GAA Director General Páraic Duffy sets out his stall ahead of Congress
On the eve of a much-anticipated vote on Championship reforms, Cahair O’Kane spoke to GAA Director-General Páraic Duffy in Croke Park to discuss opposition to the plans from the GPA ...
Cahair O’Kane: The GPA’s decision means your entire body of players are against the proposals. Will you still put them forward?
Páraic Duffy: We will put them forward. Firstly, they’re not my proposals, they’re Coiste Bainisiti and Ard Comhairle’s.
The GPA are against one of the proposals, which is the format of the Championship. They are in favour of the other two.
The GPA made a proposal last year for a lot more inter-county games, an extra 30 or 40. That’s their opinion.
The CPA’s concern is around fixtures and making sure whatever structures are in place provides the best opportunity for club fixtures. I share that view.
They’ve said they want us to withdraw the proposals so that they can engage with us about future proposals. I’m more than willing to listen to the CPA’s views on proposals around fixtures.
The issue of the format of the Championship is the issue we have to address now. We’re going to go ahead with the proposals, definitely, and Congress can decide whether it wants them or not.
CO’K: Is that justifiable, to go against the wishes of all the players involved?
PD: The CPA, to be fair, has just been founded. It doesn’t yet have a structure and constitution.
I’m sure it will in due course. Players are members of clubs and have a voice through clubs. I’m not saying the CPA shouldn’t have a voice as well.
But the CPA is asking that, for the moment, we do nothing. That means nothing can happen before next year’s Congress.
Their concern is around fixtures and that’s something which can be addressed on an ongoing basis, and we’re willing to talk to them about that.
I don’t necessarily believe that all players are against the proposals. I don’t think you can make that conclusion.
There’s a general consensus in the GAA that we have to manage our fixtures better, and this is part of that process.
There’s also a general view that the football Championship needs reformed. These proposals are going forward on a trial basis for three years, even if they’re passed. In three years’ time, they would have to get a two-thirds majority again.
If, over the next three years, we can come up with a far better Championship format and a far better way of managing our fixtures, that would be a brilliant outcome. I’d be more than happy if we scrap this in three years’ time because we’ve a better model.
It will take that time to get a consensus around these issues, because it’s very complex.
Our sports are competing with other sports for the hearts and minds of other young people.
GAA Director-General Páraic Duffy
CO’K: The CPA’s call has been not to bin the proposals, but to park them. They say you haven’t listened to that. Why won’t you park the proposals?
PD: Because these proposals have been 18 months in gestation. They’re going before Congress.
And Congress is representative of all our counties and clubs.
If it agrees with the views of the CPA, it can simply defeat the proposals and they won’t come into being.
The other two motions on the agenda, I believe will benefit club players and fixture making within the organisation as a whole.
CO’K: Those two – the bringing forward of the All-Ireland finals and the abolishment of replays – will probably get past.
But why was the round robin required? Why not just bring the All-Ireland finals forward and leave the Championship as it was?
PD: I think the football Championship, to some degree, has been struggling of late. In Ulster we have a really good provincial Championship.
In Leinster, Dublin have won 11 out of the last 12. In Munster, Cork or Kerry have won all but one of the last 80.
In Connacht, although Galway won last year, Mayo have dominated in recent years.
Apart from Ulster, the provincial Championships are not competitive.
You could probably name the six or eight teams that will compete for winning, Ulster apart.
The qualifiers, which started 16 years ago, have seen attendances fall steadily.
Last year, only the fact that Mayo were in from round one boosted the figures. There’s been a steady decline in attendances and that reflects a lack of interest.
We have managed to maintain a high level of attendance from the quarter-final stage. It’s clear there’s an appetite from the public to see the top teams playing each other.
I think if you look at the National Leagues, and this year’s in particular, when the top teams play each other, people will come.
Our sports are competing with other sports for the hearts and minds of other young people.
We want to see games that will excite the public, and the top teams playing each other does that.
That’s why the need for reform.
CO’K: You’re saying the Qualifiers don’t work and the provincial Championships don’t work.
Are these proposals not then condemning the All-Ireland SFC to at least another three years of that?
PD: I don’t think they’re condemning. They’re put forward for Congress to consider and whatever people may see, there’s been a really good debate about these since last August. I visited nine counties.
They’ve been discussed at county board meetings.
Most counties have voted on them. It’s been a very democratic process.
If people feel these are not in the best interests of the GAA, they will vote them down.
If they get a two-thirds majority this time, they’ll be trialled.
If they get a two-thirds majority in three years’ time, they’ll become permanent. They’re two very high bars to reach. It’s the GAA people who make the decision.
Everyone accepts there are concerns with the structure of the Championship.
CO’K: Do you accept that this might get voted through because it’s the only alternative to what’s in place at present? That if Central Council had put forward four options, this wouldn’t be the one chosen?
PD: Last year, Central Council went through 18 proposals that went to the national CCC to analyse and form an opinion.
They came back with three. Those 18 proposals went to every county.
They were asked to express their opinion on which of the 18 was the best.
They went to CCC and they came back with their opinion, and Central Council then decided upon one of the 18.
One was put on the agenda for Congress
A week before Congress, it became abundantly clear from comments from GAA officials from counties it was intended to help had very little support for it.
The Uachtarán and I contacted the eight counties in Division Four, who would have gone into a separate competition, and they said they didn’t want it.
Do you accept that, or try something else? You could leave it as it is.
My opinion is that that would be irresponsible.
Everyone accepts there are concerns with the structure of the Championship.
The problem is we haven’t got a consensus.
But it’s not easy to come up with a different proposal when you’re working within two constraints.
The GAA clearly wants their provincial Championships to remain, and they want the Qualifiers to remain because they want a second chance.
I’d love to think there’s a proposal that everyone was saying ‘that’s great, we all want that’.
Until we get that, you put forward ideas that people may accept.
CO’K: The proposals have been promoted as helping the clubs. You give that three-week window by bringing the All-Ireland finals forward.
But that has to come from somewhere else.
Jonny Cooper said he played four games for his club last year.
One county in Ulster did a study that their county players would have played three fewer games for their clubs under the new proposals than in 2016.
How does that help the clubs?
PD: Let’s take the Jonny Cooper first of all.
I don’t know why Jonny Cooper only played four games for his club last year. That may not have anything to do with the fixtures problem.
It may be that Dublin players don’t play that many games for their clubs…
CO’K: Is that acceptable?
PD: Of course it’s not, but that’s a separate issue.
Let’s face it, it varies from county to county.
In counties where league determines championship status, it’s important to have [county] players for as many [club] games as possible.
Not all counties operate that system.
Some counties operate a system whereby league and championship are separate, where league is not quite recreation, but it doesn’t affect their championship status. In counties where it does, it’s far more important to have your county players.
In terms of how it affects clubs, it brings the All-Ireland three weeks forward. I’ll take Derry as an example.
They start their league at the start of April and play away at the leagues until they play in the championship, where there’s a seven or eight-week gap.
You need to look at the inter-county programme as a whole.
There’s no reason why you couldn’t start the National Leagues earlier. Run the pre-season, for example, either side of Christmas.
If you’re starting Championship two weeks earlier, you need to move the Leagues back two weeks.
That gap [between the end of the League and start of the Championship] has to be maintained.
A lot depends on how you condense the Championship.
The key point of it is by the beginning of July, you’ll have eight teams left in the All-Ireland Championship.
All of July, all of August, all of September for clubs.
Not all counties are the same.
To answer your question, the weeks can be got back.
If you look from January 1 to the start of Championship, there’s 18 weeks there. There’s no reason why we can’t retrieve those weeks, and you’re giving everyone at least three weeks in the summer.
CO’K: That leads into the CPA’s question from day one: when?
When do you propose to start implementing this, to start looking at it? Because if these proposals are accepted by Congress, they can’t be changed for three years?
PD: If the Championship structure is decided, it’s there for three years.
Then you look and see how you can put your fixtures into it.
That’s a challenging job that will start next week.
Start from January, do your inter-county programme for the year and look what’s the best model you can build to suit club players.
That allows counties to do what they want to do as best you can. In terms of the CPA, they’re welcome to engage in that process. Michael Higgins, who’s on the executive of the CPA, is also on our central fixtures analysis committee.
I met the CPA four times.
We want to hear their ideas. We don’t see the value in doing nothing for the moment. We do want to listen to them.
Once the Championship format is decided, it’s a case of all of us deciding what’s the best way of facilitating the clubs in the national fixture plan. I think there are great opportunities.
‘It’s terribly complex. If there was an easy solution, we’d have found it by now. I genuinely feel what we’re doing is worth trying’
CO’K: So do you have a time frame for helping the clubs?
PD: The time frame is very simple. Between now and November, you come up with a fixtures template.
A time scale, I’d say between now and the end of the summer, you’ve got to decide what way you’ll run your fixtures from January to August 31, to facilitate clubs.
I want to give a period of time where September belongs to clubs and clubs only, where they are the centre of attention.
This idea that we can only promote the GAA through inter-county games is wrong.
The club championships are fantastic.
If you’re a county player, you won’t train with your club from now until your county goes out of the Championship…
CO’K: Is that not the problem? PD: It is a problem, but that’s irrespective of these proposals.
My club is Scotstown, and we have six players on the Monaghan panel.
They’ll play some league games, a lot of them, but they won’t train with us.
But once Monaghan go out of the Championship, those players will be with the club all of the time, for training, preparation and so on.
That’s what you want.
You don’t want a situation where you’re playing a round here and a round there.
They also want to be able to play league games in the early part of the year,
I accept that.
There’s two ways of doing that: we look at our timetable, and every county has to do what Derry and Monaghan do, where county players don’t play some games.
Clubs can’t have their county players all the time. That’s not going to happen, and we have to understand that.
CO’K: Do you accept though for the counties that are good at making their county players available to clubs, like Tyrone, Derry and Monaghan, the proposals impinge on that?
PD: Take Derry as a good example. Derry play off their leagues well because there’s an eight-week gap from the end of the National League to the start of the Championship.
That gap has to be maintained.
The fixtures calendar for next year has to allow that.
Those games have to be played. During the summer, I’ll accept it’s a bit more difficult because of the 13-day rule.
All but eight [counties] will have all of July, all of August.
Not every county wants to play it in a condensed period.
Derry go from April to August but other counties are happy to go longer.
The problem we’ve had is that if the county team was there for a long time, you lost out on dates. With the inter-county programme being shorter, it will be easier for counties in that regard.
CO’K: The GAA centrally is clearly not doing enough to stop incidents such as Jonny Cooper only playing four games for his club?
PD: Good question.
Every county’s different. In Monaghan, the players play all but four of the 18 games in the league, and Malachy [O’Rourke] works very well with the county committee. Other managers have a different view.
Can Croke Park do something about it? That’s a matter for each county. We don’t appoint team managers.
Before a county appoints a manager, they should know that they will make players available for a reasonable amount of games. There has to be some give and take.
CO’K: Is there not an argument that Central Council could put forward a proposal to Congress that players have to be made available for a certain percentage, say 75 per cent, of their club’s games?
PD: You could pass the rule but the implementation is down to each county. Each county looks after its own affairs.
CO’K: But county CCCs, and consequently clubs, find themselves under constant pressure from managers.
If they had a rule in black and white that they could say to managers ‘there you go’, would that not help?
PD: We have a rule, for example, on winter training and when teams can and can’t train. People will regularly say to me that rule’s been broken, and you go to the county and they say no it’s not.
They don’t implement them. I agree with you.
A county appoints a team manager and it’s up to them to work these things out. Some counties, some of them in Ulster, do it very well. Some don’t.
The ones that don’t are the ones that end up with problems at the end of the year.
CO’K: I understand that they were Aogán Ó Fearghail’s words and not yours, but to describe allowing the CPA to speak at Congress as “inappropriate” in light of Joe Brolly having spoken in 2013 and other such examples, was that a mistake?
PD: The word ‘inappropriate’ has been taken out of context.
When Joe Brolly came to Congress, he asked to speak on a particular issue…
CO’K: He says he was invited?
PD: …To speak about organ donation, and we’d been helping Joe in various ways around that.
The reason Aogán said what he said was the issue Congress is discussing is recognition of the CPA. It’s for Congress to decide the issue.
If they’re recognised, there’ll be no problem about it, just as it was with the GPA.
They went through a long process before they were recognised.
His point was that it wouldn’t be appropriate to speak until they were recognised, and let Congress debate that.
Let Tipperary and Wexford put forward the case and if they’re accepted, they can speak at the next Congress.
He didn’t just say it was inappropriate, he said it was inappropriate until the decision was made by Congress.
The GAA centrally is clearly not doing enough to stop incidents such as Jonny Cooper only playing four games for his club?
CO’K: But you understand how that looks to the general public?
PD: How it looks that?
CO’K: Well there have been headlines about the CPA being ‘gagged’. Is that a fair assessment?
PD: I don’t think it’s fair. I can understand why you’re making the point.
Aogán said it wasn’t appropriate for them to speak until such times as Congress has decided on the recognition issue.
I can understand if they feel unhappy about that.
CO’K: But given the circumstances, that they say the proposals going forward don’t help club players and their message is almost exactly contrary to yours, would it not have been prudent to allow them to speak?
PD: Can I ask a question? Are they opposed to all three proposals?
CO’K: No, as a lot of people aren’t. They’re opposed to the round-robin element of it. They are accepting of the other two parts.
PD: Okay, the reason why the round–robin proposal has been made is that people feel the football Championship has gone a little bit stale and needs refreshed.
If Congress feels the round-robin doesn’t address that issue, then it has the option of turning the proposals down.
All Congress is being asked that it be trialled for three years. It won’t become permanent until three years’ time.
The CPA wanted to speak on the issue of being recognised.
CO’K: They did, but only because they felt there was no chance they’d get to speak ahead of the proposals on Championship reform?
PD: Yeah…. The issue of Championship reform, I don’t think it’s unfair that should be debated by representatives from every county.
The people at Congress are all from clubs. That’s the way the GAA works. It’s incredibly democratic. 38 clubs have brought motions to the floor. I don’t think it’s fair to say people are being gagged.
The GAA follows a process. It was on that basis that Aogán said what he said.
CO’K: It’s been widely said that the round-robin creates a gap between the top eight and the rest. Also, in terms of finance, would the distribution be weighted in favour of the counties that reach the AllIreland quarter-finals?
PD: In the last five years, 16 different counties have been in the last eight.
If I’d sat here a year ago and asked you to predict the last eight, would you have predicted Clare and Tipperary?
Since the qualifiers came in, 23 different counties have made the last eight. This thing of the last eight being pre-determined, the facts don’t support that.
Everyone can aspire towards it.
That’s the reason why we can’t promote a secondtier competition, because the vast majority of counties feel they’re good enough to reach the last eight.
The big attraction for the round-robin is each county playing three games, one at Croke Park, one at home and one away.
You’re bringing the games to the provinces. Every ground in Ulster could host a big match.
To have Fermanagh at home to Kerry, the promotional value would be fantastic.
On the money end, if it generates extra money, it will be used to develop the game in weaker counties.
That’s what we want to do. If you put money into counties that have small playing populations, there’s no guarantees.
Money can help but the numbers game is so important.
My view is the Championship does need to change.
CO’K: This has been promoted as helping the clubs…
PD:… Do we need to reform the football Championship?
You can say no, it’s fine, and clearly you won’t support these proposals.
My view is the Championship does need to change.
I think the provincial champions are entitled to a second chance.
In doing that, in terms of bringing in eight extra games, you have to protect the clubs.
I wouldn’t suggest having the round-robin if you couldn’t, at the same time, do something to address the club issue.
They are three separate votes, and if people don’t want the Championship reform and want the other two, that’s fine.
CO’K: What happens in that situation?
PD: Grand, that’s it. We play the Championship as it is.
CO’K: And that would create more space for clubs?
PD: We will, absolutely. It won’t the change the issues, absolutely not.
If they decide to do away with replays and bring the All-Ireland final forward, we’ll do exactly the same as we have to do anyway.
You look at your template to make it the best possible template for clubs.
We were criticised for having three separate votes – that’s totally democratic, so that if they want to vote the reform and bring in the other two, they can do that.
Separating them is to give everybody a fair choice.
If they vote it down and accept the other two, I’ll accept that decision.
CO’K: I take the point about needing to reignite the Championships with the round-robin, but was there an opportunity to bring the All-Ireland finals forward even further?
PD: You could, but you’ve got to do it incrementally.
This is a trial. Nobody knows what the best thing would be.
If you condense it too much and bring the All-Ireland forward another few weeks, it would be harder and harder to play club games early in the year, and they’d be basically from July until October.
You’re trying to get a balance. There’s no perfect answer. The difficulty with GAA is you’ve so many players playing on different teams.
It’s terribly complex. If there was an easy solution, we’d have found it by now.
I genuinely feel what we’re doing is worth trying. No-one’s claiming it’s perfect. You’d probably accept from the club players’ point of view that it isn’t perfect.
I can’t guarantee you this will make it better. I believe it will make it somewhat better.
Is it the perfect solution?
No it’s not. I think all county players would like to play with their clubs, but if you insisted on that all the time, you’d have very few club games played until the inter-county season is over.
What are the alternatives?
There have been very few out there. In all this debate, there have been plenty of people willing to criticise, but we need proposals for something better.
If there’s something better, I’d be the first to say ‘go with it’. I just want what’s best for the GAA.
CO’K: What about accusations that the motives are entirely financial?
PD: Ah look. It’s just nonsense, to be honest. Absolutely nonsense. If people want to believe that, I can’t do anything about it.
If it was financial, we’d have all the games in Croke Park.
It’s not about money. It’s about what’s best for the games. It’s not true, but if people want to believe it, I can’t do anything about it.
CO’K: A recent survey showed that county teams’ spending has gone through the €23m barrier.
Is introducing those sums of money not a concern?
PD: Of course it is.
CO’K: Is there no way to cap it?
PD: You can set all the figures you like. I totally agree with you, there’s far too much money being spent on intercounty teams.
It’s ridiculous, but it’s down to every county to manage their own expenditure.
We can’t manage every county from here.
CO’K: Could Croke Park not put a cap on it, say €500,000, and hire independent auditors to make sure it’s adhered to?
PD: You shouldn’t have to do that.
Even with that, one of the problems is that sometimes, some of the funding that goes towards county teams… you’re talking about the official amount that’s spent.
If people want to get around those things, they’ll get around them.
Ultimately, a lot of the issues you mention, if you put people in leadership positions within a county, that’s their job.
They should spend only what they can afford. A lot of the solutions are within counties. It rests with them to make sure money is used properly and invested in the right ways, and to make your fixtures in the best possible way.
A lot of counties do that very well.
Some county could spend €500,000 and afford that, another county couldn’t because they wouldn’t have it. People within the counties have got to run the association within their own county.
CO’K: You mentioned Leitrim as a well-run county. The sponsorship on a county jersey is a major income for any county.
What Leitrim are getting compared to what Dublin are getting from their various partnerships, you end up with counties either over-stretching to compete, or abandoning competing. Is that not reason enough for a cap?
PD: The cap’s only part of it. You mention Leitrim, it has a population of 30,000. We’re living in a part of Dublin, Drumcondra, that would have twice that population.
Leitrim are working from a very small pool of players. Getting back to your point, you could set caps if you thought there was value in it.
Maybe it’s something worth looking at. Maybe we should put caps on it.
But you’re relying on counties to implement it within the rules, and that would be a challenge.
CO’K: Are you confident of the proposals getting through?
PD: I don’t look at it that way. Reading your votes this morning it’s going to be very tight.
I’ll be honest, I’m fed up the way it’s become personalised around ‘my’ proposal.
I brought a paper to An Coiste Bainisti, who agreed with it and brought it forward. I’m tired of that angle of it.
All I want is what’s best for the GAA. If the GAA think any of the three proposals are good for the GAA, they should support it. If they don’t, they shouldn’t.
That’s my view. I’ll accept the decision whatever it is.