‘Páirc Uí Chaoimh €30m should have gone to the homeless’
Tommy Lyons slams Government grant-aid to Cork stadium redevelopment and takes aim at the over-spending on county teams
Offaly's 30-point defeat by Armagh last Sunday set Tommy Lyons thinking, not just about the steep decline of the county he steered to Leinster (1997) and Allianz League (1998) titles but about the wider GAA landscape.
As ever, the assessments of a man who also steered Kilmacud Crokes to their first All-Ireland club title in 1995 and Dublin to a first Leinster title for seven years in 2002 are frank and forceful. They are devoid of sugar-coating and political correctness as he sweeps across the Association's landscape, stopping off at various locations to slaughter some sacred cows.
First port of call is by the River Lee, specifically Páirc Uí Chaoimh and its €80m redevelopment, €30m of which came from a Government grant, while Croke Park contributed €20m.
"Disgraceful" is Lyons' description of the project which will be completed this summer.
"Why spend €80m on a stadium that might not even be filled once every year in a province that already has three other big grounds?" he fumes.
"Páirc Uí Chaoimh was not needed and I think it was wrong of the government to put all that money towards it. It would have been much better spent on the homeless problem, waiting lists or some other deserving cause.
"And I would like to have seen the €20m Croke Park gave to Páirc Uí Chaoimh spent on a five-year coaching programme around all the counties. That would be of real benefit.
"And while we're at it, I'd much prefer to see the €6-7m that's going to go to the GPA over the next few years spent on coaching too."
He believes that a pre-occupation with redeveloping stadiums could be a factor behind the drop in standards in many counties, including Offaly which is now struggling in football and hurling after enjoying so much success between 1960 and 1998.
"As well as taking resources, building stadiums sucks the energy out of people," he explains. "You generally find that the good, enterprising people in any county are also the people who become involved in everything.
"If you put too much energy into bricks and mortar, what's left for the games? Is it a coincidence that Cork have slipped back in hurling and football at the same time as the Páirc Uí Chaoimh project is going ahead? I doubt it very much.
"Just as the GAA needs Dublin going well, it needs Cork to be strong too. They will have a fine stadium but it's good teams they really need. Would the money they put in redevelopment not have been better used in coaching?"
Lyons also feels that spending on county teams has spiralled out of control everywhere.
"It's mind-blowing," he says. "All this money being spent on teams and for what? Oddly enough, the more successful counties are probably the most efficient with money. They spend a lot but they're going until August or September, whereas others are spending six or seven hundred thousand euro and are finished by late June. How can that make sense?"
He believes many counties are losing sight of reality, spending vast amounts on county teams without having a real chance of achieving big success.
"You can ask Jim Bolger or Aidan O'Brien to train a carthorse and while they are brilliant at what they do, they are not going to transform it into a racehorse," he says.
"It's the same with players. It's understandable that every county wants to be as good as it can but there needs to be a judgement call on what's value for money."
Lyons believes that unless team costs are curbed, some counties will be wiped out financially. Yet, despite that threat, spending continues to soar year after year. "Why is nobody shouting stop? Páraic Duffy is a brilliant administrator who knows the GAA and the games inside out but there's only a certain amount he can do," he says.
"We need a president to come along and order a strategic review of the entire GAA, with team costs very high up the priority list. And this time, the findings should be research-based rather than opinion-based, as often tends to happen."
Lyons has concerns over the overall state of Gaelic football, specifically the shortage of top contenders.
"We're back where we were in the 1970s when only a few counties had any chance of winning the All-Ireland," he says. "Here we are in mid-March and we all know that only Dublin, Tyrone, Kerry and maybe Mayo can win the All-Ireland. Compare that to the '90s and early 2000s when several counties won.
"People are talking about Dublin pulling well ahead of the rest but that's only the case in Leinster. Dublin won the last two All-Irelands by one score. The rest of Leinster is the problem.
"Sadly, the Leinster championship has become a joke. That's a reflection on the rest, not Dublin. Yes, Dublin are very good but why have the other counties fallen way behind where they were some years ago?
"That goes for some counties in other provinces too. And what are provincial councils doing about it? Nothing, it would appear. They might say they have no control over counties or what's going on in them but if that's the case, we don't need them at all."
The recently agreed Super 8 addition to the All-Ireland Football Championship has come in for some criticism on the basis of alleged elitism, but Lyons believes it's a worthwhile initiative. "I don't like the 'Super 8' name, but I like the principle involved," he says. "I think it's a great idea to have big games scattered around the country in the latter stages of the Championship.
"Imagine, for instance, the atmosphere in Castlebar if Dublin, Kerry or Tyrone played Mayo there. The same goes for other venues. Not everyone can afford to bring a family up to Croke Park. It's right to have big game in the provinces too."
On the charge that only the top teams will benefit from the Super 8, Lyons has a blunt riposte.
"Everything to do with the Championships eventually benefits the top teams for the simple reason that they are the best," he says. "Whatever system you have, they will come to the fore.
"That's one of the reasons, I favour retaining the provincial championship. They offer lower and mid-ranked counties a chance to get to the final at least and to sneak a title here and there. That's important to them - it gives them a real focus."
Dublin have been amassing provincial and All-Ireland titles at a rapid rate in recent years, leading to claims that their big share of the national funding cake feeding into such a large population has created an empire that will dominate for a long time.
Lyons is sceptical of the latter view and has no time whatsoever for the theory that Dublin are over-funded by Croke Park.
"Dublin gets a big grant for coaching but then they have a huge population," he says.
"And what tends to be forgotten in this argument is that the clubs themselves are putting as much again into coaching. It's not as if they are taking handout and doing nothing for themselves. Far from it.
"As for Dublin dominating for the next few years, I have my doubts. In fact, they will do really well to win the All-Ireland this year. Once you get to the quarter-finals, anything can happen.
"Jim Gavin is doing a great job and has a really level-headed bunch of players who are very focused on that they are doing. There are no prima donnas there, which is very important. It's a very strong squad but Kerry and Mayo still ran them very close last year. Winning the three in a row will be very difficult."
Lyons sees Tyrone as the biggest threat to Dublin this year, followed by Kerry, with Mayo further back.
"Tyrone have perfected the art of playing defensively and working out on the break," he argues. "That gives them a fighting chance of beating anyone.
"I thought Kerry would have blooded more of their young talent last year but I'm sure they'll do it this year. They certainly have the ingredients to win an All-Ireland over the next few years."
"Mayo's chance may have gone. It's going to be very hard for Stephen Rochford's management to recover from the decision to drop David Clarke for the All-Ireland final replay.
"Also they are not discovering many new players and are still relying on a lot of lads who have come up short before. It's hard to see how it will be any different this year."
As for an outsider to break into the top four, he backs Galway.
"I've always like the way Galway play," he says. "They have a lot of good players coming through now and Kevin Walsh is doing a good job.
"What happened against Tipperary last year was very disappointing for them but if they learn from the experience, they will be the better for it. I see them as the most likely team to challenge the top four."