New Ulster CEO Brian McAvoy discusses the issues he will face
Casement Park, Clones, the Senior Football Championship, funding for games development and the way forward for hurling in the province. Cahair O'Kane asks all the questions. New Ulster Council chief executive Brian McAvoy outlines the ambition...
Cahair O’Kane: The Irish News reported on Saturday that alterations to the recommendations of the Safety Technical Group (STG) had been made in terms of the design of Casement Park - are you at all concerned this application might fail again?
Brian McAvoy: “No. Deviations are allowed as long as there is no compromise on safety, and that they are seen to be necessary and helpful to the project, and of equal safety to what’s there. The two deviations are minor. The first is in relation to the height above the ground of the handrail, which are 20cm below the guide. To put them any higher, you would have caused a viewing obstruction, and that was felt to be reasonable and necessary by the STG.
”The other is in relation to the curvature – remember it’s a bowl-shaped stadium – and this has come from the design team Populous and something they’ve done before, they’re recommended that there are 42 seats in those rows as opposed to what would be standard across most grounds, 28. Those rows are still within the legal requirement of access to exits. The STG said this was helpful to the overall project, and they’ve approved those, as they’re entitled to.”
CO’K: If the application were to fail, would there be a third attempt, or is there a contingency plan for something else?
BMcA: “You have to look at any reasons as to why it would fail. This is a regional stadia programme, so any go would have to meet what the regional, strategic needs of the GAA in Ulster is. I think our assessment of 34,000 is as low as we can go. We have a stadium in Clones which can host an Ulster final of 33,500. If we want to bring major games like Ulster finals, potentially All-Ireland quarter-finals or group qualifiers now, to the stadium, it will have to be at a capacity of that level. It’s sometimes been lost when people say ‘why don’t you build a stadium of 25,000?’ There’s no funding for that. This is a government regional stadium programme. It’s not for a county ground.”
CO’K: If Casement Park gets built, what happens Clones?
BMcA: “There is going to be some work done in Clones in the near future, but it’s more of a maintenance variety. Clones will continue to host our Ulster finals until the event where we have any other stadia of that size in the province. Obviously Monaghan will still use it and we will continue to use it for other games like semi-finals. There’ll still be use of Clones, we’ll not shut the door on it.”
CO’K: This year is a first step towards tightening the Ulster Championship – do you accept more needs done?
BMcA: “I was keen to have some sort of change. There are a number of factors. Is it best to play it week after week? It’s generally accepted there is scope for tightening up. But we’ve also got to be conscious of a lot of volunteers that work at these games are based at every one of these fixtures, and we’ve got to be conscious of their time too. This year, we’ll save one week to see how it works out for starters. I’d like to develop that further in future.
“Of course, the recent decision of Congress in relation to the restructuring of the Championship means it’s going to be a necessary now. We have one trial at this year and hopefully we can pick up whatever issues or learning points there are from that. Yes, I would see further tightening of the Championship going forward, playing it over fewer weeks. That’s going to have to be with the new fixtures’ calendar."
CO’K: Páraic Duffy wants to keep that gap between the end of the League and start of the Championship, which doesn’t give you much scope for anything else?
BMcA: “Unless there’s a change to rule we can’t start before the third week in May barring the Connacht game [in New York], but I think that can be bypassed. We’ve got to work towards the end date, which is the end of August. It could potentially move into the first weekend of September if it was the 1st or 2nd, but for example a papal visit next year could well impinge and mean we have to do that. The important thing is get things wrapped up a few weeks before they have been."
CO’K: Could you have brought the Ulster final forward a bit this year, given there are four weeks between the first semi-final and the final?
BMcA: “It’s not just as simple as bringing forward the final, you have to liaise with the other provinces. We can’t have four or five provincial finals on one day. You could bring it forward a week but then you’re maybe going to clash with something else, and we have issues over live television and things like that, so it’s not just as clear-cut as that.”
CO’K: No Ulster team in the last four of the All-Ireland last year. Next year, four counties will start in Division Three or Four, and Down were on the verge as well. That must be a concern?
BMcA: “I look at the other way. This year we had five in Divisions One and Two. We had four of the eight teams in Division One this year. That’s not bad. We had three in Division Two, so seven of the Ulster counties were in Divisions One and Two. We’re in a healthy position."
CO’K: In terms of the level of funding for games development through Ulster, are you happy?
BMcA: “There is a fundamental review of coaching ongoing at national level, undertaken by Gary Keegan. He’s basically started from a blank page in terms of the overall games development and coaching, and that would include funding. I think we have to look at where the need is and where the population is, and what we are seeing is a major population shift from west to east across the whole island of Ireland. The greatest concentration of population is now along the eastern corridor, from Belfast through Newry, Dundalk, Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow. Kilmacud Crokes have over 100 underage teams, for example, and areas like Tallaght that are growing in terms of population. We need to look at how we’re going to service those. You saw Cuala win the All-Ireland hurling, an area that’s grown from basically no GAA base 25 years ago to what it is now.
“We’ve got to start looking to where our areas of concentration are here. Belfast and Derry are ours, where we need to put in a major shift in terms of coaching and games development. Hopefully that’s one thing that will come out of Gary Keegan’s review. Just because we’ve always done it this way and treated everyone equally, that is not the best formula going forward. People have to be treated pro-rata going forward, but not in terms where if Down gets a hurling coach, Fermanagh has to get a hurling coach, Donegal has to get a hurling coach. That’s not best value. We have to look at what our outcomes are going to be and concentrate the bulk of our resources on where there’s the greatest need. That’s not forgetting the rest, but doing things pro-rata.”
CO’K: Ulster’s had no All-Ireland winner at senior since 2012, no team in the semi-finals last year. Only one All-Ireland under-21 since 2004, and no All-Ireland minor since 2010. Is there accountability for paid coaches where a county is under-performing?
BMcA: “It’s how you measure success. Is it in terms of silverware, or is it in terms of numbers playing and those that have a clear pathway? People play for all different reasons. Some will want to do it for recreational purposes, play a bit of seconds or thirds. Some will play for their club, and others will aspire to be at a higher level. It’s about aspirations and providing the right pathways, particularly for those that want to go to the elite level.
“We almost need a template, because everyone’s trying to get that wee edge and sometimes it’s not best for the player overall. The player has to come first in this, that they’re not being pulled here, there and everywhere. That’s been a difficulty in recent years, the elite player at 17 or 18, he’s being looked for by his club, his college, his county, and none of them are getting the best out of him. Sometimes coaches, and it’s more at club level to be fair, look only at their own success.
”If I’m with Burren today and Drum tomorrow and I want to get my name out there, I’ll be judged by how well I’ve performed and how well my teams have performed. That’s unfortunately something that will be very difficult to change, but I don’t think it’s for the benefit of the player. That’s maybe why we haven’t just been challenging as much. I was talking to a person last week that said his father was a lifelong supporter hadn’t seen the club playing in two years because he didn’t like the style of football the current manager was playing. They’re afraid to shoot! How do you blame a coach for that? He has his role, the club has their role, but sometimes the player, when the focus should be on him, is caught in the middle and missing out. That’s difficult to change.
”Are coaches to blame because no Ulster team has won an All-Ireland the last few years? I think that’s stretching it. But we’ve got to think clever if we want to compete with the big counties moving forward.”
CO’K: The under-20 competition next year goes mid-summer and clubs are facing losing those players at that time. Has Ulster Council worked out how it will run its end of it?
BMcA: “There is scope for the player who’s come out of minor and hasn’t quite made it to senior standard, and it’s important that there’s a development opportunity. Crucial in all of this is that anyone who is named in a match-day 26 can no longer play in the under-20 Championship. Club activity should still continue. I realise it will cause some problems, particularly over weekends where your team is playing. It’s important that we look at this a development competition. It is an All-Ireland, but it’s not the best under-20s in the county will be playing in it. If the best players are already with the senior squad, they won’t be playing in it. Counties will need to realise it’s nice to win it, but it’s a developmental competition rather than an All-Ireland. That will sound strange and the person managing the team won’t think that way, but that’s the mindset we have to get and clubs should try to embrace it. Hopefully players will be able to be used by both in that time. 50 per cent of the counties won’t be affected after round one. Yes it will have an impact, but it’s a mindset. I don’t see any reason why counties shouldn’t be allowing players that are playing in that competition to be playing club football as well. It’s a development competition, they should be playing the week before for their clubs. Go back to the under-21, Dublin are playing the first round of club Championship within six days of their under-21s’ semi-final, knowing well that if they win that, those boys will have played a full round of club Championship games and played an All-Ireland six days later. Maybe we need to look at mindsets in relation to this.”
CO’K: How do you plan to help hurling in Ulster?
BMcA: “Hurling in Ulster is in a very different place to football in Ulster, as we know. 124 football clubs in Ulster can win the Seamus McFerran Cup this year. 17 can win the hurling. That’s where we’re at in terms of standards.
“There’s only the county champions of Derry, Down and Antrim, and Lisbellaw for another year. Antrim have won the last 15 Ulster senior hurling titles, and 15 of the last 16 minors, and every under-21 since 2008, so they are the powerhouse.
”We have declined in terms of where we’re at. Our Ulster club champions have still been competitive, but at county level we have slipped. Primarily, it’s the lack of good competition against county of equal standard
”It’s important that the Ulster Championship is played but we have to look beyond the box on that. There’s no point in the Ulster minor and under-21 champions going into an All-Ireland quarter-final or semi-final and getting hockeyed year after year. We’ve got to look elsewhere."
CO’K: Are there plans to make a move to get Antrim into Leinster at minor, under-21 and / or senior level?
BMcA: ”If you look at minor, Antrim have got to be playing at a higher level. They have to get into Leinster. There’s maybe scope for at least one other county in Ulster to get into Leinster at minor level. I think Antrim are ready to go into Leinster at senior level. This year 14 counties are competing for the Liam McCarthy Cup, four of them in the round-robin – Kerry, Westmeath, Meath and Laois. Antrim can more than hold their own with any of those counties. They need to be playing at that level to try and get standards.
“It’s very difficult, as we saw last year – five years ago it would have been unheard of, Antrim not beating Meath after getting a second chance at it. That’s because they’re not getting enough games at that level. The good thing is they’ve got promotion out of Division 2A. I don’t know if there’s going to be a restructure of the League for next year but if they stay as they are, you have three strong and three weaker in Division 1B. At least you’ll be guaranteed three good games at that level, maybe more. That’s an improvement. Once you go beyond team nine, there’s a gap. I can see Antrim trying to bridge that because at their best, I see them better than the bottom three and challenging the top ones. But the only way they’ll get to that level and improve is by getting regular fixtures at that level.
“That will help progress it. It won’t happen overnight. But start with getting Antrim, and maybe a second county, into Leinster at minor level. I know the whole cry has been about Galway and where they go, but we’ve probably been silent too long on that in Ulster. That’s something I’m fighting for, that we get at least one if not two of our counties in Leinster at minor level, and Antrim certainly at senior level. That’s the way forward.”