Kicking Out: Donegal mess shows issues around volunteers managing professionals

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair is a sports reporter and columnist with the Irish News specialising in Gaelic Games.

ONE of the big problems with the NHS is how bloated it has become around the middle.

Almost 700 employees in the health service are earning more than £150,000 a year.

The vast majority of those are middle-managers.

Big organisations need middle-managers. But their job is a halfway house.

They don’t really have enough to do to justify inflated wages.

You can’t pay them less than the people they’re managing and you can’t pay them more than those above.

Middle-management is the life. At least until they start laying people off.

Counties operating in the GAA have a similar hierarchical structure to business.

The big difference in our world is that the people in the middle layer are the only people getting paid.

Be it in ‘expenses’ around inter-county teams, so as to retain the illusion of amateurism, or in full-time roles such as coaching in schools, the middle layer is where most of the money changes hands.

Some counties have full-time CEOs or secretaries, and there are commercial managers in the odd case.

Mostly, though, the volunteers in charge get nothing.

No other business in the world would operate like this.

These volunteers largely do it out of the goodness of their heart.

Being on a county board is as thankless as refereeing. All you will ever get out of it is heartache, abuse and, if you’re lucky, the odd free dinner and a different coloured seat in the stand for big matches.

There is a very small element of prestige attached to being The Big County Board Man about town.

But there’s no money in it and even less thanks.

There is the other side of it, however.

Almost of the expertise has flowed into its midsection.

Inter-county teams prepare themselves to the highest level possible. They do that themselves. It is not the county board that prepares them.

The queue to get involved is at the doors of the training centres funded by amateurs and used by professionals.

Nutritionists and statisticians and physios and coaches and managers and the rest are getting paid, either above or below the table.

There are so many issues in Donegal that it’s hard to know where to begin.

An in-depth look at it in Friday’s Irish News tried to outline them.

But one of the wider issues that needs explored off the back of Karl Lacey resigning as head of their Academy is that he’s a professional being managed by amateurs.

One of the sticking points was that a review of the way the Academy was operating led to an executive decision that the coaching officer should take overall command of its day-to-day running.

In this case, the coaching officer is Michael McGeehin. He is Sport Ireland’s Coaching Director and a man with a healthy CV across a variety of sports.

Lacey gets paid €25,000 a year to run the Academy.

Michael McGeehin isn’t paid.

Yet the GAA’s chain of command says the coaching officer has the authority to oversee the Academy.

And in some ways it has to say that, lest the middle-ground lose the run of itself completely.

Figures spent on inter-county teams grows annually. Last year it was more than €32.5m (£29m). There has to be oversight.

But Lacey has the best CV in Donegal to run their Academy. The combination of playing, coaching and professional experience is something bigger organisations would pay really good money for.

He also wasn’t against oversight, for the record. From the large number of sources spoken to across almost two weeks to build the story, a clear picture was painted of a lack of communication from the county board side towards the Academy. Lacey wanted better governance as much as the county board did.

Why Donegal decided to effectively dismantle their Academy is something only they know. Several board members approached did not want to speak.

Whether it was the cost of the Academy, the cost of Lacey himself or just an old-fashioned power struggle, it has done enormous damage that looks nearly irreparable.

It is Donegal’s mess to clean up now, but it presents issues that other counties will be well aware of.

The reason the people in the middle are getting paid is because they’re bringing their relevant expertise into the room.

It’s costly acquiring that expertise. These are ambitious, driven people, much the same as the players.

The GAA is in competition for what they bring.

If we want these people involved, and to not lose them to rugby or soccer on this island, we have to pay them.

To think they’re going to pay to educate themselves and then offer their services for free is unrealistic.

There isn’t enough money to pay everyone. Over time, the hierarchy has fallen into its own shape.

The middle layer is the layer that’s valued, and so that’s the layer that’s paid for.

Yet they’re still technically answerable to the volunteers on the county board.

Administrators are ordinarily good, well-intentioned people giving up a lot of time. A lot of the criticism they receive is incredibly harsh. Social media makes that a thousand times worse.

They’re trying to manage multi-million pound businesses, often without any experience of doing so.

Some people would argue a good county chairman is one that knows absolutely nothing about football or hurling.

Put someone like that in place and you leave them open to being criticised for knowing absolutely nothing about football or hurling.

Last year, Donegal county board took in revenue of €1.6m.

They were among a small group of counties to have made a financial loss in 2022, running a deficit of €130,000.

€1.6m seems like a lot of money for volunteer county board officials to have to deal with.

In the grand scheme, it isn’t even.

Kerry generated €6.5m in income last year. Their profit was almost €1m.

Middle-tier counties like Offaly, Meath, Wexford and Kildare all brought in somewhere between €2.5m and €3.5m.

These are businesses, whether we like it or not.

A lot of the people on county boards come from professional backgrounds themselves.

But their role has morphed into something it wasn’t. They’re essentially dealing with professional sports teams now.

That requires a level of expertise and knowledge of what you’re talking about.

You can learn the lingo, talk about your KPIs and your GPS, but you’re talking to people who are immersed in this stuff from a sporting perspective.

Nothing is immune to the realities of the GAA’s finite money pot.

Where there are CEOs and commercial managers, is the wage structure sufficient to attract the calibre of people needed to hold those positions?

A CEO of a different organisation would be earning significantly more than whatever £50k or £60k we’re offering. They’d earn more in middle-management.

You can’t attract the best people without paying them.

The culture of paying for these roles has been set in the GAA but the idea of a CEO is that you attract the very top people to run your business.

If you’re paying 32 CEOs £150,000-a-year each, that’s nearly £5m annually across the association.

Then you’re into causing inflation, where everyone else sees that and they want a bigger piece of the pie.

Very quickly, there’d be nothing left.

Even if players and coaches ever turned professional, the GAA could never sustain it because they’d have to pay for a level of management above that again.

A system where volunteers tell professionals what to do is a system destined to break.