Monday 18 February 2019

Bertie Ahern explains how he helped finance the Dublin GAA revolution

Ex-Taoiseach had a hand in helping to turn a 'weak' Dublin into the all-conquering force of today

Bertie Ahern and then Dublin County Board chairman John Bailey at the launch of the Friends of Dublin campaign in the Gresham Hotel in April 2003. Photo: Sportsfile
Bertie Ahern and then Dublin County Board chairman John Bailey at the launch of the Friends of Dublin campaign in the Gresham Hotel in April 2003. Photo: Sportsfile

Dublin's senior footballers were never really in control of their own destiny. Whichever manager took the team was a hostage to fortune, or grave misfortune.

There was no conveyor belt of young talent. Players like Jimmy Keaveney in the 1970, Barney Rock in the 1980s and Dessie Farrell in the 1990s broke through to the senior ranks almost despite the system. Dublin GAA was built on a foundation of sand. It was not unusual to see even some of the bigger clubs operating without teams at several age groups.

Dublin's underage record was abysmal. In 1984, Dublin beat Tipperary by 1‑9 to 0‑4 in the minor football final. The county would not win another minor All-Ireland until 2012. At U‑21 level, it was even worse: Dublin had never won an All-Ireland, and would not do so until 2003.

The mentality at underage mirrored that of the senior ranks: there were no second chances. Paddy Christie was one player who failed to impress in his shot at minor, and was almost lost to the game. Great GAA men kept him interested, but great GAA men can only do so much. Key club figures, such as Anto McCaul at Ballymun Kickhams, kept the flame flickering when a lack of cohesion at county level might have snuffed it out.

In the early 1990s, former county chairman Jimmy Grey and county official Donal Hickey led a small delegation to the offices of Bertie Ahern, who was Minister for Finance in Albert Reynolds' government. They asked him for money to redevelop the ramshackle Parnell Park in Donnycarney.

The redevelopment of Parnell Park was the first item in the in‑tray of John Bailey, who was elected county chairman in 1994. The €3.3 million budget for the project was, in the end, funded from a number of sources. The Leinster Council provided a £500,000 loan, and Croke Park a £500,000 grant. Bertie provided around £400,000 from State coffers, and clubs paid contributions of anything from £2,500 (junior club) to £15,000 (senior club). Season tickets were sold in bulk to clubs, which then sold them on; the proceeds of this scheme were used to repay the loans.

Bertie - who as Taoiseach would later secure the grants needed to get floodlights installed - was present at the groundbreaking. "They gave me a spade from the opening and I still have it," he says. "It's out in the shed with the other spades and every time I go to do work I think, 'Jeez, I better not use that spade!'"

Ahern was steeped in Dublin GAA. A far better soccer player than footballer, he nevertheless spent his childhood weekends with his dad watching St Margaret's of the north county, and the students of St Pat's in his native Drumcondra. He stood as a boy on the Canal end, six steps down, because his dad was a country man. His brother Maurice rebelled, and watched from the Hill, where he continues to stand firm. The future Taoiseach witnessed the decline, and was there for the coming of Heffo. "Kevin saved us from sinking," he says. "If it wasn't for him it would have been lost altogether, the game was dead. I mean, if ever there was a man who should be the uncrowned king of Ireland, it's Kevin Heffernan."

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Dublin manager Kevin Heffernan. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

In 1995, not everyone was buying the Jayo-inspired march to the final. Ahern recalls driving back to Dublin from Wexford on the morning of the All-Ireland final and not seeing a blue-and-navy flag until Binns Bridge in Drumcondra. "People say now, 'Aw, you have loads of population there' - well, we had loads then too, but we had no one playing GAA," he says.

While Donnycarney was getting the necessary makeover, Bailey approached Bertie with another idea. He wanted to get more people playing Gaelic games and, just as importantly, he wanted it to be organised. Committed managers of underage sides had for too long been running all over the city, dragging their players out of bed. He found a sympathetic ear in the Finance Minister. One of the things they talked about was the decline in the standard of coaching in schools. Bailey, Bertie and everyone else at the core of GAA in Dublin could see that teachers were putting in fewer unpaid hours after school.

"The difference between now and 40 years ago, if you stood outside a school when the bell rang back then, you'd be run down by all the kids running home," says Ahern. "If you stood there now, you'd be run down by the teachers. So there are challenges, the world moves on. Who's going to train the team at half-four? The schools were collapsing, the clubs were collapsing. There was a handful of them doing well, but even some of the traditional ones were not doing well, St Vincent's for example."

Ahern agreed to fund a coaching revolution in Dublin. Croke Park showed no interest at first. They were focused on the redevelopment of HQ. But eventually GAA bosses, worried about player participation level in the capital, warmed to the idea. The project was introduced on the basis that it was a pilot. If it worked in Dublin, it could be rolled out elsewhere.

"I could bring it through Finance because it involved coaching kids," Ahern explains. "It was school, it was afterschool . . . we had to gear the whole thing back to school because that was the only way I could justify it. I said it would have to be absolutely transparent and public, because I'd get hammered [otherwise], and that's what we did.

"We put it up as a pilot project, and I made a few speeches. I built it into the estimates that it was a pilot that would continue in Dublin, and if other people wanted to add in bits later on, fine, but Dublin would remain, and that's what I did. I did it on the basis that GAA in Dublin wasn't dead but it was weak."

By building the project into the estimates, Ahern ensured that it was set in stone even if he moved out of Finance. Of course, the fact that he went on to be Taoiseach helped too.

Clubs were forced to adhere to strict rules and it took quite some time for the project to build momentum. To Ahern it wasn't rocket science. He spent his holidays in Kerry, where they had been doing all that without State aid for generations. "You have to butter the bread," he says, "before you put the sambo together."

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DUBLIN: THE CHAOS YEARS

How the Dubs made a mess of things for so long - and how they turned it around by Neil Cotter

Published by Penguin Ireland on October 4 at €18.00

Irish Independent

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