Big Interview: What’s not to like about new hurling proposals?

Munster Council chairman Jerry O’Sullivan has gone from flaking with Ringy and fighting for Cloyne to tussling over fixtures and fretting about the future of the GAA, writes Kieran Shannon.

Munster Council chairman Jerry O'Sullivan standing near the statue of Christy Ring in his home parish of Cloyne, Co Cork.

There’s a story Dónal Óg Cusack recounts in his autobiography which explains how Diarmuid O’Sullivan brought what he did as a player and which Jackie Tyrrell for one believes he now needs to instil as a selector with Cork.

In 1992, Cloyne reached the county intermediate final. Along the way they played Youghal in Castlemartyr. Late on the game was on the line. A Youghal player — a chap called Mickey Downey, they can tell you in Cloyne, the story has become such a part of their folklore — came running in onto a loose ball in front of goal. Cloyne’s nearest defender had lost his stick. Downey lifted and pulled. That same nearest Cloyne defender threw himself in front of the swing and took the full belt of it.

That defender was Jerry O’Sullivan, the original rock of Cloyne before his son would assume the nickname. While Tyrrell reckons Cork have backs “so nice they would nearly pick your hurley off the ground for you if you dropped it”, Cloyne had someone who didn’t even opt for the easy out of looking to pick up his own.

Whatever it takes for the cause. That was Jerry O’Sullivan’s mindset then —even though he was still playing, he was in his 17th season doubling up as club chairman — and in a way it’s his mindset now as chairman of another institution, Munster Council. This is probably the last year of the Munster Championship as we know it. If O’Sullivan has his way, it will be. He’s all for the new Hurling Development Committee proposals.

“I sincerely hope it comes in. I think hurling needs something like this. The qualifier system served a purpose but it has gone flat. Hurling is such a unique game but the people who like hurling don’t see enough of it, the top-level games. This will help overcome that problem.”

He doesn’t see what there’s not to like. The players get games on a regular basis. Every county is assured of two home games as well as two away games. “You can imagine having home games in any venue you care to pick in any county here in Munster; my goodness, the effect [it would have] on the local area, not to mind the teams themselves or anyone interested in the sport.”

The Munster final is still retained. The best teams are assured to progress to the All-Ireland series.

He feels it’ll help the club player too.

“I think the new format would help give greater certainty to the club player. At the moment it’s a bit hit and miss. It’s all ‘If they win...’ For instance, if Cork lose at the weekend, the clubs will be out [playing] the following week; if they don’t it’s pushed out again. I would be confident the new format would help give a more definitive programme for the club player.”

And of course, more games will mean more revenue for Munster Council. He knows the perception people have of the GAA and especially its provincial councils; the terms “coffers” and “windfall” have tended to go hand in hand with the word “replay” through the years. But O’Sullivan likes to remind people, Munster Council doesn’t hoard the money. “It’s not like we have an account in the Cayman Islands!” Munster Council merely distributes the money.

“That’s something that’s often overlooked. The money is filtered back into the clubs through development grants. We have an executive committee and if a club makes an application we invite them in. What are ye planning? Are you sure this is feasible? It’s a fairly stringent process, they get a fair enough grilling because what we don’t want is people taking on something that is way over their head and which is unnecessary. It has happened in various locations around the country. Units taking on a massive development which might be a millstone around their neck for the rest of their days.”

Which brings us to his native Cork. Will the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh be such a millstone? Are Cork now in over their heads?

“People will say that but I feel that it [the new stadium] is absolutely necessary. I think there’s no question that a city of such stature like Cork needs a stadium like this. And it should be remembered that as a county we’ve contributed a lot to the GAA.

“The old stadium when it first opened was a model for the rest of the country. It was a fantastic stadium for a game. When that place was full, there was no place on earth like it. Ger Loughnane still talks about how nowhere else could have created the atmosphere there was for those Clare and Tipp games. But it was long gone past its sell-by date. People criticise the cost of the stadium but I was up there a few days ago and think it’s worth every penny. I think a lot of people will think the same when they see it.”

What will they see? “Just how modern and spectator-friendly it is. Everybody remembers the old [infamously-congested] tunnels. All gone now. Instead you have the big walkways like you have in Croke Park. It has bars, restaurants, you name it. It’s something similar to Croke Park in many ways.”

The project has its critics, who contend that Cork should have developed more of a centre of excellence along the lines of Kerry’s development in Currans but O’Sullivan defends the strategy taken by his former colleagues on the Cork county board.

“There is a centre of excellence attached to this. There’s a big gym underneath the main stand and the other pitches then are connected to that. It’s not on a massive scale but it certainly serves the needs of the vast majority of our teams.”

The official handover date is June 18. Possibly even earlier the way it’s progressing. Should the Cork footballers defeat Tipperary, the Munster football final will take place there on July 2. No need for contingency plans, he insists. The new Park will be ready.

Tomorrow though comes too soon, and so for the second straight year, Cork travel to Thurles to play Tipp. O’Sullivan was reared on days away off to see Cork play the old enemy. Sometimes his feet wouldn’t even touch the ground coming out of the gate, such was the tide of people, and even when he’d finally make his way back safe to the bus he wasn’t sure then either if he’d ever get back to Cloyne.

“If the driver stopped at all on the way back,” he smiles, “we knew we were in for a long night because he couldn’t get other boys out of the pub.”

O’Sullivan never got to see Ring play for Cork but he got to play with him. Every Saturday of his life, Ring would return to Cloyne and invariably join in on the game going on in the local field. O’Sullivan would only have been in his early teens but anyone from 10 to 60 was free to play, as long as they didn’t hold back. Ring certainly wasn’t holding back.

“He didn’t show any mercy on the younger fellas, I can tell you that. You could have up to 30 people there, even more, all flaking away. That was just the way it was.”

O’Sullivan will never forget the day the music died: March 2, 1979. The club annual dinner was scheduled for the same day. Naturally, no-one had a mobile phone. O’Sullivan didn’t even have a landline. Someone had to call his next-door neighbour to get word to him of the news. It left the club’s young chairman shell-shocked and also with a dilemma: should they go on with the annual dinner or not? They went on with it.

“There was no other option. There was no way of contacting everybody. But you talk about something being like a funeral. That was like a funeral. A lot of people didn’t even know until they arrived at the dinner that Christy had passed away.”

O’Sullivan has encountered all kinds of challenges in his time as an administrator. Imokilly would enjoy a glorious era during his time as divisional board chairman, winning several senior county championships in no small part because of his inspired choice of the inspiring Seanie O’Leary as team manager, but that still didn’t grant him immunity from having to deal with that ever-constant GAA difficulty: fixtures.

“I remember there was this one particular individual who was arguing vehemently for the postponement of a certain fixture. Now as a club delegate, he was entitled to fight his case on behalf of his club, and he didn’t want to play this game. Eventually I got it out of him why. ‘Well,’ he said, “if we don’t play, we can’t be beaten. The longer it isn’t played, the longer we’re still in the championship!’ That was his rationale!”

In a way though, that was one of the most satisfying aspects about the job; the sense of fulfilment from getting a competition completed. Like with most things, there was a way around something so he’d find a way. He remembers distinctly his first year as club chairman. Earlier in the year two players had been dropped for a county championship game.

Work is nearing completion on the all-weather pitch, beside the new southern (main) stand at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Nets and floodlights are in position, with the green ‘carpet-like’ surface currently being rolled out.

“You can imagine in a small place, the outrage and uproar that went with that. The parish priest came to me on two occasions, saying to me, ‘Look, will you get the lads to change their minds?’ I was great friends with him until the day he died but I said, ‘No, Father, they’re appointed to do their job. I’m not going to interfere with them. The AGM is on at the end of the year and if people want to change things then, they can do so.’

“We’d end up winning the league and championship in both hurling and football that year which hadn’t been done before and hasn’t been done since.”

If such judgement and respect for the role of management served him well on that occasion, his time as county chairman would be all the trickier on that score. Gerald McCarthy’s reappointment and subsequent resignation occurred in his tenure.

“Gerald had a good track record, both as a player and as manager. Possibly the game was changing but the Gerald McCarthy I knew was quite open to changing.”

So he and the board dug in for a winter, his own sons in the opposite trenches. He insists it didn’t cause any friction between them. He’ll accept it caused a lot of hurt in the county that can still be felt to this day but he’d like to think he himself didn’t fall out with any of the players or anyone during it all.

“I respect everyone’s opinion. I might not agree with it and they might not agree with me but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to speak to you. I think everyone at the time felt like it was a battle. Players on one side, the board on the other. But that didn’t mean there was no contact or no respect for each other. And I’d still be friendly with all the Cork players of that era. I never fell out with any of them.”

He’s known Dónal Óg Cusack since the lad was born. Was a selector with the U12 team he played with. When Cusack came back this year to play with the club team, no one was happier than O’Sullivan. They beat Tracton the other week, without Diarmuid who was – you mightn’t be surprised to learn – suspended on account of being sent off in his last game last year. But he’ll be back for the next round. He’s still at it. Doing whatever it takes for the cause.

Like father, like son.

Minors to copy senior format

The minor hurling championship could be run along the same lines as the proposed new senior championship format, says Munster Council chairman Jerry O’Sullivan.

A special Congress is likely to be held later this year at which delegates will vote on whether to restructure the senior hurling championship, and according to O’Sullivan, the proposal recommends that the minor championship also be run off on a round-robin basis within the provinces.

“That is part of the proposals. At this stage they are only proposals, nothing has been finalised or agreed, but minor is also part of the proposal.”

O’Sullivan himself sees the merit of such a restructure. “There are anomalies in the current minor provincial championship.”

As it currently operates, the Munster minor championship is run off in a rather unwieldy and complicated manner. This year Limerick lost a first-round game to Tipperary, but after beating Waterford in a playoff, are now just one game away from a provincial final.

Meanwhile, the loser of the upcoming Tipperary-Cork semi-final will be out of the championship, even though they each won their opening game. Clare are in a similar situation entering their semi-final with Limerick. If they lose, they’re gone for the year. Even though they won their opening game, there’ll be no backdoor for them, in contrast to Waterford who only exited the championship after their third defeat.

Under the new proposals, from 2018 on all five teams would play each other, with two games at home, two away. The top three teams would progress to the All-Ireland series. The top two would contest a Munster final, with the winner qualifying for an All-Ireland semi-final.

The Munster runner-up would still go through to the All-Ireland quarter-final, as would the team that finished third in the group.

 

If you enjoyed this you'll love our latest GAA Show on Paper Talk!

  • Anthony Daly recalls the magic of a Munster championship childhood and looks ahead to the big game.
  • John Fogarty assesses all the weekend's matches.
  • We hear from Tipperary manager Michael Ryan on why the Premier have been hyped too much.
  • And Munster Council chairman Jerry O'Sullivan on the future of the provincial championships.


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