Monday 18 November 2019

The inside story: Mayo, the county board and the row with the millionaire

The inside story of how the county board ended up in crisis after row with benefactor Tim O'Leary exploded into public domain

High flyers: Tim O’Leary with Mayo star Aidan O’Shea at Hogs Head Golf Club, County Kerry
High flyers: Tim O’Leary with Mayo star Aidan O’Shea at Hogs Head Golf Club, County Kerry
Tim O'Leary and Enda Kenny
Tim O'Leary with Mayo boss James Horan
Tim O'Leary's mother Margaret with Cillian O'Connor and Aidan O'Shea
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Tim O'Leary has never been one to place a limit on his ambitions. Coming from a humble Irish emigrant background in London, the 42-year-old son of a cab driver has worked his way up in the competitive world of interest rate derivatives trading and is now a multi-millionaire.

The Bahamas resident holds a senior position with Ronin Capital, a global proprietary trading firm, and conducts business on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He counts former world No 1 golfer Justin Rose among his circle of friends.

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O'Leary is fanatical about sport. As a child his main sport was table tennis, but he also played Gaelic football with Tara GFC in London up to minor level.

He has followed England at five World Cups, is a season ticket holder at Fulham and also owns seats at Twickenham. He golfs and runs marathons.

Above all these though, his passion is Gaelic football and, in particular, Mayo

His mother Margaret hails from Glenhest near Newport, and his love of the game was fostered during childhood holidays.

O'Leary was one of the thousands of disappointed Mayo fans who streamed out of Croke Park on September 17, 2017. For the second year in a row his team had come agonisingly close to lifting Sam Maguire, only to lose by a point to Dublin. It was in those doleful moments that he had a brainwave.

"I walked out of the game very upset. I phoned my PA Heather Blond and I told her to contact Mayo GAA and whatever it costs, I wanted to help the team," he says.

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Later that month, he and Mayo county board chairman Mike Connolly exchanged emails.

"I would like to help the team fulfil the dreams of the players, the county and the whole country," O'Leary wrote. "I really feel that the financial clout behind Dublin has been a significant factor in their success, though rightly history will say they are one of the greatest GAA sides ever."

Tim O’Leary (left) with Mayo legend Willie Joe Padden and county players Danny Kirby, Stephen Coen and Cillian O’Connor
Tim O’Leary (left) with Mayo legend Willie Joe Padden and county players Danny Kirby, Stephen Coen and Cillian O’Connor

O'Leary told Connolly he was open to suggestions about how he could help the team, be it through direct sponsorship or organising a training camp in the Bahamas. He suggested the luxury Albany resort in the Bahamas, which is used by a host of sports stars, including Tiger Woods and Serena Williams.

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Within weeks his interest in supporting the team crystalised into an offer of sponsorship. Some €100,000 was to be donated in January 2018 towards the National League campaign and preparations for the Connacht Championship, while €50,000 was pledged if Mayo entered the qualifiers.

A further €50,000 was to be donated if Mayo reached the Super 8s and €50,000 more if they got to the All Ireland semi-finals. Ultimately, €150,000 was donated by O'Leary as Mayo crashed out in a third-round qualifier defeat to Kildare.

According to emails seen by the Irish Independent, the only condition attached to the funding was that it be used to give the Mayo senior football team extra resources and it was not to be used to subsidise the county's sizeable debt on MacHale Park in Castlebar.

"I want the money to be used to help give the team the extra 1-2pc to hopefully get them over the line," he told Connolly in an email on Christmas Day 2017.

O'Leary had forged contacts with senior members of the Mayo squad by that stage. Cillian O'Connor, Andy Moran and Tom Parsons were copied on the email, as was former Mayo great Willie Joe Padden. As the relationship developed he would spend time playing golf and socialising with players.

O'Leary bristles at the notion he is some sort of "sugar daddy". While he was keen to give immediate financial assistance to Mayo GAA, he also wanted to build something sustainable and hit upon the idea of setting up a charitable organisation in partnership with the Ireland Funds.

This was the genesis of the Mayo GAA International Supporters Foundation, in which he and London-based chauffeur company owner Terry Gallagher are the main movers.

Tim O'Leary and Enda Kenny
Tim O'Leary and Enda Kenny


Its aim was to gather 50 wealthy people of Mayo descent from around the globe and provide them with a tax efficient method of supporting the county cause.

O'Leary was welcomed by Connolly with open arms and for a while his vision seemed to be coming together. He helped organise a successful gala dinner in New York last May, to coincide with Mayo's Connacht Championship opener at Gaelic Park in the Bronx.

More than 300 people attended the $10,000-a-table black-tie event at the Cipriani Broadway in Manhattan. Some $50,000 was raised at an auction on the night and when all the bills were paid and donations were made to worthy causes such as the Mayo-Roscommon Hospice, there was €250,0000 left over.

Connolly described the event as a "big game changer" and hailed O'Leary as "one of the greatest Mayo supporters of all time". There is no doubt the funding was welcome.

A behind-closed-doors meeting of Mayo County Board earlier this week heard that despite having an income of €3.1m the county had substantially eaten into its reserves this year. "Our expenditure this year is quite phenomenal," treasurer Kevin O'Toole told delegates.

But in the months after the event the relationship between the foundation and the county board unexpectedly turned sour and after weeks of controversy it appears Mayo GAA may have killed the goose that was laying the golden eggs.

Tim O'Leary with Mayo boss James Horan
Tim O'Leary with Mayo boss James Horan

O'Leary wanted transparency regarding the spending of funding he personally gave and future funding pledged by the foundation. But his demands laid bare a clash between the corporate culture he was accustomed to and the requirements of the GAA that any funds raised in the name of a county must be under the control of the county board. It does not appear this was spelled out to the foundation from the outset.

"We must be in charge of our own destiny. Not somebody else raising money and deciding where it is going," O'Toole told county board delegates this week.

In late September, the foundation went public with its decision to withhold the €250,000 raised in New York "until appropriate governance structures are put in place".

The way in which O'Leary has highlighted his concerns has proven divisive. While some county board delegates believe he has raised valid concerns, others have expressed dismay at the negative publicity the dispute has attracted. It now appears the only way to resolve the matter is if the board agrees to a suggestion from the foundation for Croke Park-brokered mediation.

Much of the row hinges around terms set out by O'Leary in an April 9 email to Connolly. This outlined how funds raised from the New York gala were intended to be put towards a proposed new centre of excellence and a new underage academy.

The email said funds would be released after plans for the initiatives were produced by the board and reviewed by the foundation. O'Leary got no formal response to the email, but said he received assurances from a board official that the terms were understood.

Tim O'Leary's mother Margaret with Cillian O'Connor and Aidan O'Shea
Tim O'Leary's mother Margaret with Cillian O'Connor and Aidan O'Shea

After the gala dinner, he maintains numerous requests came from the board to "please send on the money". This has been disputed by the board, which says that while it looks forward to receiving the funds at some stage, it had made no request for the money to the sent.

O'Leary says he again asked for business plans to be provided, but it became clear to him that the April 9 email was not shared with other board members. The foundation wrote to the board on July 10 setting out its position again and enclosing the April 9 email.

However, no formal response was received. The situation was not helped by an email O'Leary received from treasurer Kevin O'Toole's email address on August 21. O'Leary had written to O'Toole saying he was surprised he had not seen him at the Super 8s game against Donegal and wishing him "a great summer".

The correspondence was forwarded, with an additional note, from O'Toole's address to an administrator and the county board executive. It was also copied to O'Leary himself.

The note read: "I would ask the board to answer this donkey but that probably won't happen this time either."

O'Toole has not commented publicly about the email.

To make matters worse, O'Leary claims he received requests for further funding for the Mayo team around this time.

By late September O'Leary had enough. A letter from the foundation which was extremely critical of the county board was sent to all clubs in the county. It announced the suspension of funding.

The board pledged to deal with the contents of the letter at a meeting on October 16, but this was postponed due to an illness and O'Leary's concerns went unanswered.

In the meantime, O'Leary went public about concerns he had that people in the county were trying to discredit him.

He called for "a forensic audit" of Mayo GAA's accounts and further letters were sent from the foundation to the board and clubs raising various issues.

The foundation queried why it was not offered the opportunity to bid for various sponsorship packages despite expressing an interest. It also questioned how the €150,000 O'Leary donated in 2018 was spent, saying an analysis of receipts raised questions.

A lighthearted effort to poke fun at the controversy at Mayo's game against the Underdogs on October 26 backfired.

The songs 'Money, Money, Money' and 'Shoe the Donkey' were played over the PA system in Castlebar. A letter of apology was quickly issued to O'Leary.

When the board finally met in public on October 30, it decided on legal advice it could not publicly address the issues O'Leary had raised. A private meeting took place last Monday, but the board decided not to discuss O'Leary's concerns in detail after receiving a solicitors' letter warning of potential proceedings if he was defamed.

Connolly told delegates the board had turned the matter over to its solicitors.

The aftermath of the meeting would prove quite controversial, with a board statement claiming a vote of confidence was "resoundingly passed by all delegates". No less than seven clubs publicly challenged the statement as there was no show of hands.

The board insisted that because there was no objection when the proposal was made, and seconded, a vote was not required. A separate motion to prohibit the media from future board meetings was carried by a show of hands.

At the meeting one delegate wondered if the "way out of this" would be to tell O'Leary "keep your €250,000". But Connolly said he did not think this was how the board should do business.

Some delegates called for a mediated solution, but whether this will happen remains unclear.

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