Tuesday 17 September 2019

John Greene: 'Clubs can be a powerful force if not left impotent'

Mullinalaghta manager Mickey Graham and captain Shane Mulligan. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Mullinalaghta manager Mickey Graham and captain Shane Mulligan. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

John Greene

The modern face of the GAA was laid bare in the most extreme manner imaginable in the last week. That a club as small as Mullinalaghta could win a senior provincial title - beating one of the country's biggest clubs in the process - was the most heart-warming GAA story of the year, surpassing even that of Limerick's All-Ireland hurling success.

Mullinalaghta showed the art of what is still possible in the GAA. It reminded us of where the Association's true heart is. In many ways, Mullinalaghta's success is not that they won the Leinster title, but that they have a team at all. That's the real victory.

There is nothing hollow or insincere in the Mullinalaghta story and how it involves an entire community, because it is through the GAA that this small half-parish is showing its determination to survive against the odds.

Anyone who went to Tullamore to see last Sunday's match against Kilmacud Crokes thinking Mullinalaghta did not have a chance had not been paying attention to what the club has been doing in Longford, and in Leinster, over the last three years. Nor did they fully understand the power of what has driven them to such extraordinary heights.

It may be an easy thing to say, but it is still true that other communities will take heart from what the Longford club has achieved. That's why their story has resonated so much. And why the GAA needs to be at the barricades guarding against the destruction of rural Ireland.

Now, Mullinalaghta are Leinster champions, but in 10 years' time, they may not even have a team.

And if they do have a team, what sort of GAA will they be part of? Because the dangers facing the Association and its core beliefs were exposed with the extraordinary revelations in recent days around the cost over-run of the redevelopment of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, between €25m and €30m higher than the original projected cost of almost €80m.

The GAA likes to claim it is a democratic organisation, but this is often just a badge of convenience to hide behind. Repeated attempts by some delegates to Cork County Board to get answers to questions around the cost of the stadium project were side-stepped, making a mockery of the idea that the grassroots has any meaningful input to decision-making.

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In July 2017, a series of questions seeking to establish the up-to-date situation on the cost of the project were emailed by a club secretary to the county board. Two in particular stood out:

1: What is the expected cost of the overall development? If, as reported, it is significantly in excess of the amount of €78m presented to the County Committee as being the final cost, how did the additional costs arise?

2: If there have been cost overruns, why have the County Committee not been updated on these overruns over the past eighteen months?

The questions were not answered, although the board subsequently updated clubs in November that the cost had risen. There was no sense, though, of the scale of the over-run at that time. Rumours have been circulating in recent months that the situation was serious.

"It became clear in the middle of the year that the amount spent on the stadium way exceeded what people thought," Croke Park stadium director Peter McKenna told the Irish Examiner last week.

Who, though, did it become 'clear' to? Because it certainly wasn't the Cork GAA family.

Asked by journalist Michael Moynihan what had caused the over-run, McKenna said that was "a difficult question to answer".

His next remark was damning: "Building projects are notorious for over-runs but projects can be brought in on time and on budget. It's about having good people and good controls."

There were those in Cork who tried to exercise some form of control by seeking answers to questions but their concerns were not adequately addressed. Clubs must be able to hold county boards to account but all over the country this is simply not happening. In part, it must be said that there is an apathy among clubs when dealing with their county boards. They have been worn down by not being listened to, and also by their own day-to-day concerns.

The hubris of county executives is an issue too - there's often a sense that board officers adopt a 'we know best' attitude, and the debt now run up by Cork County Board is just the latest manifestation of that.

The way the situation in Cork was allowed to escalate without apparent oversight, and with clubs frozen out of the reckoning, is the latest alarm bell to be rung in the GAA.

McKenna and his team, which manages Croke Park, have now taken over the running of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, saying that addressing the "financial issues" is a 10 to 15-year project. For Mullinalaghta, and many others, just keeping the show on the road is a week-to-week one.

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