Tuesday 20 March 2018

Bringing new meaning to answering your club's call

The life of a GAA club chairman has many twists and turns, as Dermot Crowe discovered first hand

MY contact is John Roddy, a Lilywhite with an engaging turn of phrase, who reckons that if I need an interesting club chairman to tailgate for a few days then his own clubman takes some catching. He has not been liberal with the facts.

Morgan O'Callaghan moves like a hare across a broad blur of tasks. He is much younger than most of his ilk but as keenly devoted to the GAA as any Official Guide-thumbing fundamentalist. "We often said about Morgan," notes Roddy, "that he really needs to find some young one and settle down."

O'Callaghan, 35, is an almost frantically active chairman of Allenwood, renowned as the homeplace of a scoring machine that answers to the name John Doyle. It is hard to know where best to begin explaining the multiplicity of roles to which he finds himself assigned. As his mother Siobhán said while watching him hurl for Coill Dubh in the senior league on Tuesday evening last: "If you are following Morgan, you'll be a busy man."

This is his fourth year, and the last he intends, as chairman, having served five years before that as vice-chair, acting as deputy to John Doyle's father, Harry. That's the bones of it. He lives in Clane, about eight miles away, and works for a telecommunications company in Blanchardstown.

He wasn't chairman long when he agreed to become liaison officer between Kieran McGeeney's players and the county board. He also carries the water that keeps the county's footballers hydrated and he will be doing that when they face Sligo today. All of which leaves him just about enough time to hurl for Coill Dubh and play seconds and occasional first team football for Allenwood.

The enthusiasm and energy required, and maybe the streak of madness, was probably the same as that which impelled his forefathers to cycle great distances to matches around the country or to committee rooms. He is an ordinary man doing extraordinary work. He belongs to the computer-literate Facebook generation, however, and likes to go on skiing holidays when he manages to get a break. Why would a young man like this decide to give so much of his time to chairing a local GAA club?

"In an area like Allenwood, or any rural area, you can see the benefits of what you are doing. You come up here on a (training) night like this, or the All Star night we had for John Doyle, see all the kids around, and to know that you have a facility here and you can put on a function like that and bring the whole community in; it makes you very proud to be chairman. You get a kick out if it, but at the end of the day there are no big egos, there is no one on a solo run. It is for the benefit of everybody."

Last Sunday he was in Dungannon with the Kildare team. After the game, a disappointing defeat, he stayed behind to wait for players chosen to provide urine samples. He then drove those players to the Carrickdale Hotel where they linked up with the rest of the panel, management team and officials. As the liaison man, he has to plan Kildare away trips and holidays, keep players informed of training and be there to listen to their requests and any problems that may arise.

When last Monday came around he had to start mapping out the co-ordinates for another hectic week of GAA-related activity.

Diary of a Club Chairman

Monday, April 4

Delighted to have the evening free having been away for a lot of the weekend. It allows me to get messages out to players re Allenwood and Kildare training on Tuesday night and Allenwood's B game on Wednesday night. I also watched the 'highlights' of the Kildare v Tyrone game on TG4. Thankfully they didn't show too much of the game, as it was a very disappointing result. On the club front Allenwood defeated Castledermot in their opening league game on Saturday. The players have worked hard in pre-season; good to get the league off to a winning start.

On Tuesday evening, he left Blanchardstown at 5.0pm and drove to a venue near Caragh where his hurling team, Coill Dubh, took on the locals, éire óg-Corrachoill. He would normally attend Kildare training, while Allenwood footballers stage a session as well, but making both becomes a physical impossibility. Hurling is his immediate concern. He was on the Coill Dubh team beaten in the last two county finals by Celbridge and captained the team in 2009. Tonight he lines out at right corner-back in a senior league match, one of several Allenwood players who hurl for the side.

Coill Dubh emerged from Bord na Móna's presence in the area and the influx of hurling men from other counties like Tipperary and Cork. Even though the poor relation in the county, hurling is a game that gives Morgan O'Callaghan as much pleasure as football. "I'd always be up for every game," he says on the way to the ground, "when you get to my age as well you have to be."

Is he nervous? "In hurling it is probably not as bad. I'd be more nervous playing corner-back in football than hurling. You still have the reach of a hurl to hook a lad, whereas in football I would not be blessed with pace."

He feels they will win tonight. He turns into the ground and hands over €5 to the man on the gate. Does he not get in free as a player? Everyone pays their way in Kildare, it has always been the way, he explains.

Diary of a Club Chairman

Tuesday, April 5

We won 5-21 to 0-9. Some of the younger players were outstanding, while Handbag was also in top form in midfield. I didn't have much to do at corner-back, though I wasn't overly disappointed, as I've always found Decky O'Toole to be a difficult opponent to mark, so the less ball that came our direction, the better!! We then went on from the hurling match to Allenwood training. Despite the fact that there were seven of us playing the hurling, there was still a reasonably good attendance.

One of the Coill Dubh players has travelled from college in Limerick to make the match. Handbag is Adrian McAndrew, part of the 1998 All-Ireland final panel when a teenager and now in his early 30s. The sweetest hurling stroke of the night is his when he volleys a dropping ball to a waiting colleague, executing it masterfully. This is the kind of stroke that borders on showboating but they are so far ahead it's allowed.

Morgan O'Callaghan comes off the field with a few minutes left not having struck the ball once. The team they have trounced is home to Pat Dunny, one of Kildare's best known dual players, an interprovincial hurler, but they have fallen from grace and are now in a valley period.

Johnny O'Callaghan, Morgan's father, watches from the sidelines. No romance in Morgan's life, Johnny? "Not at all," he says. "We do be worried about that from time to time. But he enjoys it and he's happy in it."

Afterwards, driving to training in Allenwood, he talks about Andy Comerford coming on board this summer to coach the hurling team. He will go without food until late into the night when he gets back to his parents' house for tea.

"There are some nights he'd call to the house and be in the car outside for hours making calls," says his father, who served as chairman at one point. "He was at a meeting one day and came out of the meeting and had 69 missed calls. Oh, I don't know how he does it. He loves it."

On Wednesday, O'Callaghan played a seconds football game in Kilcullen and trained with the firsts under Sos Dowling on Thursday before hurrying into a 50-minute meeting about the club's website. He had also managed to get to Kildare training earlier in the evening. He walked from the dressing rooms in Allenwood to the meeting room upstairs with a sandwich in his hand. He is constantly in motion.

Is there no breaking point? "I'd half intentions of not going back (playing). I went to Kildare training the first weekend and then went skiing and was sort of hemming and hawing and didn't do the first week back training either. But then we had the boxing night (fundraiser) and I had to be fit for that so I returned to training."

The boxing night featured a series of bouts involving club members, the chairman included, to raise revenue. "You'd actually be better for it, you'd have more energy, it is very empowering, in a rural club it means you are in the club three times a week, lots of things can get sorted. The main things are finance, football and development. The three areas you are focusing on every week. When you are up at the field the football things are easy enough to monitor."

In 2004, he won a senior football championship medal and two years later Sos Dowling oversaw their demise when they lost the county final to Moorefield. But there are times when trying to prepare for a match and tending to the responsibilities of chairman conflict.

"I remember a couple of years ago we were playing a championship match and, unfortunately, an ex-player of ours who was quite young took his own life the night before the match and one of the guys rang me to let me know. And literally I think I made 50 calls between then and the match, between trying to ring the county board to see if the match was going ahead, and contacting various people who would have closer associations with him to see if they were okay with it going ahead. Then I had a lot of people ringing me to se if the game was going ahead. So when you were preparing to play a match yourself, 50 phone calls prior to a game can be frustrating."

Diary of a Club Chairman

Wednesday, April 6

Opening league game for senior Bs at Kilcullen who beat us narrowly in last year's championship. Hoping to atone. We won by two. I couldn't believe that our manager, Enda Moran, held it together at half-time as the photographer from the Indo took a few snaps of me during his half-time speech!! He must be mellowing in his old age!! I was happy enough with my own performance and am looking forward to the year ahead. While it was a good evening on the football front, our large jackpot was won at our weekly bingo, which was a blow financially.

Football is high on the list of priorities in Allenwood. Getting Dowling on board has increased hopes but they are tempered with realism. Last year they reached the quarter-finals of the championship but were relegated in the league. For most of the league they had to do without John Doyle due to his county commitments. "From a football perspective we're probably not going to win any major silverware during my term," says O'Callaghan. "But from the future perspective the underage is developing well."

The tension between club and county demands sees him caught in the middle to some extent. They had Doyle for two of their 15 league matches last year. "It's difficult as you can see the level of effort going into county football now; even though clubs can lose out because of that. We raised it at county level, a motion about a rule where county players were entitled to play at least eight league games. We had Doyle for two. The rule was ignored. It was scrapped for this year. It was difficult to take as a club chairman.

"I personally think it will be impossible to get a balance unless you change the season structure. I don't think there is a need for the county season to take so long. It's frustrating for John himself, he is a very good Allenwood man. It's difficult to serve two masters. And there were times last year in league games where we lost by a point or two and John Doyle and Shane McCormack (reserve county goalkeeper) were standing watching the games on the sideline.

"I know they say it is up to the county board, but they are really passing the buck if you ask me. They don't want that. End of the day, if top county players are not playing they lose revenue; the reality is that they don't want John Doyle missing because that is what brings the crowd."

Diary of a Club Chairman

Thursday, April 7

It's a lovely evening, so I'm looking forward to training as I know it will be predominantly football due to our game on Saturday. There are 27 lads there tonight for training which is always a sign that there is a good atmosphere in the camp. Photographer Tony Gavin meets me before training to take a few pictures and needless to say I get plenty of slagging from the lads as they kick around prior to training. One of the lads is wondering if I'm getting the snaps done for a GAA dating site!

His nickname is the Briar which he has earned from delivering mouthy admonishments on the field. Yet over these few days he seems an oasis of calm and quiet deliberation. The club has a loan that costs around €3,000 a month to service and they manage to meet that. They get by. There are clubs in worse situations. They have a magnificent main playing field, a training pitch at the rear and floodlights that were the trend-setters in the county when first introduced. Their clubhouse is generously proportioned and the hall and bar are in regular use. Underage activity is thriving.

There is no sense of missing out by sacrificing all this time. "I have a job, I earn decent enough money; money doesn't necessarily drive me. I am not someone who is focused on having to make more money all the time. But I would at times get resentful when I feel overburdened. You can feel there is a lack of support or why am I bothering doing all this. At times you can give out about it; like there are 100 adult members in the club and why am I giving up so much time and others are not? But part of it too is a failure to ask. If you tell others, the likelihood is they will help you."

He has had strong differences with members. Once at a meeting an argument arose over a football selector and the other person walked out. They phoned and made up the next day. "I mean there are times at a meeting where, or even in general, you can feel the idea is insane but you have to sit and listen to them and you can't be rude to people. At the end of the day it is everybody's club, you may be chairman, but if they are a member, they are the same as you are.

"I mean my nickname is The Briar, it probably came from my reactions on the pitch; I would have been more known for being contrary on the pitch than off it. Chairing a club you can't be losing the rag. It wouldn't be that I'd abuse people but I like to win. And if someone isn't putting in that level of effort I wouldn't be long in letting them know. That is something I have to tone down as well as chairman."

Diary of a Club Chairman

Friday, April 9

We gather all of the children in our catchment area from five up on the one night and train them in their respective age groups. I feel it's very important to attend these sessions as often as possible to show the club's support. After training, I meet with our bar committee for an hour. After the meeting it is off home to Clane for a good night's sleep to prepare for tomorrow evening's senior league game. I probably won't see action from the start, but it's important to be well prepared if called into action at any stage. Sunday morning will then see me attend hurling training, while it will be on to the Kildare v Sligo game in the afternoon. This will be followed by the special county board convention and I'll then drop back to Allenwood for a couple of hours to look at the Fight Night DVD.

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