Saturday 7 December 2019

Best candidate must be found for top job in sport - here are the nine contenders

The search for a new GAA director-general hit early controversy when they were forced to change the eligibility criteria. What impact will it have? Who are the main contenders? Will it be an insider or outsider? What exactly does the role entail and what are the big challenges facing the person who replaces Páraic Duffy?

Liam Sheedy, John Costello (inset left) and Jarlath Burns (inset bottom)
Liam Sheedy, John Costello (inset left) and Jarlath Burns (inset bottom)
Liam Sheedy. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Next to the 'Late Late Toy Show', a production so hyped by RTÉ that it borders on brainwashing, the Dublin-Mayo All-Ireland football final was the most-watched programme on Irish TV last year.

It attracted 1,141,200 viewers, beating the Republic of Ireland v Denmark World Cup soccer second leg play-off (1,038,600) by 102,600. The Galway-Waterford All-Ireland hurling final came next on 916,500.

Four GAA games were in the top 18, one ahead of soccer and rugby.

If further proof were needed - and it's not - that Gaelic games have an extraordinary hold on the Irish sporting psyche, those figures provide it.

That two indigenous games, one of which has most of its power base south of a line from Dublin to Galway, remain so popular in an era of sporting globalisation is quite remarkable.

So far at least, that remains very much the case although there are genuine concerns over the GAA's long-term direction in a country with such rapidly-changing demographic trends.

Indeed, there's need for constant vigilance. Unlike soccer and rugby, which are protected by a massive international bulwark, the GAA relies on its own wits and resources.

That makes it crucial to get decisions right, not just some of the time but all the time. The latest example comes with the search for Páraic Duffy's successor as director-general.

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The process got off to an embarrassing start, with the inexplicable inclusion of a business degree as a stated requirement. It was seriously flawed on two fronts.

Not only would it have eliminated some well-qualified contenders, it sent out a worrying message about the direction the GAA - or at least in the view of those who compiled and approved the advertisement - should take over the next decade.

Of course the director-general needs to be financially smart, but including an honours business degree as essential did not go down well with a membership which already has concerns over the growth of commercialism in the organisation.

Scrapping the degree requirement last Tuesday and extending the deadline for applicants by nine days was the right thing to do but the blunder has still damaged the appointment process.

That makes it all the more important to get it right from here on because ultimately, the person who takes over in Duffy's seat will be in the most important position in Irish sport.

It won't be just a matter of continuing to steer the ship, using the headings set by Duffy.

The GAA has changed dramatically in the decade he has been at the helm and with the pace of every aspect of life increasing all the time, the next 10 years will be even more volatile.

Unlike Philip Browne in the IRFU and John Delaney in the FAI, the GAA director-general cannot work off international models.

Rugby and soccer can look at how other countries conduct their affairs and adapt the best of them to the Irish environment.

Not so for the GAA director-general, who has no counterpart anywhere.

The GAA has a good working relationship with the AFL but while Australian rules is also an indigenous game played nowhere else, the model is very different, combining professionalism and team franchises as opposed to amateurism and county boundaries.

So when it comes to comparing templates, the GAA and AFL have little in common.

It leaves the GAA very much on its own, trying to maintain amateurism while also facing the huge challenge brought about by demographic shifts.

In an interview with this newspaper last May, Duffy said that the population movement from west to east and from rural to urban is the biggest challenge facing the GAA.

"It's by far the biggest fear I have for the Association in the long term. And the real concern for us is that we can't fix this on our own.

"Whatever issue - however difficult - that arises directly within the organisation can always be sorted out but we're facing something here that's beyond our control. That's what makes it so worrying," he said.

It will be of concern to the incoming director-general too, only in a more pressing manner since there's little likelihood of a reversal in population trends over the next decade.

As Duffy pointed out, this is a societal-wide issue, although obviously the GAA needs to do all it can to minimise the impact on it.

A more direct challenge for the next director-general will be how he counters the ever-growing threat of professionalism. It won't be up to him alone but he will need to lead the way in a decisive manner.

The amateur wall won't be demolished by a single hit but rather brick by brick over an extended period until it's eventually low enough for everyone to jump over.

If that happens, the GAA will enter a world which it cannot control.

Of course there are many who claim that's already the case. Illegal payments to managers - both at inter-county and club level - are more prevalent than ever while inter-county team costs are heading towards €25 million annually.

The precise function of the director-general is not tightly defined, which invites the incumbent to set many of the parameters.

Technically, the role is to implement policy as established by Congress, Management Committee and Central Council, while also coming up with ideas for consideration.

Of course, how those plans are prepared and presented has a big input into whether they are accepted.

Duffy sold his ideas cleverly, bringing various strands with him so that by the time the proposals reached Congress there was often a sense that delegates were reluctant to go against him, even if they weren't fully convinced by the motions.

Will the incoming director-general follow the Duffy line or see the job as essentially carrying out policy? And will those making the appointment opt for someone who has the instincts of a back rather than a forward, effectively holding the line rather than trying to breach new frontiers?

There were occasional mutterings over recent years that Duffy exerted a disproportionate influence over policy, although he would contend that it was his duty to come up with ideas, the merit of which others would adjudicate on.

There are many in the GAA who believe that the main power-brokers already have a person in mind for the director-general position and that barring some dramatic turn of events in the interviewing process, the die is cast.

We will never know if that is the case but it's certainly unlikely that someone not well-known in GAA circles already will move through the field and finish first.

An intriguing dimension of this contest is that two presidents will be involved in the final decision-making. Duffy's appointment was made in the middle of Nickey Brennan's presidency in 2007 but this one comes just as Aogán Ó Fearghaíl is preparing to hand over to John Horan.

Ó Fearghaíl's term ends at Congress on February 24, by which time it's unlikely the appointment will be made.

So, in the event of a close call, who makes the final decision, the president who started the process or his successor?

Obviously, there is a procedure to be undertaken once the application deadline passes next Friday. It will involve Lincoln Recruitment and various other interview groups working to narrow the field but ultimately the appointment will have to be approved by the president.

That's fine if Ó Fearghaíl and Horan agree but who makes the final call if they don't? Another unusual aspect is that a new director-general and president will be starting around the same time, which is not ideal.

That might strengthen the hand of Croke Park candidates who already know how the internal systems and structures work.

Peter McKenna is understood to have been in the final three in 2007 but having missed out, will he run again? Feargal McGill, Alan Milton and Tom Ryan are other potential internal candidates whose prospects will be enhanced if the mood is against looking further afield, where John Costello, Jarlath Burns, Liam Sheedy, Michael Reynolds and Brian McAvoy are being widely mentioned.

Tipperary man Ger Ryan, whose name was also linked with the position, will not be an applicant.

It's understood that several people who would not have applied because they believed they weren't eligible due to the business degree requirement have now joined the race.

It widens the field which is good for the process and the GAA. However, having to change the eligibility rules almost three weeks after the job was advertised remains a blot.

Also, there's a risk that if the person eventually appointed holds a business degree, people will suspect that removing it from the criteria this week was no more than a cosmetic exercise.

Is the next DG here?

Liam Sheedy: Tipperary’s All-Ireland winning manager in 2010, he was appointed to the GAA Management Committee by President, Aogán O Fearghaill. That has given him experience on the administrative side and also makes him well-known to the decision-makers. He is currently Munster director for Bank of Ireland.

John Costello: Is he interested in making the two-mile switch from Parnell Park to Croke Park? The Dublin CEO ticks all the boxes for the DG job but after playing such an important role in the Capital’s advance to its strongest position – on and off the pitch – in GAA history, he may well feel that’s the place to stay.

Jarlath Burns: The former Armagh midfielder, who is principal at St. Paul’s Bessbrook, indicated that he planned to run for the GAA Presidency at some stage. However he could be a candidate for the DG’s job. A former players’ representative on Central Council, also served as Armagh’s CC delegate and is chairman of the committee on playing rules.

Feargal McGill: Currently Head of Games, he has been on the Croke Park staff since 2001, having served in a number of roles over the years. His experience of the internal workings of the Association will be seen as an advantage for the Leitrim man.

Alan Milton: A clubmate of Jim Gavin’s in Round Towers, where he served in a number of positions, including chairman, he is another Croke Park insider, working as the Association’s Director of Communications. He joined the staff in 2008. Prior to that he was GAA Editor with The Sun newspaper.

Peter McKenna: He was appointed Croke Park Stadium Director in 2001 and is credited with taking it to the commercial heights it currently enjoys. He is also GAA Commercial Director. It’s understood that he was shortlisted for the DG’s job prior to Duffy’s appointment in 2007.

Tom Ryan: The GAA’s Director of Finance, nobody is closer to the purse strings than him. Apart from his work overseeing the national coffers, he is well known to most county boards, especially those who suffered financial wobbles over the last decade.

Brian McAvoy: Appointed Ulster CEO in 2016, the Burren man previously served as Down county board secretary Prior to taking over in Ulster, he worked as civil servant, mainly in information and advertising departments.

Michael Reynolds: A member of the Leinster Council staff for many years, he succeeded Michael Delaney as CEO in 2014. He also has wide experience on various national committees.

Is there a wildcard who is not a Croke Park insider, a provincial or county CEO or somebody well known through playing/managing/ administration? And if so, would the power-brokers take the bold step of appointing him or her? No female has been publicly linked with the job but could someone make a dramatic entry and beat all the male candidates? Unlikely

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