Sunday 16 December 2018

10 things that the GAA's new director-general Paraic Duffy should do

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

PARAIC Duffy's hands aren't tied behind his back but there will be times when he signs off on something with his right hand while his left elbow is nudging him in the ribs telling him it's wrong.

That's the strength and weakness of a democratic organisation which takes its instructions from the bottom up. Unlike company chief-executives who, together with senior management, devise policy, the director-general of the GAA is charged with putting into practice decisions made by others. Congress delegates have always been keen to recognise the work of the director-general, thanking him profusely for his annual report which actually is part of his brief anyway.

There must have been times when Liam Mulvihill would have preferred less thanks and more debate on his suggestions, many of which were ignored in the rush to complete the Friday night business and meet old acquaintances in the bar.

Stopped short

For all the back-slapping of the DG, Central Council stopped short of changing his title to chief-executive as recommended by the Strategic Review Committee. Presumably, they thought it might bestow too much power on him.

So, while there's a changing of the DG guard, the basic terms of reference remain the same. However, there is likely to be change of emphasis. Mulvihill was never short of new ideas -- as espoused in his annual report -- but took the view that his responsibilities involved suggesting the way forward and then leaving others to decide if it were appropriate.

It was an interpretation endorsed by Central Council. However, in an ever-changing situation -- not least among Central Council where the personnel are changing at a rapid rate -- Duffy is likely to have more autonomy than Mulvihill.

Duffy made it clear on Thursday that he saw the DG's role as being very much pro-active where policy would be initiated by him and his senior managers and where strong efforts would be made to convince management and Central Council of the benefit of such measures.

Significantly, all the Croke Park senior managers were lined up alongside Duffy for Thursday's press conference, suggesting that he intends to make the day-to-day running of the GAA very much a team affair, using an integrated accountability mechanism.

He has just over two months to put his initial blueprint in place and, no doubt, he won't be short of advice in the interim as to how he should proceed. Everybody will have their own ideas as to what they would do if they were in his position so by way of a starting point, here are ten key areas that require attention.



1. The Players

The most important asset of all, so a smooth relationship between them and the administrators is vital. Duffy will be in power for seven years in what will be a period of great change, certainly if the last seven are a reliable guide.

Duffy has promised to work on improving links with the players which presumably means the GAA will be constantly reviewing and updating players benefits, rather than playing catch-up under pressure. The GPA have unquestionably brought about an improvement in player welfare since 2000, but the reality is that they shouldn't have had to.

The GAA should have taken the lead and gained kudos for their initiatives, rather than being reactive for so long. In fairness, they have improved in recent years but they conceded the early moral high ground and have found it hard to retrieve it.

2. Semi-professionalism

The GPA leadership insist that it's not on the agenda at present but if the membership agitates for it in future years, then it will become a major issue. The GAA must prepare for that possibility, not merely by waving the rule on amateur status but by having a coherent response. It's time to recruit outside experts to thoroughly investigate the impact that semi-professionalism would have on the GAA at all levels. The current debate, such as it is, relies far too heavily on emotion, on principle, on ideology. Good strategy demands that the GAA leadership have well-researched facts at their disposal if they are to face a war against any form of pay-for-play.

3. Population imbalance/urbanisation

It's a big elephant in the GAA's sitting-room. The GAA has a responsibility to offer as many players as possible the opportunity to aspire to playing at the highest level, yet the existing county system militates heavily against counties with large populations.

By the end of Duffy's term in 2014, the population of Dublin is likely to be around 1.75 million, yet they will have one county team, similar to counties like Leitrim, Longford, Offaly and Laois which have small populations.

That seriously reduces the chances of many players from the larger population areas ever playing for their county. Given the rapidly-changing demographic trends, maintaining the current county structure doesn't make sense.

It won't change in the next seven years but an analysis of the impact of population imbalance needs to be undertaken. So too does the knock-on effect of sprawling urban areas where the GAA's penetration is not nearly as high as it should be.

4. Clubs

Duffy has made it clear that the club will be very much to the forefront of his regime. He has already made it clear that he believes the inter-county scene -- as it stands -- is like a large oak tree denying light to smaller plants which are actually more important in the overall ecological balance.

He may well be right but the answer is not to cut back on inter-county activity. And even if it were, there's an absolute requirement to do it in a streamlined way so as to maintain a programme for 9-10 months of the year, maximising promotional opportunities.

County Boards could run their club programmes much more efficiently if they were strong and brave; instead far too many prefer to blame the inter-county scene for their difficulties.



5. Inter-county competitions

It was a committee chaired by Duffy that proposed the opening of the 'back door' in football in 2001, so it's obvious that he's not afraid or bound by tradition.

It's now time for a fundamental overhaul of the entire fixtures structure using three key headings: players, value-for-money and exposure.

Is it fair on senior inter-county footballers that while they are only guaranteed two competitive games between mid-April and the following February?

Is it fair on County Boards who have to invest so heavily for such a lop-sided programme?

As for exposure, the GAA are on a dangerous path from a promotional viewpoint by having no inter-county activity for the last 14 weeks of the year at a time when soccer and rugby dominate the media schedules.

6. Hurling

Its base is small enough without cutting Antrim adrift as is the shameful case arising from the Special Congress decision to hand them an impossible championship programme every summer. If that's the way hurling people treat one of its proudest sons, what chance has the game of expanding?

The short term aim should be to ensure that hurling prospers in traditional areas, rather than investing heavily in counties where football always has -- and probably always will be -- dominant.

Is it time to separate hurling and football for administrative purposes? A five year experiment to that effect would be interesting.

7. Stadiums

The GAA are rightly proud of Croke Park and of the magnificent infrastructure in every parish in the country. However, serious mistakes are being made in between. Munster has four stadiums with a capacity of 40,000 plus, which are rarely filled. Cork have plans to redevelop Pairc Ui Chaoimh as a 60,000 arena but for what?

Counties have shown great energy and resourcefulness in developing their major grounds but, in most cases, the capacity is too high while the comfort level is too low.

Each province needs one 'centre of excellence,' accompanied by a downsizing of other county grounds (maximum 20,000), with greater emphasis on spectator comfort. The days of large expensive vanity projects should be over.

8. Structures

There should be no independent republics in the GAA which is the case at present as neither County Boards nor Provincial Councils are answerable to anybody provided they adhere to general rules. Provincial Councils should be accountable to Central Council, certainly in matters which relate to national issues.

For instance, Munster decided some weeks ago to seed their football draw to keep Cork and Kerry apart until the final. It means that two of the strongest counties can time their training schedule to aim at a first peak in mid-July, a luxury not available to their rivals in the three other provinces.

Since the Munster decision impacts directly on others, they should have had to clear it at central level.

9. Promotion

Some weeks ago the fixtures for the 2008 Allianz Leagues, having been sent to counties for inspection, appeared on a website and were picked up by the national media. It may look like a small thing but in the closed inter-county season, surely the GAA could have made a whole lot more of the announcement.

And surely they could have planned the fixtures better, for example, pairing Dublin v Meath, who haven't met in the league for over a decade, in a first round game.

When the GAA finally got to formally issuing the fixtures, they arrived 'as Gaeilge.' Contrast that with the newspaper-friendly format the fixtures for the English soccer leagues arrive every year. A little imagination would go a long way in terms of better GAA promotion.

10. Croke Park

Rule 42 has been suspended, not deleted, and is set to re-activate when Lansdowne Road is redeveloped. How daft is that? Croke Park has a capacity of 82,500, compared to Lansdowne Road's 55,000 (maximum), yet major rugby and soccer games will return to the smaller venue, thereby depriving 27,500 an opportunity to attend major attractions.

In fairness to the GAA, it's unclear whether the IRFU or FAI want to play games in Croke Park when Lansdowne Road is completed but they should be put to the test. If they refuse, they can be blamed for ignoring 27,500 people.

Just as they did two years ago, the GAA should again show a lead by deleting Rule 42 for good and declaring Croke Park available for all big events.

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