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GAA presidents reared on diet of tea and sandwiches

A nyone who has sat in on county board meetings or spent time withering on the vine of a county convention will know these places are only considered beneficial to anthropologists. I once had a job where now and then the editor would enter the newsroom and utter the dreaded sentence: 'There's a county board meeting tonight, we need somebody at that.'

Of course you could be doing worse but you could be doing better too. For all that, years on, with the safe comfort and distance of hindsight, you realise that the men who populated those committee rooms were oddly intriguing. 'Why can't you just shut up and play the game?' an exasperated county board chairman once scolded an agitator, a reformist, young and brimful of energy and new ideas. This wasn't rock 'n' roll after all. There were rules, sonny, and you'd do a lot better if you observed them.

But the committee men had their distinctive marks, homogenised as they were. There were the talkers, the voluble types. There were always one or two bordering on senility, if not already there, old men who would ramble off on a tangent and get lost in some dark tunnel, still yakking away and not making a bit of sense many minutes later. There were many who never talked at all, of course; instead they simply sat there representing their clubs, arms folded, slumped on the chair, as if on a sponsored silence.

The careerists, those with rank, maybe the implacable hurling board chairman or the provincial delegate who had the vague scent of a man who had travelled, approached conventions swearing humbly that they'd definitely be quitting this time -- they'd say 'I know you are all tired of listening to me' or 'it is time for a new voice'. With admirable selflessness they'd give it all up once again for another year representing their Gaels because there had been an outcry over their proposed exit. And, so, they served for 20, 30, 40 years. That's a lot of scutter talked in fairness.

And when the bell chimed mercifully at the end of those GAA meetings, it was a rush, a sprint, a stampede, to the sandwiches and the tea which were laid out on a table at the back like medals for the evening performance. Some of these delegates were wide at the hip and broad at the shoulder and possibly chronically addicted to sandwiches -- they were so broad, some of them, that they took up a commanding position at the table and there was little room for light to get through let alone another delegate anxious for nourishment. They bossed that table like a big full-back from Tipperary in the 1950s minded his square. Lads trying to snake their way through were body-checked and held off and it is possible that the larger men had accomplices making third-man tackles and blocking the channels.

Once the territory had been delineated, they happily grazed, and sometimes you wondered if this was the entire point of the evening, this happy grazing among fellow Gaels at the back of the room, their business done and no cuts or bruises and no harm done. In such rooms are future GAA presidents cultivated.

Liam O'Neill came out of an environment like that, just as Christy Cooney had before him. Yesterday we had the news that O'Neill will become the next president of the GAA, unopposed, after two more rival candidates withdrew. This, as far as can be established, has no precedent, certainly not in living memory. A while back Con Hogan from Tipperary pulled out and he has been followed by Donegal's Tom Daly and now Wexford's Seamus Howlin. They all weighed up their prospects and reckoned they couldn't win and while losing has often proved a necessary preliminary to a winning campaign in the following election, they obviously felt it was more trouble than it was worth. So O'Neill, strangely, finds himself president-elect without the stress or inconvenience of an election.

That is not of his making and in the last election he finished runner-up to Cooney by garnering a very respectable 112 votes. In this person's view, the GAA will get a good president; a bright, straight, capable, ego-light Uachtarán. But it still doesn't remove the issue of why anyone would want to become GAA president. Who in their right mind would want to do this? Most likely it is an ambition that only begins to form after they've moved a few rungs up the administrative ladder. You'd be worried if the young lad came to you one day and said: 'Daddy, I want to be GAA president.'

O'Neill has lived the full GAA life and ticked all the boxes; he lives and teaches in the community where he grew up and has filled

a variety of positions. He hurled for Trumera, as humble as GAA clubs come. Many people in the GAA probably haven't much of a clue who he is. It has been a low-key election and now it transpires there will be no election at all, meaning you will know even less than you would normally know about the incoming president.

A disconnect still exists between the GAA man who ends up in committees and those who serve their time on the fields and in the dressing rooms. It is easy to understand why you might want to be a manager of your county, terrifying as it is. If you want to play for your county, it is easy understand that too. But GAA president? I don't know. Somewhere along the journey you feel you'd have to hand over your soul. I feel pretty certain Liam O'Neill, though, still has his.

This time we have no election and no need to be worrying ourselves about who Frank Murphy is endorsing.

There'll be none of the pre-election broadcasts about the sanctity of the club and protecting what we have and looking after players. No, O'Neill is home and hosed unless some notorious scandal should befall him in the final weeks. And notorious scandals don't befall GAA presidents.


Sunday Indo Sport