Wednesday 18 September 2019

A County Chairman, Bertie Ahern and a grand plan - The inside story of how Gaelic football changed forever

John Bailey (left), Bertie Ahern (centre) and Sean Kelly (right).
John Bailey (left), Bertie Ahern (centre) and Sean Kelly (right).
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

In the end, John Bailey never got to see Dublin getting their hands on an All-Ireland for a fifth year in succession.

After a lifetime of striving to improve his home patch, he got damn close but fell short.

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In July, days before his county easily picked apart Cork in the sort of game that might have posed problems not long ago, he died at the age of 74. There’s added tragedy in that as, for all the names thrown out as being a cornerstone of and key to this historic achievement, he’s the oft-forgotten architect of so much of it.

Thankfully we managed to speak before his passing, and before an important chunk of history disappeared with him. During the conversation, he recalled moments during his tenure as county board chairman that made him realise they were missing a trick.

For instance, after the legendary 1991 saga with Meath that was the biggest draw going, it earned them "just £4,000 a game in sponsorship". So he got on the blower to Arnotts. He remembered other struggles as well, like when he decided an antiquated Parnell Park needed a makeover. Meeting builders one November day, he told them he'd no cash, yet by Christmas he'd pay them. Soon after he and Minister for Finance Bertie Ahern were turning ground when word came through that Dick Spring had pulled the plug.

But most of all he smiled at a time in 2002 when the walls came tumbling down.

"The structures and coaching were a weakness," he noted. "Bertie Ahern was Taoiseach by then - he always helped us in any and all ways he could - so we went to him and said we need €2m to pay 100 coaches but I said I'd give him it back. He looked puzzled. 'How will you do that?'"

So he confidently replied to Ahern that he'd take people off the dole, pay them €45,000, the government would get 20 per cent back in tax, and 22 per cent PRSI between employer and employee. "That was it. They subsidised all these coaches."

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From there he set up development squads with parts of the money too and trained players, bringing 100 kids of only 12 together in both football and hurling as they built towards the future. "It completely snowballed."

Bailey had caused Dublin to become awash with riches and, regardless of any bigger picture, considering his sole allegiance, it was a move that was both ballsy and brilliant.

Now though there’s no avoiding that bigger picture.

These were the days that changed the inter-county game we knew and loved forever.

* * *

Peter Quinn had a hunch. History shows he knew better than most, although looking back it was all in plain sight.

Dublin may have been talking of droughts and hard times, but consider the 10 championships leading up the Bailey’s financial request. Across a decade’s worth of summers they’d been to eight provincial finals, winning four, while the average loss in the other four was a hair over three points. Better again, they’d been to three All-Ireland finals and won one. In fact, in five different campaigns it took the eventual champions to put them out with the average gap in those epic contests coming out at less than a goal.

Good years aplenty. Heart-breaking days aplenty too. But despite an attempt to rewrite the past, they were never, ever far off the pace and were always one of the very best in show. Indeed that 2002 summer when Bailey made his move, his team were Leinster champions again, and eventually came within a point of that incredible Armagh generation in the semi-finals.

Did they really need the extra push having nearly climbed the ladder all alone?

Quinn argued no way.

In January 2002, the strategic review committee he’d chaired made headlines when suggesting within three years the capital should actually be split.

"At that point Dublin's strength was beginning to show," he told me. "The potential was so obvious and there was a real concern they'd take over as that size would generate huge revenue and playing personnel and those elsewhere wouldn't keep pace."

Even some noteworthy former Dublin managers they’d talked to as part of their work agreed in private, according to the Fermanagh man. Only in public they turned.

"Those same people came out after our suggestion and said we were a bit mad." 

Foresight has never been a great GAA attribute though, as it tends to be reactionary.

So while his proposals being rejected by a special congress was hardly a great shock to anyone, the special treatment suddenly afforded to Dublin did surprise Quinn. "Given there was no split coming, of course I was taken aback by the investment handed over."

For all their victories before, this was definitely Dublin’s greatest to date.

Why?

Because it set them up for all the record-smashing victories that have come since.

* * *

While either naivety or stupidity have long pushed the idea that sport and politics don’t mix, the likes of Bertie Ahern and John Bailey saw it very differently.

Their combining of powers and positions initially started out as relatively small beer, something that would shape the landscape in Dublin alone. The former Taoiseach notes that, as the starting point of such evolution, and way before radical revolution, Parnell Park needed serious work. Far beyond aesthetics though it gave the county a centralised location and a suitable, fit-for-purpose place to work together.

"We got grants," Ahern says. "Some tried to say it was separate but it was open to anyone and obviously I advised and helped out. Nothing underhand and it allowed the whole Dublin scene into one space. Senior, junior, juvenile, clubs, the lot."

Soon however the two men got together again and the GAA was shifted from its axis.

For some time, Bailey had been wondering about how to drag Dublin from the past and, not so much into the present, but off into the future.

"So John came to me and talked about the sprawling suburbs and how we had to grow the club scene," continues Ahern.

"They needed help as the infrastructure and facilities just weren’t there to see them reach their massive potential. There was no grand scheme that could fit that bill, so we designed one to try and develop coaches and link coaches to schools, schools to clubs, clubs to communities, and communities to parishes. A bit like it was done in rural Ireland, only re-invented into a new scheme to fit Dublin. We had to get clubs to buy into that and what we did is today what you see in Cuala, Kilamcud, Ballyboden, Na Fianna."

First it needed finance to come to life. Bailey quipped to me that "John O’Donoghue was Minister for Sport. He didn't exactly receive me with open arms. A Kerry man, so he wouldn't be biased, he'd be blinkered instead."

Crucially though, there were Dubs in the Dáil. And none were better placed than Ahern.

As Seán Kelly adds, "When it came to Bailey's plan, his door was open without knocking."

However if doors in Leinster House were open, so were those in Croke Park.

* * *

Seán Kelly became president of the GAA in 2003, a year before the money finally gushed from the tap.

In that realm, one conversation has long stood out in his memory.

It was Seán McCague that was passing the baton on to him, and he pulled him aside one day with a few words of advice.

"He told me about the committee regarding Dublin’s future, and that it was going nowhere unless I was going to chair it. I said the GAA president never chairs a committee, never mind one set-up for a single county. But he kept pushing that idea and really wanted this to work out so I said I'd take a look at it and eventually agreed. In the end myself and John Bailey actually co-chaired it, or at least he had that title as being on top of the Dublin County Board, you wouldn’t exactly be pushing him aside on such a matter."

While many of Quinn’s recommendations had been thrown to the trash by that stage, one phrase from his report was not only kept but frequently used in the dialogue at those meetings. It was that of "market share" in Dublin. There was worry about threats from other sports and the idea pushed was that the GAA needed to be strong there. The game had to defend its turf and grow too.

That cost money. And everyone would pay.

It was one of the few areas they agreed on initially for elsewhere there was strife. Around how to spend it, and who to spend it on.

"Bailey and those did the ground work to be fair," says Kelly, "and a fella called Kevin O’Shaughnessy - he was well regarded and had a good business background - was recommended as someone that could lead the coaching. And under Kevin there was a very clear and definite plan drawn up and we went to government and with Bertie, well, he couldn’t have been more supportive. Central Council were positive, with a few concerned about the amount they were getting. Leinster were mostly positive. That brought about finance and it’s continued since. Looking back, special congress wrote off the split so we just continued on with the money aspect."

In the eight seasons before Dublin’s funding, they along with Westmeath, Laois, Kildare, Meath and Offaly had won provincial titles, meaning half of Leinster were doing things right and the game was booming. Little did they know the end of an era was upon them.

The stars had aligned. A blue wave was forming.

It’s hard to shirk the feeling today that such an expansion brought down the Roman Empire.

* * *

In his thought-provoking masterpiece The Zero Theorem, Terry Gillian poses the premise of how everything can amount to nothing.

The sporting answer perhaps lies here.

Fifteen years on from Bailey getting both his way and his dream, and the drive-for-five feels more akin to a stroll around the block.

Of the team that won out in the 2015 final, only six started this semi-final. That means that in the space of a mere four campaigns, already the best side out there have been able to replace 60 per cent of their players and by doing so are winning by more and more as we’ve reached a 14.8 points per game average margin. On top of that, while the under-20/21 football championship has been going since 1964, four of Dublin’s five wins have come since 2010 and they were close to doing it again in 2019.

Does that sound competitive?

Does that sound natural?

Does that sounds cyclical?

Does that sound sustainable?

That’s up to you.

We also know as a matter of record the finance that coincided with this. According to those within the Irish Sports Council, between 2005 and 2009, a total of €5m was made available to Dublin via the taxpayer for games development projects. Meanwhile breakdowns have shown that between 2007 and 2017, in terms of GAA development funding, while Kerry received €730,881, Dublin were handed over €16,612,845. As context regarding the rest, Cork were second on that list getting €1,185,267.

This money is aimed at increasing underage participation and increasing skill-sets. What it’s meant is that while Dublin have been able to direct their uniquely giant sponsorship based on market size and population into elite areas up the ladder, others who get far less from commercial endorsements have to use them to pay both high up and low down. The rest also have to spend far more time and energy on fundraising, something we know Dublin don’t bother with much. After all, their last leaked accounts in 2016 showed €57,336 brought in in that area, a year they made a profit despite wages totaling well of over €2m.

Again these are simply the facts. People can make up their own minds. Just as Peter Quinn did back in 2002.

Speaking in 2017 I asked him if he’d changed it. "I think they are strong enough to be split," he replied. "And right now you'd have to be concerned for the game as if there's one thing that keeps us all alive and sane it's hope. Other counties are losing it."

Some debate that notion, with Ahern himself arguing that the likes of Cork and Galway, Waterford and Limerick show that size doesn’t matter.

What isn’t up for debate though is this journey began with Bailey’s vision and his work coming to fruition in 2004.

He may not have lived to see a likely five-in-a-row.

But 15 years , he not only made it possible, he made it largely inevitable.

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