Saturday 21 April 2018

'We need to take a breath'

Presidential candidate John Horan says, if elected, he will focus his energy on clubs

Dermot Crowe

The first major review of the GAA since the SRC report 15 years ago is one of presidential candidate John Horan's objectives if he wins office at Congress in February. Horan is bidding to become only the second Dubliner elected GAA president, following Daniel McCarthy almost 100 years ago.

"I think we need an organisational review," the school principal at St Vincent's CBS in Glasnevin states. "We had one in 1972 with the McNamee Report and one in 2002, and we have had so many changes since then."

Horan is considered to have healthy prospects of winning in a five-man field. He is nearing the end of his three-year spell as Leinster Council chairman, having worked his way up through schools bodies rather than the conventional county board route.

His club, Na Fianna, is only a few minutes from his workplace and his home. As a child, Croke Park was close enough to be able to walk to and from matches with his father. In 1965 he had his first "stand-out" memory of the place, when he went along to support Wexford in the All-Ireland hurling final against Tipperary. His mother came from Wexford, a confectioner who met his Laois-born father, a bricklayer, in Dublin and they set up home on Marguerite Road, where Horan now lives with his wife and two children.

A review he feels is needed to take stock of where the GAA is headed and to establish precisely where it wants to go. He relates a story to convey how much things have changed. "In 1983 John Caffrey was knocking around with me and the day before he played the Leinster final I went out playing pitch and putt with him and he told me about the tactics for the next day, of taking Charlie Conroy out of the corner and running him around the field.

"I don't think Charlie Conroy realised what Caffrey was at for a while. Dublin pulled off a shock and beat Offaly (reigning All-Ireland champions) that day, another masterstroke of Heffo's."

By way of contrast, he refers to the years Stephen Cluxton spent on the teaching staff at St Vincent's, from 2006 up to 2015, and how there was a greater chance of hell freezing over than Cluxton casually imparting inside information. "Sure you wouldn't know what he had for breakfast. That was the change. And I said that to Jim Gavin the night they gave out the All-Ireland medals. Now players wouldn't tell their mother."

He has enormous time for Cluxton and respects his privacy and lack of conceit but he'd be lying if he didn't say he felt a bit of nostalgia for the way it once was. "We probably need to slow that (pace of change) down a little. Getting away from what was. It is getting a bit too . . ." He pauses. "I have no issue with being well organised and being professional, but I think it might be going a little too far. I think as an organisation there have been so many changes that we need to stop, take a breath and see how we are going to go forward."

Horan's own school office is not a triumph of order and neatness, his desk covered in multiple papers to the extent that there is no place clear to lay down your cup of coffee. As he heads out for the photograph, he pulls a tie from somewhere and starts putting it around his neck, recounting advice he had from former president Liam O'Neill about having one at hand if you are to be seen as presidential material. But he is not entirely comfortable in the tie and he jokes that his students won't recognise him.

These image concessions don't come naturally but he realises they are part of the process of bidding for the presidency. Solid is a word one who knows Horan well offers when describing him, adding that he isn't motivated by self-interest. The last to be nominated, he thought long and hard before going forward. Others started planting the idea in his head over the last few years; being GAA president did not rank as a career ambition for most of his life up to now.

Before all this there was Na Fianna, where he started at 11 or 12 and finished up playing junior football until his late twenties. By then he was also coaching underage teams. For three years in the 1990s he managed the senior football team, shortly before 'Pillar' Caffrey arrived, who won three county championships in succession and reached an All-Ireland club final. Horan didn't have the influx of outside players that came just after he stepped down, but they were competitive and in the season Kilmacud Crokes won the All-Ireland club they were blessed to defeat Na Fianna by a point in the county championship.

He had mixed feelings about the policy of bringing in high-profile players from outside. "I could understand players joining the club but I just felt at the time there was an excess of players coming from the outside in. That is not to knock the success, it was great, and the benefits are still being felt with our underage. But then if a player wants to join what can you do? How do you stop them?

"I went on the radio defending St Vincent's about the outside players they have. People come to Dublin and they join a club, what do you do? Do you introduce quotas? And how do you do that? Look, I think it's too much of a minefield to manage it. You can't put a fella out to Cuala if he's living on the northside of Dublin. The present senior team in Na Fianna is made up primarily of home-grown players which is great."

He got more fulfilment out of coaching than he did out of playing and later in administration used this experience to good effect when working in coaching and games development. He had two separate stints as county minor football selector, under Paddy Canning, reaching the All-Ireland final in 2001, losing in a replay to Tyrone. In 2005 he returned as manager for a year, having also served on several development squads. The '05 experience ended in a disappointing defeat to Laois, in spite of having a talented assembly: Paddy Andrews, Philly McMahon, Diarmuid Connolly and Darren Daly to name a few. Trouble was, they had a scatter of dual players and the hurlers qualified for the Leinster semi-final against Wexford, seeking their first win since 1983.

"We agreed to allow the football game to be deferred to give the hurlers a better crack at the Leinster final because it was felt they had a great chance of winning it. And that deferral, and subsequent celebrations by the lads, probably left us in a weaker position. Look, we know they partied and there were eight dual players in the squad so I think that kind of caught us. But it's great to see all these young lads that have come through. The likes of Darren Daly and Philly McMahon, you knew they were good footballers, they just didn't have the physical strength at the time. They were both very light. You can see the difference in them now.

"And Connolly was Connolly. As Paddy Andrews said to me once, he was part of the panel but was he really with us (laughs)? But you knew he had the potential to be anything he wanted. He could come along and turn a game for you. He used to turn up for minor football training with a hurley and sliotar and start banging the ball up against a wall. It was just him having the craic."

From 1997-2005 Horan had some involvement with county development squads or the minor team. He delved into secondary school administration and had four years as chairman of the secondary schools body in Dublin. Out of that followed a spell as chairman of the Leinster schools. From there he was brought on to committees by Leinster Council, became vice-chairman and then chairman.

He is enthusiastic about a cross-border project which will enable players in some of the provinces' counties to have more games, which has been a problem. "I know people talk about Dublin having the coaching and that does play a part but I think a big advantage Dublin has is its club players having a good number of matches. That's what brings players on. I would be a huge believer in games, games, games, rather than training, training, training."

Horan also talks of focusing his energy, if elected, on the clubs and mentions a report he commissioned in the past year, which is due out soon, that examines the plight of rural clubs and the challenges they face with depopulation, financial challenges and other factors that threaten their viability or survival. "We need to see if we make our rule book or our organisation more effective to make their survival easier. Like, do you always have to be 15-a-side? Do you always have to play in this competition? We have a lot of rules but are they helping or hindering your rural clubs? This report should be ready for Leinster convention at the end of the month. I am not saying it is going to be the panacea to all the problems, but it may even start a discussion; do we need more flexibility in our rule book to cater for these differences?"

He was on the GAA's team that entered negotiations with the GPA last year and eventually agreed a deal. "They were tough and when they broke down there were no leaks - they were very honourable and conducted in a very professional way. We now have someone on their finance committee so that was a governance issue we felt needed addressing, to see how the spend was going. They had other demands with concessions for players. Their expenditure has had to be reduced."

His two children, one six, the other 16, are chalk and cheese in terms of their relationship with the GAA. His eldest didn't warm to it. "He went up to Na Fianna but didn't take to it at all. I used to have to bribe him to play in the mini leagues, I'd have to bring him to McDonald's after every match. Just to play hurling. I realised this was going to prove pointless so he said, 'Dad, can I go join a running club?' I said I'll ring Clonliffe Harriers and he's there every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday. He only played for two years. He wasn't buying into it so I let him off and he came back when he was in sixth class to try again. But no, he still wanted to go running."

His other son is a fanatic. "His Christmas presents and his birthday presents are all jerseys of different counties. I'd say he has 15 or 16 different inter-county jerseys. Jonny Cooper's number 2 Na Fianna jersey was his Christmas present this year. He is football-mad."

The increasing professionalism of the GAA, notably in the inter-county field, was discussed during their talks with the GPA, with reservations expressed on both sides. "The seriousness and the height that the bar has been raised needs to be addressed in some way," says Horan. "And I don't know if we can do it; has the genie already gone out of the bottle? I don't know. But I think we have to try and see can we do it."

It is suggested that someone needs to break the mould, break from the pack. "Well that's it, I suppose you need a pioneer. Was it ground-breaking that Rory O'Carroll decided after three All-Ireland medals, 'I've enough of this'? I have huge admiration for him. Jack McCaffrey, the same thing. Like, he went and did what he did. And Jim Gavin was not happy. And not in the least bit happy. And he has made him sweat to see whether he was coming back or not. But, like, can we have a few more players like that?

"O'Carroll is taking two years out. Wow! What a wonderful guy, He has control of his own life. He is not being driven by hype, by media, it's great that he had that bravery. And unfortunately that's what is happening with a lot of inter-county players, they are beholden to managers to surrender everything in their life in their quest to succeed. There is that control of the manager and that genie needs to be sorted out and it is a problem."

He says people who vote for him will get a strong leader who's decisive. This tallies with the accounts of those who have worked close to him in recent years. He cites the example of Offaly who were in financial disarray and struggling at various levels to produce competitive teams. He met with the county chairman to look for remedies. They now have stabilised their finances and will have a training centre opened soon with no debt attached, while their coaching structures have been completely revamped.

"I feel comfortable saying I will have left Leinster in a stronger place than when I took it over three years ago," he says. Whether he will get the chance to leave a similar mark on the GAA presidency remains to be seen.

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