Tuesday 20 February 2018

Liam O'Neill: I didn't sleep for a fortnight after TV rights deal

Outgoing president Liam O'Neill reflects on some big decisions made across his three-year tenure, including his initial worry over the controversial Sky deal and a 'damaged' relationship with RTE

Liam O’Neill will leave his role as GAA president ‘physically, emotionally and mentally drained’
Liam O’Neill will leave his role as GAA president ‘physically, emotionally and mentally drained’
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Liam O'Neill's presidency was less than 48 hours old when felt the shrapnel from the first blast piercing his skin.

As he scanned the sports sections of the Monday morning papers reviewing the weekend events, three words screamed out at him in a way he didn't think they should have. All but one headline contained the words 'O'Neill, football, boring.'

In the aftermath of the 2012 Congress in Laois that franked the beginning of his term, O'Neill sketched a few ideas that he might be interesting in exploring over the following three years. A review of football sounded like a priority at that initial press conference.

Within days, some prominent figures were being invited to strongly challenge his remarks. It wasn't the start he needed.

For O'Neill the difficulty was not what was said but how it was subsequently construed - and it provided him, he says now, with a valuable lesson.

ACCUSED

"I was accused of saying football was boring. I said an aspect of football (handpassing) was boring and it was my first lesson that the use of a word can be used in a different context by someone else who goes and asks someone to react to something that you didn't say," he explains. "That's been repeated quite a bit.

"I suppose in the last 12 months I have fallen foul of that less because I know now not to say a word that can be misconstrued."

It did "rock" him in the early stages of his term and opened his eyes to what lay ahead.

"That hostility, I didn't expect. You find out very quickly who wants to have a go at you, the same people who now want me to say football is boring, criticised me for allegedly saying football is boring.

"It isn't football that's the difficulty, it's the way people choose to play it," he says, citing the examples of Corofin, St Vincent's Crossmaglen Rangers and Dr Croke's. "They play a certain style that is never boring."

As he reflects on the last two years and 10 months (his presidential term is shorter because the date of Congress was brought forward) those early days steeled him for what was ahead.

He visited up to 500 clubs, almost 400 schools, stretched the Association's international arm further than ever before, oversaw reviews of both games, fixtures and the entire minor grade and didn't shirk a decision or an explanation.

But the GAA's sale of part of their media rights for championship games to Sky Sports, the first time a pay-per-view company has been embraced at this level, triggered a storm that went far beyond the usual parameters. Almost 11 months on the ripples from that decision are still visible.

"The biggest decision I have ever made in my life was to be part of the Sky decision, no doubt about that," he reflects. "You are part of a group doing it on behalf of, not just an organisation, almost for the entire country. It affected everyone."

He still insists that it was the "right" decision made for the "right" reasons. But the personal toll, he admitted, stretched to sleepless nights for the fortnight after until he and other GAA officials emerged from their meeting with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications to explain the deal.

There were "nasty" letters, some of the worst, he says, written in Irish and with a clear "anti-British" sentiment. Some of his closest friends disagreed with him but he is adamant that only one person spoke to him negatively, face-to-face, at a function in Kerry.

"I was worried for a fortnight that maybe we hadn't done the right thing. I didn't sleep for that fortnight afterwards until we came out of the Dail," he says. "But at the end of that fortnight the criticism just stopped. Because people saw the picture. Going into the Dail was a huge part of that and we welcomed that opportunity.

"Anything you do in the GAA will get you criticism, that's just fact. It goes with the territory, no matter what you do. Sometimes you get more criticism for not doing things.

"I think people understand what we're about and that it actually worked. I know the minute I say that people will say it didn't and 'how dare he say it did'."

And even though a proposed Clare motion calling for championship games being shown on subscription television to also be shown free-to-air has not made it to the Congress clar, he will welcome any debate on the matter.

"In recent weeks we have been criticised for being undemocratic and yet one of the biggest criticisms is that we are too democratic. People move it to suit their own circumstances and that's why you can't win," he reflects.

"You can't tie the hands of your commercial negotiators. Then you are giving one group a right to tell you what they will pay you for your games. People say 'why do you need the income?.'

MONEY

"As Paraic (Duffy) outlined in his report, you can do more when you have money," he adds, listing the overseas projects already in the planning phase.

"You don't like being criticised for doing your best and we had a hard call there. I'd sooner make mistakes by doing things than by being afraid to do them."

The relationship with RTE over their coverage of the deal, has been "damaged," he feels: "Before their handling of this thing the national broadcaster would have had a place in GAA hearts that would have been incomparable. We saw a different side."

He makes a relevant point on some of the criticism that other national sporting bodies avoid because they have international governing bodies making the rules for them.

"I won't say there is a hostility to the GAA but we would get more criticism than any other national governing body. There is a simple reason: we have to do it all.

"Rugby has an international board to make rules or laws. Soccer is governed by Fifa. We have to do all the legislation ourselves, all the theory, all the research behind it. We have to objection-proof it.

"When people attack the rules of other sports, they don't know who makes them so it's not personalised. With us, it's personalised."

The tough decisions incorporated interpretation of the rules governing the hurling penalty, something the GAA did for safety reasons only - "nothing to do with the Cork goalkeeper (Anthony Nash)."

Reducing the numbers on the sidelines caused anger among those most directly involved, team officials and medical staff, "but we held our nerve on it and I think it worked," says O'Neill.

"Eight people throwing in hurleys and some were causing trouble, no doubt about that. The fact that, in one All-Ireland final recently, we had two managers confronting each other, it just wasn't on. The less people on the sideline, the less trouble you have.

"A knock-on effect is that there has been a lessening of sideline incidents around the country," he points out.

The black card came courtesy of the Football Review Committee that he instigated and that too he deems a success.

"One of the surprising knock on effects of the black card was that it lowered the number of yellow and red cards. No one saw that coming.

"But no matter what law you make, those who break the laws will always be ahead of you. It's a catch up situation because you can never have it covered. That's why criticism is a little harsh because you can only deal with what's in front of you."

The continued success of the GAA internationally is a matter of pride. This year alone another five GAA clubs will start up in Galicia in Spain, bringing the number to 14 in one province alone.

"They see Gaelic football as a means to assert their Celtic independence. They see it as a statement," says O'Neill.

"Clubs abroad are not just being founded by Irish any more. In North America, clubs are starting of their own accord. When they see hurling more it will snowball."

His presidency has strengthened his conviction about "how strong we are on the ground." A visit to the club in Shanballymore informed him of that as much as any visit.

"I get nervous when I hear that the GAA is such a great community organisation. Often the best communities have the best GAA clubs," O'Neill says.

The success of hurling over his three years was the highlight; failing to unite all the associations (ladies football, camogie, handball with GAA) a regret.

"There was more agreement from camogie than there was from ladies football," he points out.

He leaves the position "physically, emotionally and mentally drained" - he only took three days off over the term - and knows it will be hard to see things that he had a hand in move on without him.

But he also has the satisfaction of knowing he didn't shirk big decisions and hard calls.

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