Monday 18 December 2017

Expectations drive balancing act

County secretary Mike O'Riordan toils hard to keep the Limerick ship afloat, writes Damian Lawlor

Mike O'Riordan has a decision to make this morning. Will he head to Leitrim for Limerick's opening game in Division 4 or nip across to Tipperary Town for the Harty Cup semi-final between Ardscoil Rís and Nenagh CBS. Such dilemmas have become a way of life.

We're driving to Mick Neville Park in Rathkeale to see first hand the massive development work under way in Limerick and, just as he is about to explain the pros and cons of attending each game, O'Riordan's phone rings for about the 30th time in two hours. In the back of the car, photographer Tony Gavin shakes his head. "Jesus, you would really have to love what you're doing to put up with that."

Just as well, then, that O'Riordan's passion runs deep. His phone is rarely left aside. In 2010, he and wife Diane visited Paris and London and following four days of peace the mobile was switched back on. It beeped vigorously as word of the senior hurlers' stand-off with Justin McCarthy seeped through. On another occasion, with Munster championship tickets in hot demand, O'Riordan mislaid his phone and when he found it there were over 200 missed calls.

"Pat Fitzgerald from Clare once said that a full-time county secretary clocks up 40 hours a week and then another 39 in his spare time," O'Riordan chuckles. "But sure I love it."

Yet the perception remains that full-time officials are a million miles detached from the grassroot volunteer. Specifically, the gap between the club man and the Croke Park hierarchy seems to be widening. The Kilmallock man hears such talk on a weekly basis and recognises the suspicion deep within the eyes of people he deals with.

"No doubt about it, there's a definite 'them and us' attitude creeping in. I don't agree with that theory for one second but a voluntary person or club officer will often kick up when asked to help. Instead they'll say: 'Why should we do it when there's a man inside paid to do it?'

"Some clubs complain that they can't get hold of me; they probably think I'm doing nothing. But I get a couple of hundred calls per day and just can't get back to everyone. People say full-time officials are doing nothing but you have to make priorities on any given day.

"Still, the tide is turning a small bit in Limerick. We're back competitive at underage; we won an under 21 Munster title last year, a Division 2 NHL title and a Division 4 NFL trophy the year before. It lifts the mood."

Mike O'Riordan's main challenge is to financially and structurally redesign the entire existence of Limerick GAA, its 69 clubs and 18,000 registered members and to help nurture teams that perform under lofty levels of expectation.

Despite the economic downturn there are plenty of development projects in the pipeline and they must also manage fielding two relatively successful senior teams. But every passing year it all becomes more of a balancing act.

In 2011, they splashed out €700,000 on their inter-county teams, an increase of €95,152 but then saw net gate receipts drop by almost €43,000. With so many projects in operation, expenditure increased by over €200,000 to €1.6m. It's a lot but if they don't persist, the momentum from the inner-city catchment areas and underage development squads will fall away. Coaching bills and other costs are up by €97,518, therefore, but what's the alternative?

The hope is that one day their underage hurling set-up, backed by €50,000 funding from Gerry McManus (brother of JP) will be the envy of every other county. It's the carrot that keeps them all going; the burgeoning talent rising through the schools and development panels.

They must now, however, unearth similar investment to keep their football ambitions alive. Too much focus has been placed on the seniors to the detriment of youth. O'Riordan wants a football evolution similar to the one they're witnessing in hurling. "We have some of the greatest resources and facilities on our doorstep and it would be crazy not to use them," the secretary adds, referring to state-of-the-art gyms planned for the Gaelic Grounds and the wealth of synthetic pitches and floodlit grounds at their disposal. The board has also signed up for a deal to hire the facilities at the world-class €8.3m arena at University of Limerick. O'Riordan liaises closely with UL's director of sport Dave Mahedy, who established the large synthetic GAA pitch that is the envy of many.

"Dave had enough foresight to develop this facility," says O'Riordan. "He came to us and now we hire it for schools, clubs, senior teams, development squads, for anything.

"Managers can work on drills any time of year knowing that pitch will be playable and we use it from 8.0 in the morning until 3.0 most days with access at weekends too. It's been a massive shot in the arm for hurling and football."

With both hurling and football screaming for attention, the dual player issue has always been a contentious one in Limerick.

A line of former hurling managers banned their players from trying football, meaning that Stephen Lucey, James Ryan, Mike O'Brien, Conor Fitzgerald, Mark O'Riordan and others were pulled, dragged or sometimes left disappointed because they couldn't play football. More than once, guys quit hurling to focus on football but that won't happen this year as no dual player exists. O'Riordan openly admits that's a big headache lifted.

"We once had seven or eight dual players but you can't do both. It's not logical -- the strength work for footballers, style and technique are totally different than in hurling. We still have dual issues at minor but players nearly have to pick one team when they're young.

"The perception is that I and the rest of the board are pro-hurling as I played hurling with Kilmallock but I also played junior football with Limerick. The charge simply cannot be made that the hurlers get better looked after but people also need to realise that the money raised from hurling games is far greater than what football raises and the hurlers will always have a higher profile here. Still, the football team gets the very same treatment as the hurlers."

The figures back up that view. The cost of a single training session for one team is around €3,500.

"It would be the same cost for the footballers. Mileage expenses for 30 players is €1,000, manager expenses; the physio, backroom team, and strength and conditioning coaches too. After training we feed 40 people for €7 per head. Then there's equipment. You're talking €7,000 per session for both teams but we need this to ensure we don't lose any further ground to bigger counties."

Slowly, they're gaining ground again. Before O'Riordan and his band of coaches and administrators got to grips with the structures, there were no floodlit facilities, the Gaelic Grounds needed a revamp; the county was torn by player tensions and rows with managers and there wasn't enough emphasis on the underage set-ups.

Having served as secretary for 18 months before the full-time job came his way, O'Riordan had plenty to do. He pledged efficiency. "We saw an awful lot of potential where a lot of things could have been developed and improved," he says. "We needed more facilities and now we have them at Rathkeale, UL and the Gaelic Grounds which cost €3m to bring up to speed.

"Out in Rathkeale we have pumped in €3.2m. We're working on a new stand and that's up for planning this year. Work has already been completed on floodlights for two pitches, we have another synthetic pitch there and four grass ones along with four new dressing rooms.

"We sold land for around €1m to help fund it, the Croke Park money for staging soccer and rugby games also helped and we have €400,000 in the bank for it. We're putting it to good use, all sorts of games are played there and it saves the Gaelic Grounds pitch too."

There are plans for a new stand at the Gaelic Grounds while there are tentative hopes to redevelop the Mackey Stand in time. Such restructuring is to be commended but the perception remains that Limerick can run to JP McManus whenever they have a new project in mind.

"We're pretty sick of that perception," O'Riordan says. "We're fiercely grateful to JP for what he's done for this county, he is in his eighth year as our sponsor and we're very lucky to have him. Not only is he a great sponsor but a great supporter of all our teams as well. But this perception remains that if we're in crisis we go running to him, that's not true. We float our own ship -- JP gives us sponsorship and his contribution to the Gaelic Grounds, the €5m he invested in 2004, was an extremely substantial amount of money for one person to invest, like he did with Thomond Park and the grounds at Limerick FC.

"But it's an easy thing to say. That's partly why we're looking at so many ways to bring more revenue in, to ensure that people see we're doing this ourselves. I'd open the Gaelic Grounds to everything from a commercial point of view. I would have no problem with soccer or rugby games being played there. I would have no issue with any games played there at all provided there would be money made out of it."

They have a somewhat hard-nosed approach to fundraising but know they must be flexible too.

Each senior club must sell 190 tickets for a development draw or face expulsion. A junior outfit must sell 170. Amidst the recession, though, those targets are not always being met. O'Riordan accepts they have to see the bigger picture and not immediately throw the book at clubs.

"Some clubs will go to ground, no doubt about it the way things are going," he reckons. "It will be unsustainable to keep going. We'll do everything in our power to make sure it doesn't happen -- we're already holding a 12-a-side minor competition so that struggling clubs can still keep a presence at adult level but we're looking at the whole amalgamation picture too."

It's getting late and O'Riordan still has a colleges meeting and other engagements to attend. It will be close to 11.0 before he gets home to Diane, their 18-month-old son Conor and five-week-old daughter Sarah and even then there's no guarantee the phone will stop ringing.

"There's a big crowd of us working away and it would hearten you," he says. "But it will take that to make sure we're not insolvent at the end of the year. Every county board in the country is the same."

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