GAA Football

UU sport professor offers views on the future direction of the GAA

David Hassan, Ulster University Picture Mal McCann

ANOTHER north Derry man undoubtedly attracts much more attention, but David Hassan arguably wields greater influence on the GAA.

While Joe Brolly is a high-profile public critic of the recent direction of the Association, Banagher clubman Hassan has his say quietly, within the tent.

The 45-year-old could be forgiven for blowing his own trumpet rather more loudly, given his achievements in sport and academia.

A Professor of Sport Policy and Management, currently he’s Ulster University’s Associate Dean of the Faculty of Life and Health Sciences (Global Engagement), amid other worldwide academic roles.

Previously he won Ulster football medals with Derry at Minor and U21 levels in the early Nineties, and represented the Oak Leaf seniors in both football and hurling.

In typically under-stated fashion, he talks about others when asked about himself: “I played for 20 years for my home club, Banagher, which a lot of people would know better because of Sean Martin Lockhart, Mark Lynch, and his father Mickey Lynch.”

He also has an Irish League medal from 20 years ago with Cliftonville. Again, though, he’s self-deprecating, to say the least, in the tale he tells about his time there:

“It was rather bizarre how that came about. I was playing with the university team and Cliftonville only had one ’keeper, a guy called Paul Reece. They needed a back-up and contacted me – fortunately I was able to balance both.

“I played mostly for their reserves, but had one opportunity to play for the first team, when Paul Reece was tied up with a fire at Heathrow Airport.

“It was an away match against Ballymena United and [laughs] we had a very heavy defeat, I think we lost 4-0, which was an unusual result at the time. Fortunately for Cliftonville the season went well and they won the League championship. I stayed with them for a couple of seasons.”

For the record, the then Reds boss Marty Quinn insisted: “David Hassan came in and couldn’t be faulted.” Indeed, Cliftonville complained to the authorities about alleged comments to their players and decisions by the match referee, with Quinn declaring: “The result was bad but Cliftonville were never going to win the game.”

Hassan doesn’t go in for controversy, obviously, preferring a thoughtful approach (although he did bring up Cavan’s controversial ‘point’ in the 1997 Ulster SFC Final, of course).

His passion for sport is wide-ranging, including motorsport, and he has worked with FIA President Jean Todt and Vice-President Mohammed Ben Sulayem, having helped bring a round of the World Rally Championship to Ireland in 2007.

“The interesting thing about the FIA is that its headquarters are still in Paris and yet the expansion of the sport is anywhere but Europe, certainly in terms of F1.

“So you have a friction between the traditionalists, the conservative elements, and the emerging markets, the UAE, Qatar, and the Far East, China, and Japan. As a case study of the governance of sport it’s a really interesting one.

“You have the traditional base and then these emerging parts of the world that want to have a greater say in how the sport is run.”

Similar comments could perhaps apply to the GAA, in terms of competing conservative and modernist/globalist elements, and the future direction of the Association is the focus of this interview:

Do you see risks to the GAA in global expansion?:

“I don’t know of many sports, even those that would regard themselves as ‘indigenous’ – for example, Australian Rules Football or NFL – that aren’t actively considering their global presence. The so-called ‘39th Game’ [mooted English Premiership matches overseas], they’re all indicators of major moves to a more global setting.

“The GAA has done that to some extent, but I’d be surprised if the next 25 years doesn’t see a much broader expansion of the games internationally – and not just amongst the diaspora. Hurling, seen against any comparator, is a fantastic field sport.

“The issue really for the Association is does it have the capacity to expand its games in the way they would need to be to have the degree of presence that other sports do have?

“Again, it’s a relatively small marketplace and a comparatively small turnover for a national governing body, so does it have the capacity to expand? Probably not.

“It’s difficult but other sports have demonstrated it is possible – we’ve seen the growth of American Football, even ice hockey here in Belfast – but it requires a significant level of investment.

“It also requires a strategy in relation to what that global expansion will look like and at the moment the GAA has more than enough issues to deal with locally – for example, the expansion of hurling anywhere north of Dublin.”

Still on the subject of finance, you believe there must be caps on inter-county spending:

“As regards the degree of spending evident in the preparation of teams at county level, most reasonable commentators would say that’s not sustainable.

“Whenever you see published figures in excess of one million euro to prepare teams for the latter stages of the All-Ireland Championships, common sense tells us – particularly in a relatively small marketplace like Ireland – that there’s only so many years that that amount of money can be raised.

“That of course raises the financial burden on the Association as a whole. Certainly, I believe, the extent of money required to prepare a competitive county side does need closer scrutiny.

“The rising expectations, whether in a club or county setting, drive a whole series of other issues regarding spending, such as the amount of sponsorships required so service that and the commercialisation of the sport in the general.”

Can payments to managers actually be ended?:

“[Previous GAA Director-General] Paraic Duffy was making that point again before he left office.

“He was saying that we either accept the status quo or we move to a fully transparent picture. I can certainly sympathise with that view.

“What that does is then bring a greater degree of scrutiny to the performance of the manager – performance indicators, expectations placed on a manager or management team.”

Is the amateur ethos in the GAA gradually going though?:

“For a whole range of reasons, not least financially, we know the Association could not actually absorb a wholly professional game, we wouldn’t have the capacity to do it.

“What is inevitable is this greater movement of expectations placed on county players. Once you have strong commercial influences, which are evident at the top end of the game, then that does drive a certain level of expectation regarding, if you like, the sporting product – what people are seeing, what they’re consuming, what television is consuming.

“The danger is that you reach the point where the only reasonable response to that is professionalism, in other words you have to do this thing full-time.

“Generally speaking, we’re also seeing a movement to a form of sport that is really ‘sports entertainment’. In other words, people are watching matches primarily for the purpose of being entertained. Again, if you place that degree of expectation on what is currently an amateur game, that’s difficult to sustain as well.

“The GAA should concern itself with the re-assertion of its core values. More than any other organisation it is predicated on core values, of which amateurism is one.

“It’s either a re-assertion of existing values or a re-examination of those values, asking ‘Are they still fit for purpose?’

“Personally I would like to see a re-assertion of those values so that, whether or not it’s a county player, a club player, or a volunteer, that they know the GAA is much more than simply a sporting organisation, that it’s an organisation that promotes core values.”

What are your views on the Club Players’ Association?:

“I know the genesis of the CPA, the growing concern that the club game was becoming somewhat more marginalised.

“My personal view is that, while I value the aspirations of the CPA, I’d be slightly concerned at the emergence of organisations within the GAA when the GAA itself should have the capacity to address many of these issues.

“I’d be sympathetic to the club game generally because primarily that is what I was about. I think there’s actually a very strong onus on county boards themselves to address the issues about club games.

“They do have the capacity to set a fixtures list that addresses many of the concerns that club players have. That’s been the case recently in Derry, also in Armagh.

“Notwithstanding the right of the CPA to have a voice at the table, the onus is very much at county board level to ensure that leadership at that level is responding to what club players are asking them to do.

“They have absolute authority within their own boundaries to do that. Of course there are complications with a range of different stakeholders in terms of what the actual final fixtures list looks like. But in Derry, and also in other counties, there is the capacity to arrive at some sort of reasonable compromise, amounting to regular club games, which is essentially what club players want…

“You speak to most county players and, if not their primary allegiance, still a main aspect of their allegiance is to the club game. They want the club game to be facilitated as part of any particular season. It’s been my experience that they want adequate accommodation for both aspects.”

As someone who studies sport’s role in society, do you foresee greater involvement of the unionist community in the GAA in the north?:

“I’d pay particular commendation to the Ulster Council who, over a period of time – and that is crucial, a period of time, 20 years or so – have begun a much more positive role in terms of outreach activity, some of it explicit, some of it implicit.

“In terms of development outside its traditional boundaries, we know that will take time, there’s no point saying that’s going to happen quickly.

“But there is some evidence that there’s at least an interest in the games and with that, hopefully, over a period of time, we’ll see a greater number of people who maybe traditionally wouldn’t have been involved with Gaelic games will become involved. Regrettably that’s still a medium- to long-term initiative.”

The GAA is a national, all-Ireland organisation – should that outlook change in any way?:

“It certainly would be my view that the GAA is unequivocal about why it was formed and the reason it still exists to this day. With that in mind, it should be proud to promote a sense of Irishness, a sense of Irish national identity.

“I don’t see anything necessarily regarding the promotion of the sports and the ethos of the Association that the GAA should seek to change. It’s a proud organisation and it should continue to promote itself in that regard.

“It is worth recognising that, particularly in Ulster, the organisation has taken tremendous strides. Even as recently as the All-Ireland Club Finals I saw high-profile members of the PSNI being guests of the Ulster Council at those games. That is an incremental movement, there’s no grand step that will change that.

“Sport is still part of society and the pace society will develop, largely sport will develop at the same pace. Sometimes sport gets ahead, sometimes it’s behind, and we know that in this part of the world, but broadly speaking it will track broader societal movements and the GAA has been part of that – and also other governing bodies, the Irish Football Association and Ulster Rugby.

“Working in collaboration with one another recognises the influences that sport has in maybe pushing boundaries beyond what has been evident elsewhere.”

You haven’t really begun your work regarding Playing Rules but does football need to be changed, as some suggest?:

“If anything, the challenge for managers and coaches is to find a way to improve the fortunes of their teams and become more successful.

“From a rules perspective, arguably there’s been no governing body that has looked as closely at its rules, both in hurling and Gaelic football, certainly over the last 10 years, than the GAA has done.

“We’ve got to the stage where, for the most part, the rules are actually operating quite well. What we’re probably looking at now is refinements of existing rules.

“In a broader sense, there’s probably a case for a much more simplified rulebook. A lot of new rules have been introduced, other rules have been refined.

“Maybe we’ve reached the stage where the entire rulebook just needs to be simplified and that might mean the removal of certain rules.

“Fundamentally, if we can move to a situation where the rules are much simpler, then that should have a positive effect in terms of how people understand the rules, how they’re interpreted by the players, the spectators, by the referees themselves.

“If we could achieve anything it would be a movement towards a much simpler, more easily understood rulebook…

“The tackle and the hand-pass are often mentioned, particularly within Gaelic football. There is a definition of the tackle, a shoulder to shoulder coming together of players, and yet we see a variety of different forms of the tackle, down to interpretations to some extent by referees.

“We probably have to look again at how that is defined. The same could be said of the hand-pass. There’s a raft of work for this committee to do.”

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