Sunday 25 February 2018

Standing in support of rural clubs

Presidential candidate Frank Burke is worried about the plight of clubs and the loss of players

Frank Burke: ‘I also want to guard against clubs amalgamating, trying to fast-track success. In the rural community, the identity, the jersey, the pride in the parish, that is precious’ Photo: Andrew Downes . Photo: Andrew Downes/xposure
Frank Burke: ‘I also want to guard against clubs amalgamating, trying to fast-track success. In the rural community, the identity, the jersey, the pride in the parish, that is precious’ Photo: Andrew Downes . Photo: Andrew Downes/xposure

Dermot Crowe

It was in Bradley's bar in Labane, near Ardrahan in south Galway, that Frank Burke saw his first GAA match on television. In a crowded kitchen he witnessed a black and white transmission of the 1963 All-Ireland football final between Galway and Dublin. Football was about to capture the county's imagination, with the emergence a year later of the three-in-a-row team. "They were huge in our lives going to school," says Burke, who will be contesting the GAA presidential election at Congress at the end of the month. "I remember watching my first game in Bradley's. Huge excitement. Gerry Davey put a stop to our hopes when he scored the only goal in the game. Little did we know what was to follow. Huge names. They were literally gods to us."

Growing up, Ardrahan was hurling country but the county team was nothing to shout about. At the time, their hurlers were plying their trade, with little success, in Munster. It has a resonance with modern times. Galway's desire to compete at minor and under 21 level, as well as senior, in Leinster is being stoutly resisted by other counties in the province. While domiciled in Munster, Galway enjoyed this wider privilege. The issue isn't one which Burke is prepared to go out on a limb on.

"The under 21s, I have more sympathy for because they come into the All-Ireland semi-finals cold," he remarks, "they have no games and play teams that have emerged from competitive provincial championships. Difficult to see how it will be resolved. I earnestly hope both sides will sit down calmly and address the issues and the resolution will be found and that resolution will be accepted. I think it would be damaging of me if I was to give an opinion at this stage on how it should go."

Burke is hoping to become the first Galway president since the charismatic Joe McDonagh won in 1996 in London. Now 63, he will pitch his campaign on his long track record in administration and coaching, having worked with Ardrahan, Abbey-Duniry and Loughrea, where he now resides and has spent much of his life teaching. Burke has chaired a number of national committees, in areas like hurling development, refereeing and coaching and games development, where he currently serves. He was also involved in helping the GAA introduce early child protection protocols and active for some years chairing a dispute resolution committee before the arrival of the DRA.

He served lengthy terms as county secretary and chairman that coincided with the rise of Galway hurling under Cyril Farrell in the 1980s and two All-Ireland football titles. More recently he was appointed president of the Connacht Council, when the prospect of challenging for the presidency began to materialise. He believes he can win.

"I think it is obvious," he says when asked how he regards his prospects, "that one would not consider going forward without doing some form of sussing out, to see how things are on the ground. I do believe genuinely that I have a realistic chance. It is difficult to say you'd be confident in a race where there's five but I honestly believe I have a realistic chance.

"But I also acknowledge that I am coming from the smallest province and I know how difficult it has been for people in the past. And I know our last Uachtarán, the inspirational Joe McDonagh, is about seven or eight presidencies ago. So we don't come that often from Connacht."

He feels he has unrivalled experience, however, having been on national committees since the early 1980s. "I think my reputation and zeal for work is known across the provinces. They know they are going to be getting somebody who is up front and honest. Being honest in the way I do things. There will be no agendas. I won't deny for instance that the Association needs a strong commercial arm to fund our developments."

To get his message across he has been to most of the counties to meet local executive officers, outline his vision and listen to their concerns. "You get vibes. While they were not in a position to say whether they were supporting me or not at the point where I met them, you would get the vibes that what you are saying was palatable and going down reasonably well and hopefully it will convert into support on election day."

Burke became involved in administration at Ardrahan in his mid-20s and recalls reading accounts of county board meetings in the local newspapers with some interest as a young man. After qualifying as a teacher he began coaching school teams at Abbey and Duniry and laying down roots for successful juvenile and adult teams that followed.

"There was no club in the Abbey-Duniry parish, we started coaching the young lads in the schools," he says. "Then we affiliated club underage teams and eventually won an under 14 A title. They grew up and went into a junior team that won the championship and then an intermediate championship and within 25 years of hurling starting up the club contested two county senior finals, bringing Athenry to a replay in one of them. That is an extraordinary fairytale: from no club to the pinnacle of Galway hurling you could say."

Later he took up a post in Loughrea in the local primary school, St Brendan's, where he served as principal until retirement. His work on Pearse Stadium is one of his flagship achievements, an €11m redevelopment of the ground on which the debt is virtually paid.

"It is something I would be very proud of," he says. "I led the organising and managing and co-ordination of the project. I made sure it happened and I was the one determined to see it over the line. Galway needed a place that was acceptable in terms of quality facilities and we have that now. If nothing else, I am very proud of that."

Pearse Stadium isn't everyone's favourite venue, with some carping over the location and difficulty of access. "Look it," he responds, "this was discussed at length at county conventions for I'd say ten years and when I took over as county chairman I was determined that it would happen. The consensus that the county arrived at, and correctly so, was that it had to be in the city."

Joe McDonagh appointed him chairman of the national hurling development committee in 1997 and Burke oversaw a scheme to promote wider playing participation in hurling in each county with financial support from Guinness, as part of the company's sponsorship of the hurling championship at the time.

"It certainly gave hurling a boost and if elected I intend to drive something similar," he says. "Hurling has slipped somewhat in some counties and I want the mid-tier counties in particular to raise the bar and to see more people playing the game."

The "plight" of the rural clubs is an issue which has cropped up frequently during his briefings. He feels provincial councils can do more in assisting those who need help to survive. "I think the Association should be a strong voice for the cause of rural Ireland and I am delighted the Government is coming forward with a suite of measures that will restore vitality to rural Ireland. Because our clubs are the heart of these rural communities. They are what make these communities breathe in many instances.

"In practically all our rural clubs, they have fabulous facilities and to see it coming to an end in any way is heartbreaking for them. It is dwindling numbers and a lack of volunteers in some instances. It can come down to leadership. It can come down to how the club is run.

"I also want to guard against clubs amalgamating, trying to fast-track success. I think in the rural community, the identity, the jersey, the pride in the parish, that is precious. I just want a full assessment before amalgamations take place and to make sure that we have tried everything before it happens."

He notes how Kiltormer, former All-Ireland club winners, has had to fuse with Mullagh at underage. "And they," he says, "would be two clubs who gave hugely to Galway hurling in terms of outstanding players." He talks of factories closing in Ballinasloe, and the knock-on effects on clubs in the local region.

He sees getting the balance between county and club interests as the biggest immediate challenge facing the GAA. "It's not going to be easy. There has been an intensification in the preparation of county teams and that has made life for club fixtures very difficult. The challenge is to find the space and have the steely commitment to ensure there is a meaningful programme of games, and regular games, for our club players. That has got to be got right. And I think if we get that right we will be addressing another significant issue we have: the major drop-off in participation levels. It starts at around 14 and it continues more aggressively at 18 and up to 21. And if they had a regular and meaningful programme of games, that would address those needs."

Have county managers too much influence and power? "I would refuse to make a sweeping statement about it but generally I think most people see that there is an issue there. I have seen with Galway where we come to August and we are three weeks ahead of an All-Ireland final. . . do you call off a round of the championship or don't you? Obviously we are hoping to put a structure in place so that that question is not even asked any more through the current proposals being presented to Congress."

Burke is concerned about the soaring costs of county teams, citing a recent figure of an almost €5m spend on Connacht county teams in one year. "I have to ask is that sustainable and the answer is no."

This brings him to the recent coaching conference in Croke Park, which he was closely involved in as chairman of the national coaching and games development committee. The strong message it imparted of the benefits of games-based training with less emphasis on "gruelling gym sessions" is one he wholeheartedly supports. He says good preparation is possible without flogging teams with traditional high-volume running regimes.

"I think we are moving further away from the amateur ethos," he warns. "I am not against sports science, we are a modern organisation and teams have to reach their best potential. All counties are aiming at that. But I am merely posing the question: can it be achieved more efficiently, more cost-effectively with game-based training? And I think it can."

He says the conference enabled that message to be transmitted directly to 800 attendees. Another 36,000 have access to those presentations online.

On paying managers, he argues that the "best avenue for success is investing heavily in coaching. Support your local schools. Look after the players. So that players feel valued and they value being in the club. I think that road is the one we should go on."

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