Cahair O’Kane: Rare glimpse into managerial expenses underlines the need for spending caps

Every winter, some county secretary or five will label the rising costs as unsustainable. And they’re not wrong. But the thing keeps on sustaining anyway.

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair O'Kane

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

Colm O'Rourke said the only surprise about Meath's €76,000 bill for their six-man management team this year is that it wasn't higher. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

“I have had conversations with various counties in the past in relation to county management. I might add that I was not making the running and the conversations were quite short. Being the ultimate bogman, I prefer not to wander too far from home, but the counties involved never impressed me as willing to shower anyone with untold riches. The motives were entirely honourable, they wanted the best for their county and were willing to shop around. One chairman finished the brief encounter with the words, “this conversation never took place”. I was quite happy to agree, he could have been an agent for Mossad or the CIA.”

- Colm O’Rourke, Irish Independent, March 2010

THE internet is a bedamned place for anyone that’s ever said anything.

Forget jail time or financial penalties, for certain small crimes the law ought to be allowed threaten a person with the publication of their social media postings from a decade ago.

Ain’t nobody safe when it comes to their Facebook memories.

Colm O’Rourke has said more than most people.

The sensible one of The Three Stooges of RTÉ’s long-running soap opera The Sunday Game Live, you can’t get through two decades in the public eye without occasionally contradicting yourself. Or, as we like to call it in the business, changing your mind.

In fairness to the great Meathman, he has generally been quite consistent, particularly in his dislike of all things Tyrone.

It’s thirteen years since he made the comments at the top of the page in relation to the money flying around for inter-county managers.

O’Rourke has, pardon the phrase, put his money where his mouth is by taking over the Meath footballers.

He felt as though he was winding down in management after going back for another run with Simonstown, whom he guided to a first-ever senior championship in 2016 and another the year after.

Then Meath came along and he couldn’t say no.

Last week, their county board took the very unusual step of detailing exactly how much they had paid their management team in expenses this year.

€76,123, for those that missed it from The Irish Examiner’s ­sharp-eyed John Fogarty.

Speaking to Off The Ball over the weekend, O’Rourke fronted up and batted it away for a six.

“When you’ve six people involved, two travelling from outside the county, €70,000 in vouched expenses – I thought it’d actually be more…

“I think we were quite low compared to a lot of counties. A lot of other counties didn’t have an explanation at all. Maybe they were the ones with something to hide, Meath certainly didn’t,” he added.

They were not the only county to front up.

Across in Mayo, Kevin McStay’s management team cost €83,213 for the year, with another €211,166 in ‘backroom expenses’.

With these accounting practices, one man’s gravy is another man’s curry sauce.

The backroom in Meath is defined in a different way from it is in Mayo, and different from Dublin and Tyrone and Cork, meaning it’s still hard to cross-reference and nail down exactly who is paid what.

These were still significant steps towards transparency, but nothing on how Louth presented theirs.

They went the whole hog and broke it down into fairly minute detail, so as to leave nobody in much doubt about who received what.

Team manager and selectors, €100,826.

Backroom personnel, €347,313.

Medical, player mileage, gear, travel, accommodation all had their own subheads, ensuring that virtually nothing could be disguised or fudged.

It felt a bit like a final slap before turning their heel on Mickey Harte and Gavin Devlin for leaving them to go to Derry.

Maybe these numbers were never intended to be seen by the wider public but the minute you put something in black and white, you lose all control over it.

If it was designed to embarrass, it equally brings questions over the county’s own past practices. The same manager and selectors were accounted for as receiving €27,150 last year. Why the gap between the two figures?

Look, you and I and everyone around us know that the line in the sand between legitimate expenses and payment has been rained so heavily upon that nobody’s seen it for years.

Financially, the GAA has been painted as an organisation living on its last two pennies for about four decades now. Presenting itself like the street hobo only to find that it’s water in the bottle and they’re fooling us all.

Every winter, some county secretary or five will label the rising costs as unsustainable. And they’re not wrong.

But the thing keeps on sustaining anyway.

Galway spent just shy of €2.5m on their inter-county teams this year, a mad sum of money, yet still made a profit across the year of more than €350,000.

Kerry spent €1.2m on their teams and recorded a profit of €391,000.

Almost every county board in Ireland made a profit in 2022.

They continue to find ways to make the unsustainable sustainable.

The biggest problem with reversing all this is that the GAA created its own economy for young people to qualify as physios and S&C coaches and sport psychologists and statisticians.

If those jobs disappear, so do the livelihoods of a lot of young people. Perhaps the people themselves follow, to England or Australia or America. That’s not a consequence anyone wants on their hands.

The ticket price rises announced for the Allianz Leagues continue to baffle and annoy me, but what’s the point?

When a price rise was announced last year, this column argued that the precipice was coming and that people would start voting with their feet, especially given the inferior product that football was rapidly becoming.

Football got worse, ticket prices went up and guess what? Crowds grew.

The leagues last year were played to massive, giddy crowds that flooded the pitches after every game.

Economic realities will, at some point, bite down on the GAA. Like the housing market, it’s grand until it isn’t.

If the amalgamation does come with the LGFA and Camogie Association, there is a financial reckoning to be had.

You cannot multiply the sums by three and you cannot expect the combined income of the trio of associations to come close to covering that.

Will the men’s games accept less in order to give their female counterparts the same slice of the pie?

Far more likely the chase for revenue will just get harder. Nobody seems to want to put the thing in reverse or even hit the brakes.

So on we go, slaloming through the monetary challenges of each season, avoiding catastrophe and laughing maniacally.

The GAA just keeps finding new ways to get away with it.

We’re past the point of complaining because what good does that do?

If anything, I’d commend Meath and Mayo (maybe not Louth so much, unless their intentions were purer than they looked) for the first bit of financial transparency we’ve had on this whole subject for a long time.

The obvious solution has always been for the GAA at central level to appoint half-a-dozen financial regulators, give them a handful of counties each and make them all stick to spending caps that are fair and equitable.

The money they’d spend on those six or eight people would be dwarfed by the money they’d save as a result.

€2.5m might have won Galway All-Irelands this year but it didn’t even really come close.

That’s not always the point but if they’d spent €1.5m instead and put the other €1m into coaching and facilities, would they be further back or further forward? The great unanswerables of it all.

It doesn’t seem particularly healthy for counties to be splashing upwards on 80 per cent of their income just on running county teams. It all feels imbalanced and short-sighted, a bit too for-the-good-of-the-few-not-the-many.

Like, I was in Newry last weekend and winced as I walked past the half-time queue for the ladies’ toilets. It was at least 30-long and three-deep. God bless their bladders.

£100,000 should be found in every county to upgrade women’s toilets, and the men’s too, but they won’t be because there’s another nutritionist needed.

Capping spending on inter-county teams should have been done years ago but it wasn’t.

If it does happen, counties will bend rules everywhere to get around the restrictions.

Teeth will gnash and voiceboxes will wail and it will never be perfect, but it has to be a sensible thing to try soon.

Perhaps the crash will come imminently and the cloth will have to be cut, like it or not.

Probably not though.