Cycling: Learning from the mistakes
Ex-Offaly football boss Paul O'Kelly is a key player in an effort to transform cycling, writes John O'Brien
Late last year, when he was assembling a group of people under a loose banner he would call Change Cycling Now, Jaimie Fuller, a tough-talking Australian businessman, knew he needed a facilitator, someone who could sit in a room with 20 strong-minded individuals with a common goal but widely diverging views on how they might achieve it and lay the groundwork for some kind of viable consensus to be reached.
One of those Fuller had been in contact with was Gerard Vroomen, a Dutch native who ran a bike manufacturing company and was a passionate anti-doping advocate. Vroomen couldn't make the proposed gathering in London that weekend, but if Fuller was looking for a facilitator, then he had come to the right place. "I know just the guy you're looking for," Vroomen told him.
Paul O'Kelly wasn't a cycling fanatic. He rode his bike on weekends, watched a bit of cycling on the box, but that was the extent of his kinship with the sport. And even that had waned over the years amid the swarm of doping revelations and negative publicity. "I stopped watching the Tour eight or nine years ago," he says. "Honest endeavour is what I believe in."
It wasn't his cycling knowledge they were keen to tap into. When Vroomen decided to establish a pro cycling team in 2008, it was O'Kelly he turned to for advice on how to get things rolling. That is what O'Kelly was good at. Devising strategies, troubleshooting, asking powerful people tough questions. "Working with leaders," he says. "Working out strategies, then figuring out how to execute them."
Time and again O'Kelly's business life draws him back to sport. When St Vincent's were looking for someone to help them draw up a strategy document, it was to Brian Mullins' old Thomond College room-mate they cast their glance. He'd spent time in Dubai, helping governing officials devise ways of increasing participation in sport, working alongside the CEO of Al Wasl, the club that employed Diego Maradona as coach.
He has fond memories of his time working with Niall Quinn at Sunderland where Quinn, as chairman, was keen to embrace an holistic approach O'Kelly was familiar with. "We spent two nights talking about how you could build up the football culture in Sunderland," O'Kelly says. "A lot of what he did in building the connection between the club and the community, where the two were inextricably linked, was built on the model of the GAA."
The analogy struck him again when he was seated around the conference table in London, flanked on all sides by people who approached cycling's problems from different angles but with a sense of common purpose. As a club official, O'Kelly had attended countless meetings where tempers flared and arguments raged but when you boiled it all down, the thing that united them, the glue that held them together, was their passion for the club and the shared desire to do right by it.
That was his role as he saw it. Not to tell people like Greg LeMond or Michael Ashenden or
Paul Kimmage what they should be doing, but to help reduce their energy and passion down to its residual core, to ask challenging questions that served, ultimately, as a reminder of why each of them were present, why they were putting so much on the line for a target that might never be achieved.
"One moment in particular nailed it for me," O'Kelly says. "I was pushing one guy really hard, a real fighter, a protagonist, asking 'why are you here, why are you investing in this sport?' And he was saying, 'well to change this and to change that'. But the real driving force was deeper. It was because they loved the sport, the fact they could do it at eight or nine with their parents. As individuals, it gave them a greater sense of self-worth. That's what is driving it."
O'Kelly appreciated the sense of urgency about their business. They met in central London on a Saturday evening, ate dinner and then had until six the following evening to devise a charter for the future of cycling before everybody went their separate ways again. When they surfaced for air on Sunday evening, O'Kelly then worked through the night with Benjamin Fitzmaurice, a colleague of Fuller's, to assemble a coherent document. In the morning the group met again to finish it. "It's a manifesto for the future," O'Kelly says. "It wasn't as if we were doing something that was going into law. It was really to capture the essence of it. This wasn't a group of people setting themselves up as a permanent organisation. It was essentially a group with a common set of objectives working together as much as possible without confining people or forcing them to adopt a set of rules."
It is a curiosity of a story of such global magnitude that it should come so laced with an Irish dimension. Not merely on the CCN panel itself. Also present, though not part of the conference, was Emma O'Reilly, the durable Dubliner who was Lance Armstrong's masseuse and a key player in lifting the lid on the Texan's illegal activities. In the hotel lobby, O'Kelly met a man from Mayo, a cycling fan who had flown over just to lend support through his presence. He's never met Pat McQuaid, the stubborn Dublin northsider at the head of the UCI, but if the energy and enthusiasm he witnessed that weekend in London is anything to go by, then he thinks McQuaid and his colleagues in their Swiss bunker have every reason to feel worried. He sees the sport arriving at a critical crossroads. Too many mistakes have been made, he thinks, compounded by the people in power not learning from them.
Learning from mistakes has been O'Kelly's guiding flame. When he finished his degree in Thomond, he found a job in Dundalk, became coach of St Bride's, but it wasn't enough. By the time he was 25, he'd returned to his native Edenderry, established a business on Main Street and was coaching the senior football team. Before he'd reached 30, he was broke. "I'd lost everything," he says. "I'd no house, no car. It was terribly embarrassing."
He tried to pick himself up. Went on a Fás course (AnCO back then) and found jobs in Ireland hard to come by but struck the jackpot when an American firm listened to his story of ambition and loss and decided to offer him a short-term marketing contract. Within three years he had worked his way up to management level and was ready again to strike out on his own.
It always struck him that the principles that worked in the boardroom were equally applicable to sport. He remembers the day in 1996 when his phone rang and an Offaly County Board official asked him if he'd get involved with the senior football team. He said yes before any details were offered. "I've found the best decisions I've made in my life, I didn't think about them too much. Go with your gut. Figure out how to do it later."
With Tommy Lyons and Eddie Fleming he established a relationship that was built on a sense of trust and partnership that the players quickly bought into. Together they helped take Offaly from the doldrums of Division Four to Leinster glory and a National League title. The mistake came, he thinks, when Lyons departed in 1999 and the entire set-up was disbanded. Offaly chose a different direction and whatever momentum they'd built up dissipated.
He returned as manager in 2003 but it was a brief, unfulfilling venture. A late Laois goal bundled them out of Leinster that summer and after they succumbed to Roscommon in extra-time in the third qualifying round, O'Kelly was deemed surplus to requirements. He'd lasted seven months. Looking back, though, he isn't half as bitter or as angry as you might expect him to be.
Successful people, he says, instinctively have a plan in place for what happens after their teams are beaten. His one regret is that he hadn't nailed it definitively with county board officials what exactly would happen if and when Offaly exited the championship. Somewhere along the way the parameters of expectation were tweaked and he was a casualty of the small print.
"I'm okay with that," he says now. "But what annoyed me was the same thing happened the following year [to Gerry Fahy]. A really good man who had gained promotion, who had built on the previous year. I was really upset about that because to me what that said was we now have a problem. We'd a big problem."
Offaly remain entrenched in the bottom tier now, but still O'Kelly sees grounds for optimism, little offshoots of hope. A couple of years ago he did a project with Emmet McDonnell, now Offaly manager, going around schools trying to figure out what motivated GAA players and the breadth of McDonnell's approach impressed him. He sees so many players from the team he coached under Lyons taking on coaching duties themselves, the Offaly "ecosystem," as he calls it, so much the better for it.
"If you go five miles in Offaly and you visit the next three-teacher or four-teacher school and you don't find a potential county footballer, you've sent the wrong guy looking. They're there. They mightn't look like a footballer at 15 or 16. They mightn't talk like one. But by the time you've looked after them, if they've got the right attitude, they'll get there."
These days O'Kelly dabbles in Gaelic games whenever his work and travel commitments allow. At Round Towers in Clondalkin, he watched Jim Gavin blossom as a leader and thinks Dublin have invested wisely in the footballers' future. Ask him whether his own time in Offaly is spent, whether there is another swing on that carousel, and the response comes quickly and with passion.
"If they asked me to carry the bottles for the under 14s tomorrow," he says, "I'd be there carrying the bottles." It's his way. He'd agree to do it and then, when the deal is done, he'd work our how many bottles he needed to bring and what they should be filled with.