Sunday 25 August 2019

John Greene: 'Flynn's storm before the calm'

Paul Flynn: Hectic start to his GPA tenure. Photo: Sportsfile
Paul Flynn: Hectic start to his GPA tenure. Photo: Sportsfile

John Greene

He is, as the saying goes, barely a wet week in the job, but already Paul Flynn is seeing the good and the bad of life as chief executive of the Gaelic Players Association.

He has, he says, just about got his feet under the desk, but they have yet to touch the ground. "It's been a whirlwind of a start," he agrees. AGM. Rule changes. All Stars. Super 11s . . . and, of course, the criticism that comes with the territory.

When he took up the post in September, Flynn knew what lay ahead between then and Christmas. And he knew he would have to meet it all head on and then take stock at year's end about plotting a way forward for the players' group.

"Initially, it's all about understanding the operation," says Flynn. "I've been on the board for seven years. Since I've been a player I've been very heavily involved, but you have to get an understanding and appreciation for all the work that's being done, the day-to-day business.

"I've been leaning on the guys and girls in the office to educate me on that and absorb as much information as I possibly can. I've been trying to spend as much time with as many players as I can as well. That's all about absorbing their views. I strongly believe that this is a bottom-up organisation built on the viewpoints of our players and it's up to us and myself to lead the organisation and set a vision for it then into the future. I've taken on as much information as I can."

He is having to learn quickly. The GPA's opposition to some of the new playing rules - especially the handpass restriction - drew further criticism in recent days but Flynn says that their position was misunderstood. He sometimes feels that their purpose is missed by critics.

With regard to the rules, players were consulted before the changes and gave their response. So, 96 per cent of inter-county players were against limiting the number of consecutive handpasses to three, while 63 per cent were against the sideline kick rule. A similar number were in favour of the sin bin. But now that the changes have been brought in, he says, players will get on with it. The only sticking point - which has been resolved - was a review before the league begins and he is unapologetic about insisting on that.

"The thing about the league, and I don't know if this is universally understood, is that for many of our members, if not all, it is the most important competition of the year. This is where they are playing against teams that are of the same level. It's where they get really competitive games and there's a real chance of silverware. Everyone starts the league with that kind of mindset. That's the collective view.

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"Individually, then, you've got players who are trying to make an impact. If they are on the periphery of a squad the league is very important for them to be able to stake a claim in the team going into the championship period. It's a really important part of the season for our members.

"So we're trying to protect it as best as possible, albeit there's always times when rule changes are rolled out within the league format, and we're pro-rule changes, we're pro evolving our games. We just wanted to ensure there were proper review points along the way."

Players, he says, do not want to set the rules. It's not their job. But they do want to be consulted, as they were in this instance, although the GAA pressed ahead despite the misgivings of players, Flynn is pragmatic. The players will get on with it. From his own point of view, he is looking forward to playing under them.

"I always take an optimistic viewpoint, so let's see what happens," says the four-time All Star. "I'll be interested to see what it feels like in training. A couple of the [Dublin] lads I was talking to said it was a very different experience, didn't think it worked initially. But I'd be open to seeing how it works in training games and pre-season games and, as a player, give my feedback the same as everyone else. Here my job is to represent the views of the overall so if it conflicts with my own view then so be it."

One trick, however, that he feels has been missed by the GAA is the chance to experiment with two referees. When the GPA first put the new rule proposals to players, this was something which came up time and again in the feedback, which they in turn fed to the rules committee.

"We've even spoken to a number of referees off the record and they said they are going to find it very hard to officiate. Say, for instance, you're trying to count four steps, and then maybe someone's fouled and you're trying to count five seconds of an advantage, and then you're trying to figure if they had hopped the ball twice and then you're trying to count the handpasses . . ."

As a man who has won five All-Ireland medals, pressure is something he is well used to - as is commentary from the sidelines. The reaction on this side of the ocean to the Fenway Hurling Classic has been very mixed, with some trenchant criticism questioning its purpose. Having seen the Super 11s first-hand this year, Flynn is more strongly behind the concept than ever before.

"I was pitchside for some of the games and I saw the skill level. It's seldom you're at pitch level for a hurling game like that. I was really blown away by it.

"It's [Super 11s] is about promoting our games. It's a short-form version of our game. It's not abnormal for any sport to have a short-form of its games and that's what Super 11s is. I don't tend to compare it like for like with hurling because you can't, it's different. You don't compare rugby 7s with rugby - they are very different and require different skills. The Super 11s is a very, very physical game, very intense, it's really important to have a good touch and it's obviously all about goals so the goalkeepers become very prominent.

"This is about promoting our games; it's about promoting our players. So we had four teams over there and if you saw how buzzed up they were to be able to play in Fenway . . . People refer to it as being a jolly or whatever, but I can testify that I was with the Limerick team and they were training in Canton and it clashed with the Ireland versus All Blacks game so they missed it. They were focused."

Fenway Sports Management - owners of Liverpool FC, the Boston Globe, the Bruins and the Red Sox - have been behind the concept, and Flynn says they are in talks to continue the series.

"The attendances were down. They [FSM] highlighted a number of reasons for that. For the first time in a number of years, the Red Sox won the World Series and all their resources went into ensuring that that was the case, that they did win, they were promoting it and they were leveraging off that success, because that's worth hundreds of millions to that brand."

The wheel, for now, keeps on turning. This weekend, Flynn oversaw the GPA's first 'rookies day', a sort of induction day for players aged between 18 and 23, the newcomers to county panels. The idea is to equip them for the challenges that come with being an inter-county player, educating them around social media, nutrition and anti-doping and other areas.

"We're going to also have a workshop on building resilience - that's both on and off the field," he adds. "There are going to be ups and downs. They are living a dual career and what we want to instil in them is that there are going to be ups and downs on both sides, on the pitch and off the pitch, and we're just trying to build in techniques around how they can prepare themselves for that - and also learn from it, and build on it.

"I'd love people to have an understanding of who the GPA are. We are here to represent the players, to act as the voice of the players with regards to games-related activities and to support their welfare on and off the field, and their development too. There's no hidden agenda with regard to what we do. Players are at the centre of everything. If that was universally understood at the end of my tenure, I think that would be a real result.

"We are, and will continue to be, real advocates of our games. Not just for participation purposes, and for promoting them, but advocates within society as well. The GPA is made up of the collective of all inter-county footballers and hurlers across the country. But you take them as one unit, on their own, and they are seen as role models within their club, they are role models within society, they are sometimes role models nationally. And I think that's something that we need to make the most of.

"I think it's important that we continue to grow with society as an organisation with regard to the challenges that are going to be faced in the future, not just within our games and the demands that places on our players but also societal ones. Our mental health programmes have been replicated by players' associations all across the world. So we want to continue to be cutting-edge and world-leading in the innovative programmes we offer."

As for Paul Flynn the county player? Is there another year? He's not giving too much away, but there's no mistaking the glint in his eye when he says he's keeping himself fit at the moment. If he goes back, he goes back full throttle - same as it ever was.

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