Sport GAA

Sunday 20 May 2018

A steady hand on the tiller to steer GPA away from confrontation

Dermot Earley will forge a harmonious relationship with the GAA hierarchy but he will be no pushover

Earley has already indicated a desire to evaluate and critically examine where the GPA stands. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Earley has already indicated a desire to evaluate and critically examine where the GPA stands. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Back when he was a young footballer playing with Kildare, Dermot Earley did one of those Q&A interviews that revealed cold showers as one of his grievances with the GAA. Other gripes listed included games starting late, dozy umpires and linesmen, and foul play. Even as a young man starting out, he could quickly identify issues that got under a player's skin.

Earley, appointed CEO of the GPA last week at 38, has come a long way, as has the player welfare environment in which he operated for most of that time, experiencing the shortcomings first-hand and the coalface conditions that promoted the birth of the union he now leads. He has lived a lot in his relatively short life.

He had to confront testicular cancer at the age of 23, undergoing surgery and a series of radiotherapy treatments before making a full recovery. The premature death of his father, Dermot senior, at 62 in 2010 also impacted heavily, removing a huge presence from his life.

Family and GAA life were indivisible. On the evening of his father's funeral he played against Antrim in Newbridge in the All-Ireland qualifiers. He had spent most of the previous day shaking the hands of sympathisers at the wake. Exhausting and draining as the experience must have been, he still considered playing for his county as a form of duty. The feeling being that this was what his father would have wished for.

"We felt that the best way to honour my dad was to go out and play. He would have liked that. It was a decision that was discussed with my family and [manager] Kieran [McGeeney] and it's a decision I don't regret at all," he said at the time.

Earley followed his father into the army, and the training he received there is reflected in a stoic nature and even temperament. If business is not his obvious forte, there are elements of army learning which he will see as beneficial as he steers the GPA over the coming three years in office. The GPA already has the necessary business knowledge within its organisation and Earley offers them a strong and respected name at the head of the table.

In the GAA he is viewed as a safe pair of hands and non-confrontational, enjoying a good relationship with the director general Páraic Duffy. "He won't deliberately start trouble for the sake of it," says one insider. "There is a fair feeling that a lot of the heavy lifting has been done and there is not a lot to fight about now."

In the same breath the insider says that Earley should not be underestimated and has "a bit of steel in him". The next level is to develop the relationship between the GAA and GPA and continue the normalisation of relations. But there are issues that could lead to conflict, like the fixtures calendar and structure of the Championship, with the GPA's own Championship format submission failing to make the final cut. That itch hasn't gone away.

Earley has already indicated a desire to evaluate and critically examine where the GPA stands and where it needs to head over the coming years. His accession to CEO may have caused some surprise in the wider community, given that he is not an obvious frontline personality. As his appearances on The Sunday Game indicated, he is more steady than flamboyant by nature.

During his time as president of the GPA he has become more entrenched in the issues and concerns occupying the players' association. "Serious but fun," says one person who has worked close with him on Kildare teams, "he can mix the two. He is very comfortable in different environments and surroundings."

The GPA has just completed a new financial deal with the GAA, although the GAA now has a direct involvement in its financial governance, allowing for greater transparency. Fundraising, with America the chief hunting ground, remains on the radar, however, according to Earley, as a necessary support to run their services.

He is helped on all sides by the Earley name, which is well respected in GAA circles. Dermot junior's playing career encompassed the 1998 All-Ireland final and the later phase that saw Kildare reach the semi-finals the year his father died. That ended in disappointment on the double for Earley when he ruptured a knee ligament in the win over Meath in the quarter-final, with only four minutes played, thereby missing the semi-final defeat by Down. He missed the next season but returned in 2012 and finally retired in 2013 having succumbed to injury, this time a serious back complaint. He finished with two Leinster medals and two All Stars.

After retirement he served as a selector with Joe Kernan on the International Rules management team.

Asked how he would like to be remembered in that early career profile, Earley responded by saying as captain of an All-Ireland-winning Kildare team. That did not come to pass. His football career is still his most identifiable marking but the next few years may reshape public opinion of him and reveal a new dimension.

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