It's healthier, stronger and has a better image - Time was when Danny Lynch, as PRO of the GAA, was blamed for just about everything
On the day after the final curtain fell on the inter-county season in 1996, the GAA PRO Danny Lynch figured his work had been done. But the work was never truly complete and you'd be foolish to assume otherwise. Not until the day he walked out the door for good. When that day came he joked about being able to open a newspaper without fretting about what he might find inside. Ten years on from his retirement, he is reliving the bizarre events of one day in an incident-filled 20-year career.
It happened the day after Meath defeated Mayo in the All-Ireland football final replay. A couple of imperturbable security men at Croke Park refused to admit Tommy Dowd and Sean Boylan to the traditional lunch for the competing teams. Somewhere inside the stadium, unaware of the escalating crisis, was Lynch, assuming everything to be running according to plan.
"I was upstairs sitting with Jack Boothman, then president of the GAA, just talking about the weekend," he rewinds. "A journalist, I can't remember who, came up and said 'there is chaos below'. We looked at him in amazement, as if to say, 'Why? Why should there be?' So I had to go down."
When he got there he found the TV cameras rolling and the assembled journalists busy taking notes. He saw an angry Dowd, with the Sam Maguire, and an indignant Boylan. The doormen had followed their instructions to the letter, admitting only those who had official passes. A portion of the Meath party appeared to have redistributed some of theirs, assuming that the likes of Dowd and others would still get through. A stand-off ensued. Meath were threatening to head home.
When Lynch appeared, his first task was to placate Boylan and the rest of his crew. He had to persuade them to stay. "I was just pleading," he says, "that some common sense has to prevail here. I remember Dowd saying they were insulted."
He managed to calm the Meath delegation and prevented a crisis from getting any worse. But RTE's main evening news and the next day's newspapers would have stories of a cock-up and a fiasco. "A PR disaster," he concedes, not attempting to sugarcoat it. "The phones, the girls will tell you in Croke Park, never stopped hopping for a week after that. I had to take the fall-out on the chin and sort it out on the day. A lot of people would personalise their vitriol."
For 20 years Lynch was often in the eye of the storm. "An issue would arise and then it would become a 'GAA issue' - for example, when Lady Diana died, that morning the phones were hopping to see would we cancel a game in Croke Park," he explains. "The reaction (when we refused) was that we were typically Anglo-phobic - from a constituency, I suspect, that had never been in Croke Park before in its life.
"The most upsetting event was that incident with the Sam Maguire Cup because the season is over. Wouldn't you think the whole harvest is in? And next thing you are in the thick of it again."
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When he first reported for duty, 30 years ago, it was the year that the Republic of Ireland went to the European Championships. When Ireland beat England in Stuttgart, soccer had the nation at its feet.
"When I came in it was considered the 'Grab All Association'. A dowdy backward organisation run by grey men in grey suits. Just look at it. You had a falling down, ramshackle stadium. All over the country you had clubs with no dressing rooms, or dressing rooms with minimal facilities. You had all the issues which dragged down the GAA, like the ban on the RUC. You had the perceived bias against soccer and rugby. You had the trouble in the North which intervened at times. There wasn't even live television, except for the All-Ireland semi-finals and final."
There were concerns for the GAA's future in light of the Republic of Ireland's success. Thirty years on, the GAA has flourished. The GAA that Lynch left behind, when he retired in 2008, was a more confident and modern movement.
"It is more than ironic because people said our day was gone that time, that we were finished," notes Lynch now of those early years in Croke Park. Were you worried? "I wasn't personally - when you consider how badly organised soccer was, and still is, around the country. I couldn't see it taking off where I come from (west Kerry). Unless maybe a pub team or something like that."
Before Ireland took part in the World Cup finals for the first time in 1990, Lynch helped organise a GAA promotional advert on RTE television ("it was very slick") which led to criticism from one columnist who felt it betrayed a sense of inferiority.
"On the other hand you had people saying, 'why don't you do something?' Again you have to take that on the chin and realise no matter what you do, you won't please all the people all the time. There are none of those issues there now. Croke Park has been rebuilt. Everything from the Special Olympics to the rugby internationals and the soccer internationals were held there. You see people going around wearing their county jerseys with pride both at home and abroad. The Grab All Association . . . I think all that's gone."
And then something fortuitous and cataclysmic happened that helped catapult the GAA into the modern era. The meeting of Meath and Dublin went to four games in the first round of the 1991 Leinster Championship.
"Somebody up there liked us. We had the Dublin-Meath saga. The four games. That turned the tide in terms of public opinion. I suppose (it hastened) the arrival of (more) live television. I think in a funny way it helped the GAA because there would be no concern whatsoever if they (the national soccer team) qualified for a major championships now.
"And I think it spawned the success of Dublin. That time in Dublin there was hardly a decent team in the south. It (soccer boom) was a passing phase. Nobody lost any sleep over it. Probably the only thing that was annoying about it was people taking pleasure out of predicting the demise of the GAA."
Did you ever sing 'Olé Olé Olé'?
"I did not, no," he says, as if asked if he ever drove the Camino. "And I never will either. Not even for Kerry. If I watch another sport I'd prefer to watch rugby."
Not long into his job as PRO of the GAA, Lynch received a corporate invitation to a soccer match at Lansdowne Road. "I decided to go. Now at the time that was very much frowned upon. But I went. What I did was I took a personal half-day, rather than doing it in the GAA's time. I had more photographs than the bloody team on the front pages of the newspapers. I was photographed next to Chris de Burgh and Richard Harris. Not one person in the GAA mentioned it. I don't think they knew how to handle it, so they just ignored it."
When he arrived, four years after the GAA celebrated its centenary, there were 18 staff in Croke Park between management and secretarial. The staff there now is many times that figure and his own department has been renamed, redefined and become largely anonymous. The ten years since he left have continued to pose challenges but many of the landmark reforms were already complete before he walked away. In 1991 he almost quit during the fractious RDS controversy, when the GAA pulled out of an agreement to jointly host a GAA and soccer match fundraiser in Dublin's Ringsend.
The previous summer the GAA also came under fire for approving Féile concerts at Thurles, to fund the redevelopment of the ground. The Church weighed in, with the Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, the traditional patron of the GAA, claiming the event would have a corruptive influence on the nation's youth. In response, Lynch wrote: "It is naive to suggest that the banning of concerts will address the problem of underage drinking this country." A letter containing used condoms arrived in the post addressed to him during the controversy.
"It was an extremely difficult, frustrating and at times traumatic type of job, because of the federal system of the various councils. I have said it before that there are often decisions taken at Central Council unanimously which are then absolutely resisted, derided, attacked, at different levels afterwards. You saw it very recently in the rule changes, where the GPA are represented on Central Council and as soon as the rules changes are passed to be trialled they are seen to throw the rattler out of the pram.
"As Tim O'Connor, who was head of sport in RTE, one time said to me, anybody who ever paid into a match in Croke Park or any ground in the country thinks they own ye, and anybody who ever paid a TV licence thinks they own us. We just have got to accept that. I mean some of the greatest critics of the GAA are not journalists or the media, but from within, a hell of a lot of the time."
During the bid to open up Croke Park to rugby and soccer, the ex-GAA presidents proved obstructive.
"And you would tend to get that on a fairly regular basis . . . some of the biggest PR disasters I was involved in replicated that. But I think it is a lot easier now on one level. Because those issues which were millstones around the GAA's neck, like Rule 21, like the ban on foreign games, like the opening up of Croke Park, like the troubles in the North and various things, they are all gone. But the GAA still gets criticism from those who purport to be in the GAA's interest, either having played or working within."
Why does this happen? "There's a whole range of things. There's local politics being played. There's county politics being played, provincial politics being played. And there's publicity seekers. So there are a lot of scenarios.
"But generally the GAA is healthier, stronger and has a better image than it did 30 years ago."
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The impressive redevelopment of Croke Park reinforced the GAA's standing in public life and bolstered its own self-esteem. At a time when the country was barely out of the 1980s recession it launched into a huge reconstruction that managed to proceed without serious games disruption or leaving huge debts. Lynch's role in that was critical in appeasing local residents, with no objections lodged.
But there was still a PR war to be won. "There were people who were critical of the GAA over corporate boxes, premium seats," says Lynch. "There seemed to be a tacit acceptance that if you were a member of the GAA, you had to be impoverished and cloth-capped. That you couldn't afford a premium-level seat.
"The people buying into this were by and large GAA people. Take JP McManus as an example. The idea that he is not a genuine GAA supporter would be complete baloney. Part of the reason Croke Park had to be redeveloped was that capacity had reduced to 64,000 on heath and safety grounds.
"That fact that the capacity was increased by (almost) 20,000 seems to have been lost on some people. Ninety nine per cent of people in the seats are genuine GAA supporters. You have people who want to go to Hill 16 who wouldn't go anywhere else, who had an animosity towards the suits sitting over in the stand."
Once unveiled the stadium became the focus of intense interest as a potential venue for soccer and rugby while the IRFU and FAI were waiting on the Aviva to come to fruition. In 2001 Bertie Ahern's IR£60m donation towards Croke Park cajoled Congress, by a hair's breadth, into shelving plans to relax Rule 42 which prohibited the playing of non-Gaelic games in GAA stadiums.
Ahern's fixation with building his own stadium, which never materialised, was seen as a key motive behind the decision. Having initially participated in lobbying delegates to open up Croke Park, Lynch found himself switching sides when Ahern intervened with an offer the GAA couldn't refuse.
"(Sean) McCague and myself were trying frantically to make sure, with IR£60 riding on it, that the vote didn't get through. And McCague was asked several times to have a recount. What it did mean was that we had basically brought the debt on Croke Park down to absolutely manageable proportions so that Croke Park became a cash cow and county boards could benefit much sooner."
Lynch had two statements prepared, covering either outcome. But the refusal to have a recount did not show the GAA in a positive light.
"I remember being accosted by various journalists, immediately after the vote, who called it a fudge, a cynical move and something that the GAA should possibly have resisted. But history will show that it was a decision that has had profound long-term benefits for the GAA and did not in any way impair the use of Croke Park when it was needed for soccer and rugby."
The rule was eventually relaxed at Congress four years later, during the presidency of Seán Kelly. Even then, Cork, one of the GAA's most conservative constituencies, resisted the change. And Cork found itself in the middle of a controversy this year over the Liam Miller benefit match in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Lynch saw a crisis that was poorly managed and allowed to get out of control.
"The Liam Miller thing was a simple issue that was let run wild. If the GAA rationalised publicly that there was a rule problem but that they were going to meet to discuss and see how they could circumvent the rule on a once-off basis. I think that would have killed it. That would have sorted it out.
"I also thought though that there were too many people trigger-happy, non-GAA people, or people having a go at the GAA. I mention in particular the junior Minister for Sport, Brendan Griffin. I'd expect nothing more from the senior minister, 'Lord' (Shane) Ross - where he wanted to tie the issue into grant aid that the GAA got for Páirc Uí Chaoimh, ignoring completely what the GAA has done in terms of ensuring that soccer and rugby, when they had no place to play, were accommodated in Croke Park. Ignoring the fact if stadia grant aid is tied into multi-sport use, the Aviva, which was supposed to be available, is not because they changed the dimensions from the original. There was a promise broken. I thought it was a little bit disingenuous, and a little bit forgetting where you came from, of Mr Griffin, coming from the background he is coming from."
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In the midst of all the earnest deliberations, there were innumerable moments of light relief. Lynch was instrumental in introducing codes of practice to deal with child protection and toured the country advising members on the new regulations. At the end of a two-hour seminar in Cork those in attendance were asked if they had any questions. "And this fella stuck up his hand and said, 'What's the story about compulsory helmets?'"
He sees the primary challenges facing the GAA as three-fold: maintaining the amateur status, which he regards as the number one priority; striking the right balance between commercialisation and prudent management of the Association; and dealing with the erosion of rural Ireland and the impact on the GAA there.
"The day of the small farmer, the fella with the five or six cows, is gone. It has meant the population has migrated to the cities. So that is going to be a big challenge."
On the Sky television deal, that has stoked much opposition, his approach would have been to offer the broadcasting giant exclusive overseas right, but to keep the domestic rights so that non-subscribers would not be denied free access to televised matches. "I think that it's very important that there's some competition in the market there, based on my own experience of dealing with RTE," says Lynch.
He believes that any erosion of the amateur status will lead to the downfall of the GAA as it is known. "You will no longer have county boundaries. You could end up with the Supervalu Clare team or the Kerry Group Kerry team."
He remains sceptical of the motives of the GPA and derides the "cult of the manager" which he says has led to huge and costly backroom teams - a warning sign that should be heeded, in his opinion. "I think the GAA are going to have to take a serious look at the management backroom teams of counties. I mean it's absolutely ridiculous. It's nearly an industry. Somebody said one time the only person they haven't now is a gynaecologist."
When Lynch left the GAA, the most noticeable difference for the first year was how few times his phone rang. "Well, you'd literally get blamed for everything from refereeing to the scarcity of tickets," he says of when he was in the thick of it. "I remember even being accosted by two Laois supporters on one occasion over bringing Laois to Croke Park because they were hammered there - that they should be playing in some rural venue where they'd have a better chance."
He recalls a friend once describing what he did not so much as a job as an ideology. "It is a bit like a religion. You mightn't agree with every aspect of your religion but you subscribe to its ethos. Basically, no one would have survived unless the GAA meant a huge amount to you and unless it was absolutely in your gut from day one."
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