Monday 18 November 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Latest row signals a battle for control which could have some serious implications for GAA'


Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes
Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes
With costs - especially for running teams - soaring to stratospheric levels, county boards are glad of assistance from every source. (stock photo)
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It's nearly three years since former joint-managers Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly said in an Irish Independent interview that "if some egos are not checked and outside influences curbed, Mayo won't win an All-Ireland".

Their term at the helm ended after one season in 2015, following a player revolt where the county board got an ultimatum that unless the pair were removed forthwith, a strike would follow.

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The players never explained to Holmes and Connelly why they wanted them out. Mayo had won the Connacht title, something not achieved since, and taken Dublin to a replay in the All-Ireland semi-final, but the squad - or least an influential wing of it - demanded a change of management.

They were utterly callous in how they went about it, drawing the analogy that if they had been as ruthless on the pitch, the All-Ireland famine might have ended.

Most of the focus was on what Holmes and Connelly said about the squad, but they had also mentioned "outside influences". It wasn't the first time that similar comments had been made in various counties about the role of unelected people or groups seeking to impose themselves on areas where they should have no input.

It has been an issue ever since supporters' groups became an important part of the funding model. With costs - especially for running teams - soaring to stratospheric levels, county boards are glad of assistance from every source. Most of it usually comes from supporters' groups running fund-raising events, sponsors and wealthy individuals, indulging their passion for the county.

In theory, it should be straightforward. County boards, elected by the clubs, run affairs; sponsors pay an agreed amount in return for jersey-branding/promotional openings etc in what is a strict business arrangement; supporters' groups/individuals contribute out of devotion to their county.

Except, of course, it's not that simple. Demarcation lines can become blurred, tensions increase and suddenly there's a bust-up.

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It has happened in Mayo and Galway in recent times, leading to internal strife which both counties could do without.

Things have quietened down in Galway after two public interventions by sponsors Supermac's, who demanded to know how their money was spent.

Read more here:

It was an unprecedented move in the sponsorship world, where harmony between paymaster and client is, publicly at least, seen to be harmonious.

Supermac's chose a different route, dispensing with all diplomacy.

It's the same in Mayo, where there's an even more bitter dispute between the county board and the Mayo International Supporters' Foundation, led by businessman Tim O'Leary.

They are withholding €250,000 raised for various projects until such time as they receive detailed answers about how the money would be spent.

The row has rumbled on for months, creating divisions in Mayo, which once again finds itself the unwanted centre of attention.

Correct Croke Park has not become involved - publicly at least - on the basis that it's an internal Mayo matter. They are correct at one level, just as the bust-up between Supermac's and the Galway board had nothing do with Croke Park either.

Still, it would be naive to ignore the obvious implications of both controversies. Whatever PR spin is put on them, it comes down to this: outsiders are trying to exert control by dictating how money is spent. This takes sponsors and support groups into new territory, which should be of concern to Croke Park. Basically, it's a question of who controls GAA activities in any county, the elected board or unelected outsiders.

The amount of money required to run counties has long since reached unsustainable levels, placing administrators under enormous pressure. They are delighted to receive financial support but, as appears to be the case in Mayo and Galway, it's coming with very long strings attached.

Those paying the money believe that they are entitled to know how it will be spent, but where is the line to be drawn? Do they believe that it gives them the right to interfere in the affairs of county boards? If so, to what degree?

Nobody is gullible enough to believe that every board is a model of efficiency. Far from it. Indeed, in many cases, the best people remain with their clubs.

Still, that's the democratic system that exists. It's no longer fit for purpose, but if change is to come it has to be from within the GAA itself, rather than being driven by corporate interests or individuals.

Running counties has become too big an operation for a traditional structure, based on amateur volunteers giving their spare time. Vast sums of money, often far in excess of the turnover of medium-size companies, pass through county coffers.

Dealing with it requires expertise and time, neither of which are always available under the old-fashioned methods of GAA administration. Expecting amateur officials to deal with high-powered corporates and wealthy individuals simply isn't reasonable, which is why every county needs a fully-qualified director of finance.

Rows, such as those in Mayo and Galway, carry a serious risk of discouraging people from becoming involved in county boards. Why bother if you're going to be depicted in a negative light? Wealthy outsiders will invariably win PR battles with county boards who, by their nature, have always been fair game for attacks.

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