Departure hurts but Farrell delighted with GPA progress
The beginning was inauspicious. On the day the GPA staged their press conference to announce the unveiling of Dessie Farrell as their new CEO, Roy Keane decided to evacuate Saipan. "We had arranged a press conference," says Farrell drily, "one man and his dog showed up".
That was a time, he admits, when they usually had no trouble attracting media attention because there was often controversy or the potential for conflict when the GPA sought publicity. After 14 years as CEO, he recently severed ties with the players' association he helped found, having spent two years as chairman before becoming their first full-time appointment in 2002.
His final act was to put the finishing touches to a €6.9m Government-backed grant aid scheme for inter-county players over three years, announced during the last week. This followed a €6.2m annual deal agreed with the GAA during the summer.
"It was a bit of a shock initially, as it would be, but then you get your head around it and drive on," he says of the decision to leave. "It [the GPA] is in a good place. The officers have all been very active and the board is very engaged. It is not like some years ago when there were maybe a few of us trying to keep the thing going."
After an initial career as a psychiatric nurse, followed by a short spell in the pharmaceutical industry, Farrell became the familiar public face of the GPA. The hostility shown towards the movement never derailed him or lessened his conviction that what he was doing was right.
"You were seen to be public enemy number one in certain circles. There were a lot of people in the GAA who thought this was the right thing to do. So that gave you the confidence to drive on with it. I had this strong sense of what was right and wrong throughout it all. Even though you were not very popular at times, it was never a popularity contest anyway.
"Definitely at the start there were numerous examples of players who were seen to be involved and being warned off by county board administrators and even managers. The irony was that some of the managers who were intimidating them were actually getting paid themselves for managing. There was all of that."
Two rounds of interviews have been completed by a panel headed by Limerick hurler and GPA chairman Seamus Hickey to find Farrell's successor. The final decision should be announced next month. The GPA has entered a lucrative commercial deal with the GAA which will ensure funding for the next five years and support player development programmes which are now the mainstay of the group's work.
"In terms of myself and my own career, it was a decision that needed to be taken," says Farrell. "If I was to make a move, now was the time to be doing it. And in terms of the organisation itself it is no harm to have fresh faces and somebody new."
While previous attempts to maintain player lobby groups failed, Farrell admits the climate had changed and players were more easily mobilised. Issues like cold showers and low mileage rates stoked passions as the number of hours being committed to playing for one's county continued to spiral.
The threat of a players' strike to bring pressure on the GAA and Government not to reduce player grant aid was one of their testier periods in relations towards the end of the last decade, with players also willing to boycott commercial duties and television interviews to highlight their plight. Official recognition followed in 2009 and the GPA started a commercial partnership with the GAA, a new departure and an end to the icier relations of the past.
The positive influence of GAA director-general Páraic Duffy is noted by Farrell. "He was a huge help and he came in from a player welfare role before taking on the DG role so he was coming from that place. He was a man you could do business with. He was a compassionate man too, understood what players were doing. He had a really good handle on that."
He also recognised the contribution of Dónal Óg Cusack during his time as chairman. "He was outstanding. Had that fire in the belly too. That was really important."
He has no clear idea of where his career path takes him from here, but he is determined not to rush into something for the sake of it. When he first announced his decision to step down the next 24 hours brought a lot of calls and messages from people he had worked with and players who the GPA had helped at various points over the years, many offering thanks for his role in helping them.
"That tugged on the heartstrings a little at the time," he admits. "It also awakened me a bit in terms of me realising that this was not going to be straightforward; you dedicate so much of your life to this particular thing so you don't switch it off just like that. When you are dealing with players, you are dealing in the human experience, and there is that depth to it."
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