Sunday 22 April 2018

Martin Breheny: Managing the GAA’s growing professionalism will be Ryan’s biggest challenge

Tom Ryan. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Tom Ryan. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

One word that cannot be associated with Tom Ryan's appointment as GAA Director-General is 'surprise', but then how surprising is that?

Having worked in a senior position in Croke Park for the past 11 years, it was obvious that if he applied for the job he would be a leading contender. And if he didn't apply, questions would be asked. Rightly so too.

Indeed, it would have been a serious concern in the GAA if its Director of Finance weren't a top candidate for the No 1 position. Other heads of departments in Croke Park applied too, as should be expected.

We confidently predicted in this newspaper that Ryan would get the job because, knowing the criteria that applied, he seemed the ideal fit.

Given its prestigious status in Irish life, everyone in the GAA - and, it would appear outside too, judging by comments over the last 24 hours - has an opinion on who should have been appointed DG, so it's important to retain context about what the job is really about.

It's easy to sneer and point out that Ryan is an 'insider'. So what? When last did a bank, political party, public company or indeed a sporting organisation appoint an 'outsider' as chief-executive?

John Delaney and Philip Browne weren't exactly 'outsiders' when they got the top jobs in the FAI and IRFU, no more than their successors will be. Ryan comes with the advantage of knowing the internal workings of the GAA in detail, albeit in his case, mostly from a financial perspective.

That should not be seen as a drawback. Ignore the romantic nonsense, pedalled in some cases by people making a lot of money from the GAA, that the Association should regard commerce as a grubby concept.

As an indigenous sporting organisation in a small country on the western rim of Europe, it would be reckless to the point of negligence not to fish every income sea. The alternative is to concede it all to other sports, who never seem to be challenged about any revenue-raising pursuit, whether it involves alcoholic drink companies or bookmaking, businesses, which the GAA no longer deal with.

As for arrangements with TV companies such as Sky Sports, that's OK for rugby and soccer, yet when the GAA uses it as a perfectly legitimate mechanism to stir the market, they are portrayed as traitors.

Maintaining a strong income flow remains more crucial than ever in the GAA and, given his financial background, Ryan is well-placed to oversee that.

The next big test is to decide how the money is used, not that Ryan will be the only one dealing with that. It's be easy to assume that the DG makes all the big decisions regarding finance and other major issues. It's also completely wrong.

The GAA's DG is not like the CEO of a public or private company, whose range of power is wide and varied. In fact, the GAA DG can do little without the approval of the Management Committee, Central Council and/or Congress.

Making proposals is one thing but having them accepted is altogether different so any notion that the DG is all-powerful ignores a clear reality.

The job entails two main aspects: implementing the wishes of the GAA membership, as expressed through the various power channels, and coming up with ideas for them to consider.

As far as we can gauge from his time as head of finance, Ryan's modus operandi will be low-key from a public perspective. He won't generate any sensational headlines, nor will he attempt to move the GAA too far from its present course.

The challenges? The main one remains largely unspoken because there's a reluctance to concede that it's an issue, but growing professionalism continues to lurk in the background.

It's actually moving into the foreground quite quickly now. Payments to ever-increasing backroom teams are booming while many managers continue to draw handsome rewards, with the GAA effectively conceding they can do nothing about it.

How long before the demands extend to players? This is almost certainly the biggest challenge he will face.

He is credited with doing an excellent job in running the GAA's finances during the recession and obviously he will still have a controlling hand in that area.

In that regard, decisions need to be taken about stadiums all over the country. Basically, there are too many with large capacities, which are rarely filled, and not nearly enough smaller, more comfortable grounds, which are more in tune with modern-day requirements.

There's also the on-going issue of combining the club and inter-county games, which is getting more problematic by the year. The new DG can't solve it, no more than his predecessor could, but the pursuit of a solution has to remain high up the agenda.

Ryan has been handed the job because those entrusted with making the decision were obviously impressed with his input for more than a decade.

He now deserves a chance to put his stamp on the GAA as DG.

A final point. Longford, Monaghan and Carlow are in the bottom four counties, population-wise, but they have produced the last three GAA Director-Generals.

Who says real power is vested in the big counties?

Irish Independent

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