managers €20,000. And someone is weighing up your job offer and a neighbouring county is also interested. The candidate may lean towards the county with greater potential and then the other county throws in an extra €5,000 quietly and you are back at square one."

The costs involved for county boards, at present, in paying managers aren't excessive, he maintains. "If a county spends half a million on county teams, less than ten per cent of that will go on the management team of the senior side. We have admitted that we are paying over the expenses rate but I have been at meetings where counties who are well known to be paying managers have lied blatantly. It's a bit like being an addict; until you admit you have a problem you can't solve it."

He wasn't expecting much progress at the Croke Park summit of leading county officers yesterday. "I would say it will be total confusion to be honest; views will be many and varied."

The issue of unregulated payments to managers is not a new one but aside from regular condemnations it has been allowed run unchecked. Duffy accepts that managers are in demand and put in an enormous effort which deserves to be recognised. He sets out three options the GAA can take: do nothing; enforce the current laws; and have regulated payments. The first option, he says, isn't viable. And he doesn't come down in favour of either of the remaining two.

Ultimately, increased and sustained media attention appears to have fast-tracked the document's release. "It (the issue) hasn't gone away, and it is mentioned, and regularly so, in national media, presenting a very poor public image of the Association. For these reasons alone, the option of continuing inaction is the least defensible," Duffy states in his paper.

Duffy's document calls for a policy that will be "consistent with the GAA's amateur ethos" and to resolve a problem that if not confronted openly will leave the GAA open to a charge of being complicit in a double standard. He feels the GAA's reputation has been "tarnished" while it sits around and does nothing. This is its chance to act.

Another key participant in the report's compilation said the time had come to own up and take a more honest approach to the issue. "All counties voted at Congress to retain the closed season and we all broke it. Last week I was giving a course for club officers and one value they all recited to a man was integrity. We can continue paying managers as we are now but we won't have any integrity. We have to bow to the inevitable and go for Option 3 (regulated payments). If we don't, the Revenue will come at us like a tonne of bricks, and rightly so. They have never gone after us with relish, but the soundings I have is they are going to wait and watch what happens, see what we go for and then go after us with hammer and tongs if they're not satisfied. You can't say one thing and do another.

"We have tried Option 1 (preserving the status quo) and it hasn't worked. Páraic Duffy is a pragmatist which I like; he looks at the reality, he is very grounded in the grassroots. If we choose Option 3, we will lose a little bit of what we had but at least we will have our integrity."

He doesn't see the move creating an unstoppable momentum towards paying players. "The non-payment of our players is the most basic core value we have and I can never see us conceding that. There isn't a problem at the moment of unregulated payments to players, (except) maybe the odd rumour of players going into a club in Dublin and getting payment in kind. That is not to say if I am a top-class player and someone wants to give me a car, that should be a problem, as long as I am not being paid for my services to a team. If we didn't have that happening in the last ten years with all the crazy stupid things happening in the economy, it is not going to be a problem for the next generation."

The GPA has already thrown its support behind the option of regulating payments which has created concern that this could create a demand for players being paid further down the line. Opinion on this is divided. The GPA refers to a two-year-old survey in which over 70 per cent of players say they would not want to be paid if managers were financially rewarded.

A chairman in a prominent Ulster county flatly rejected any prospect of supporting payments to managers. "We are not interested in regulated payments -- it's an amateur association. This has nothing to do with Of One Belief or the GPA. My own club has an outside manager. I would say at least half the clubs in the county are using external managers. Once it's regulated is that where it is going to stop? Do you think the players will not be next?"

But another county chairman in Leinster asked about this concern didn't agree. "I wouldn't buy into that at all. I think players are much maligned. By and large, from what I can see, most of them want to play, they want to be respected. All it takes is a handful to make statements and all are tarred with the one brush. If you had a county team and wanted Brian Cody and said to the players will you forego your expenses one night a week to get Brian Cody, they'd jump at it."

Duffy has ruled out any compromise on payments to club managers which is also a roaring black economy. "It is not a healthy situation that some of these hard-earned (club) funds are directed towards paying the team manager. This is bound to be a source of resentment and anger within clubs. Which leads to a final reason why club-team managers should not be paid: while the club-team manager makes a valuable contribution to his club, the same can be said for many club officials, none of whom are paid."

He argues that irregular payments at club level took the lead from those at inter-county level and that until the latter is addressed that will not change. The development and implementation of a national club-management training programme should be an immediate priority and he cites the lead taken by Ulster Council.

Ulster clubs are being urged to do it for themselves, to groom their own coaches and managers and not rely on outside intervention. "Clubs don't need to go to the next parish or county to find a club chairman," said Aogán Farrell, the Ulster Council chairman.

"They should be well able, from within their own club area, to find a good leader from their own community because GAA is about passion for your own place. In the same way they don't need to be going to anyone always expecting there is a grant for this or that. They should be able to grow their own players within their catchment, within their own community -- people who have a love of their own club and place, and they should be the people that power their teams.

"In terms of finance, administration and players, where possible -- nothing fundamentalist, we want clubs to become self-sufficient, it is the same with coaches and managers. We have always said that, inherently, the GAA is not about amateur values, it's about local values -- pride in your parish, that kind of ethos. That is the ideal we should have but it is not always practical."

From being "five or six nights" on the road Farrell says he was able to get a grip on grassroots sentiment "I got clubs to listen and then challenge things I said and it has become clear to me that many clubs today, they want more than the coaching course, we need to up our game; we are not as good as we think we are.

"They want more. Guys came to me and said you have coaching courses that don't cover people skills and man-management, which is very important in a club dressing room. That is a huge area that some guys have naturally, and others could pick it up. We took a lot of that on board and talked at Ulster Council level and then we went into talks with universities."

The outcome of those discussions was a new initiative that has drawn approving remarks from Duffy. At St Mary's College in Belfast, coaches are trained using the joint resources of the Ulster Council's coaching department and the college's academic expertise.

"This course is one key initiative to provide our volunteers with the opportunity to learn about Gaelic games and wider sports science issues so that they can bring it back to their clubs and counties to help train our sportspeople to the highest standards," said Eugene Young, Ulster GAA director of coaching and games development.

The likelihood is that the issue of unregulated payments will be overtaken by inter-county competition shortly and gain less attention. But it will resurface; this time it doesn't look like it is going away.

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