Monday 19 November 2018

Fault lines tend to miss John Bailey

Kevin Kimmage

IN time, Dublin football's quest for a new senior manager will be remembered as a process that lurched from comedy to farce over 11 weeks before being wrapped up in five days with a little common sense.

Paul Caffrey's name isn't as big as Brian Mullins'. He's not as accomplished as Peter McGrath and he certainly doesn't carry the aura of Mick O'Dwyer. But under the circumstances, the dearth of credible alternatives and draining sands of time, it's hard to think of a better possible choice.

As the county board pointed out, the appointment of Caffrey with Dave Billings as one of his selectors provides continuity from the Tommy Lyons regime. To those who fear that 'continuity' means 'same voice syndrome' there is the reassuring presence of Brian Talty.

The Galway man is not loved by everyone in Dublin club circles, but nobody can argue with his record in the city and his knowledge of the scene. Also, given his notorious falling out with Lyons after coaching the under-21s for a season, it's incomprehensible that he would associate himself with a group that went about its business in a manner so similar to the old regime.

And then there is Paul Clarke, the fitness fanatic from Whitehall who's likely to spend most of his time on the training ground with the players. The fact that he also happens to know what a Celtic Cross feels like in the palm of his hand won't do any harm either.

Yes, you'd almost be tempted to say that it was the tidiest piece of work John Bailey had completed in a long time. But if you gave him credit for that, you'd also have to point the finger at the mess which preceded Caffrey's appointment. And if there is one thing that the county chairman, through his multiple interviews in the print and broadcast media was keen to stress last week, it is that nothing that went on prior to the selection of Caffrey was his fault.

You might wonder about the modus operandi of a committee that offered the job to Brian Mullins before they even knew his terms. You could even blame Mullins for having his PR machine so readily cranked up when the house of cards collapsed last weekend. But the one person you can't blame in all that went on was John Bailey. It wasn't his fault. Nothing that goes wrong in Dublin GAA circles ever is.

The story goes that when Dublin were searching for a new hurling manager a few years back, the net started to close around Kevin Fennelly. Bailey arrived for a meeting with Fennelly but made the mistake of greeting him as Liam. "I'm not Liam," corrected Fennelly. "Liam's the fella you asked before me." Not all of his faux pas have been greeted with such humour.

In 1996, when Mickey Whelan was suffering a torrent of criticism following the county's tame surrender of their All-Ireland title, it was reported in the Evening Herald that Whelan's job was only saved because Bailey gave the county board delegates assurances that the then captain, John O'Leary, had pledged the players' support for the manager.

When O'Leary - who had lost all faith in Whelan - read the report that evening he hit the roof. "I had told Bailey nothing of the sort," he revealed in his autobiography, Back to the Hill. "I was deeply unhappy with Bailey's handling of the affair. The club delegates had been misled as to my views on the situation. It seems to me that Bailey presented them with a selective version of events."

Then there was the messy end to Tommy Carr's tenure in 2001 when, having pledged his support for the manager in the immediate aftermath of their All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Kerry, Bailey subsequently cast the decisive vote against him when the county board were split down the middle.

Two years ago, he raised the ire of Cumann na mBunscol in Dublin, when he listed the lack of male teachers in primary schools, insurance issues and ongoing sex abuse scandals in the church as factors affecting the development of the game in Dublin. Cumann na mBunscol's response - printed in the Sunday Independent - was swift and withering. "It's a measure of how out of touch John Bailey is with the reality on the ground," stated Cumann PRO, Jerry Grogan, pointing out that not one of the 197 schools preparing to start leagues in the city that year were experiencing problems with teacher availability.

Despite the controversy and the criticism, he has never come close to being voted out

Through all of these controversies, the media have tended to tag the adjective 'embattled' before his name and title. The truth is, he has rarely ever been embattled. None of the controversies generated by his handling of Dublin senior football team affairs have ever seriously threatened his position. Not then, and not now.

With nominations now closed for the Dublin county board's annual convention on December 13, there is only one potential challenger listed - current vice-chairman, Gerry Harrington, from Naomh Mearnóg. But there are significant doubts that Harrington will allow his name to go forward on the night.

"If somebody was challenging Bailey for the chair, the word would be out by now," says one official from a south Dublin club. "Because they would have to put a campaign together and lobby every club in the county. But I haven't heard of anybody going forward to challenge him."

He has served a combined total of nine years in two different stints as chairman and despite the controversy and the criticism, he has never come close to being voted out. That's partly because he is the arch politician. He highlights his own achievements while distancing himself from the failures.

He draws most of his strength from the (more numerous) junior clubs who have equal voting rights with the bigger clubs. But even among his most ardent critics, there is a broad acknowledgment of the volume of unpaid work Bailey does for the GAA in Dublin.

"It's very easy to jump on the bandwagon and give people stick," says one current Dublin inter county footballer. "I'm sure John Bailey has made plenty of mistakes, but I genuinely think he does things for the benefit of Dublin GAA. Before Parnell Park was re-developed (in 1995) it was a fairly grim old place. On one side of the pitch, there was a hill behind a wall where the supporters stood and there was a bit of a shed on top of it. There was another shed on the far side and a mucky hill behind the goals. It went (under Bailey's leadership) from that to a professional looking little set up that you'd look forward to playing in."

A lifelong member of the Cuala club in Dalkey, his greatest achievements in Gaelic games came not from playing but as a match official. He refereed the 1986 All-Ireland Senior hurling final between Cork and Galway, after which he was famously criticised by Galway manager Cyril Farrell. Former Laois referee Pat Delaney, who acted as a linesman that day, believes the criticism Bailey received was unfair. "Cyril said a lot of things about him, but then he was involved with the losing side. I felt John handled the game well enough that day."

By 1992 he had moved off the field and into the chair of the Dublin county board and within three years, he had overseen the re-development of Parnell Park. A self-made businessman who, in his time has owned a car-hire business, a string of high fashion shoe shops, a pub in Dalkey, and trained race horses, his financial acumen is undoubtedly his greatest asset to the Dublin cause.

"There are two sides to Bailey," says one southside official. "He unquestionably puts in a colossal amount of hours into Dublin football. He is totally passionate and deeply committed to it all. That's his good side. His bad side is that he wants to control everything he does. He doesn't like to delegate, so he surrounds himself with yes men."

Apart from being chairman of the Dublin county board, he is also head of the county's GAC committee and, prior to last year's convention, his name was listed among the candidates for the role of Central Council delegate.

At face value, the move wasn't a surprise - it is common practice for candidates to be nominated for multiple positions and then withdraw on election night.

But Bailey didn't withdraw and when a vote was taken he easily defeated the outgoing candidate, Gerry Brady. The development was not universally popular. Brady had held the position for the previous ten years and won widespread respect for his contribution to Ard Comhairle affairs.

Bailey's move was seen as another example of his voracious ambition, but ultimately his primary goal lies outside the realm of sport and in the chamber inhabited by Dublin football's most famous supporter.

In the 2002 General Election, Bailey stood for Fine Gael in the Dun Laoghaire constituency. He polled 10th best among the 17 candidates, but fared better in the local elections two years later.

Not alone did he top the poll in Dun Laoghaire, but on the same day, his daughter, Maria, was voted in in the neighbouring electoral area of Ballybrack. A sound political base, it seems, is being built for the future.

With that in mind, it's tempting to believe that his broader ambitions haven't been helped by the controversies of the past eight days. The opposite is probably the truth. "At this stage, he must be the best known councillor in Ireland," says one Dublin club official.

"And while the last few weeks have been damaging for Dublin football, ultimately John hasn't been accused of doing anything illegal or immoral here, so there's no such thing as bad publicity. In a couple of weeks, people won't remember the controversy, but they'll still remember his name."

One or two former Dublin managers won't forget him in a hurry either.

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