Really he’s in Croke Park but to him he feels in heaven because only the day before, he was in Clones.
He was never going to be anywhere else. He’d missed only two Monaghan games all year: the McKenna Cup match when they were playing a shadow Donegal team and the away game to Roscommon in the league on the same weekend as Congress. All the other games: the first round of the McKenna Cup and the final of the McKenna Cup, the opening game of the league to winning the league final, Páraic Duffy was there for them all.
The Ulster semi-final against Cavan was a delightful day. That sunny evening he made a point of not going into the VIP section. Instead he and Vera and his brother sat in the section with all the other Monaghan season ticket holders while the kids took to the terraces with their friends. And so he cheered his team on, urging on Paul Finlay and Conor McManus, perhaps even occasionally cursing and then thanking Marty Duffy, just like any other supporter.
Because ultimately that’s what he is. He may be the first and foremost man in the biggest sporting association in this country but first and foremost he’s a Monaghan man and a Monaghan supporter. That’s what makes him and the GAA, and that’s what made last Sunday and that semi-final against Cavan so magical as well.
“I wanted to go as a supporter. I wanted to be able to go to that [Cavan] game and cheer and shout them on so I did, and it was absolutely brilliant. The only thing was that people later came up to me wondering was there something wrong between me and Ulster Council because I wasn’t in the VIP section. There wasn’t but it meant I had to be in the VIP box for the Ulster final. I’d love to have been able to do the same [as he did for the semi-final]. It’s just I couldn’t after the last day.”
Even there among the dignitaries last Sunday he could only keep his emotions and partisanship in check so much. He didn’t actually cry but there was a lot of bite-lipping and a lot of hugging too.
“I did get every emotional about it,” he concedes as he sits down with us in a suite overlooking the Croke Park pitch on a bright Monday morning.
“Because I grew up in a house where the Monaghan team was everything. My father Michael was the county chairman for 21 years. He first became chairman in ’51. I was born in ’53. So from as far back as I remember I’ve been going to Monaghan games. I remember Monaghan had two very good players, a fella called Joe Carroll from Inniskeen and a guy called Mickey Forde from Scotstown, and they were both working abroad, so my dad and I would go to the airport in the car to pick them up for important games. That was a huge thing for me at the time, being in the car with Joe Carroll and Mickey Forde and bringing them home for matches.
“And you’d be in the dressing-room before games but then it was always so disappointing afterwards. I mean, from ’38 to ’79 we didn’t even reach an Ulster final. When dad was chairman for those 21 years, they were lean years, terrible years. ’79 was the first time I could experience a Monaghan team winning. And there have been so few days like that: ’79, ’85, ’88 and then yesterday [last Sunday].”
He probably enjoyed this last one more than all the others. In ’79 he was on duty as county PRO. In ’85 he was county chairman as well as a team selector to Sean McCague. He wasn’t involved in ’88 but ’88 could hardly be classified as the ending of a famine. Last Sunday could and for once he was able to enjoy it as just a supporter.
He stayed floating around — and nearly above — the pitch for about an hour afterwards. Then it was back to the house with the family for the most joyous barbecue they’ll ever have. He watched The Sunday Game up until about half-ten before heading to Dublin for work the next morning but on the Monday evening he was back up to Monaghan again to see the team bus and cup welcomed into the county town.
“If you’d said to me on Sunday morning as I headed to Clones that the minors would win our first Ulster in 68 years and the seniors would put up a good show I’d have been really happy. I was really just hoping that the seniors would put on a good enough show that they’d be in good spirits going into the qualifier against Laois.
“Because though our lads had played some great attacking football to win Division 3 I couldn’t see them playing the type of game it would take to beat Donegal. So for the seniors to win and the minors to win on the one day.... [he breathes hard]... you don’t even dream of that if you’re from Monaghan. It’s like winning the All-Ireland. You can’t put into words what it means.”
Instead the hugs said it better. He embraced players as they came up the steps. Because he knew virtually them all — and their fathers too.
“Paul Finlay is just a superb, superb fella. His dad Kieran, ‘Jap’, was on the ’79 team and I would always regard him as a great friend. When he died last year I thought it was a terrible blow to Paul. Paul and himself were so close.
“But then Ballybay turned around last year and won the county for the first time in 25 years. And now Monaghan win their first Ulster in 25 years. I felt sorry for Paul that his dad wasn’t there to see it but God, Jap would be so proud. Paul Finlay is someone who has given everything to Monaghan for the last 10 years, he’s coming to the end of his career now, so for him to play and win was just brilliant.
“Tommy Freeman’s the same. When he got up off the line I was so afraid that the match would be blown up before he’d get on the pitch. So to see him come on and kick that point... His father Tom has been chairman for years in Magheracloone. You’re talking about real GAA people. Dick Clerkin and his family too. Hugo in ’85, now Dick in 2013. It’s just wonderful.”
He taught Dessie Mone in school in MacCartan’s. Coached Darren Hughes when he was over a minor team in Scotstown. Dropped Darren Hughes actually.
“Darren was always very good but when he was 17 he got a thumb injury. The team went on to reach the championship final and though it seems ridiculous now, we didn’t put Darren back in for the final because we had got there with the 15 other fellas. We ended up losing but Darren never once whinged or complained. He never held it against me.”
In a way that’s the Monaghan way, the GAA way. Bearing the bad days, always striving for and dreaming of glory days. That’s why Duffy was so happy for administrators in the county as well.
“In my opinion Monaghan is a really well-run GAA county. They have their priorities right. They have the right people in with the development teams. They run their fixtures well, make sure there’s plenty of games for the club player with the county players. Already they’ve played 10 league games with the county players available for all of them. Monaghan are blessed in having a county chairman like Paul Curran and a secretary like Sean McKenna.”
Their former administrators haven’t been half-bad either. Former county secretary Michael Byrnes was the man who a dozen summers ago devised the then ingenious All-Ireland qualifier system. Sean McCague was GAA president at the time. Yet perhaps McCague’s greatest legacy was introducing Duffy to headquarters and headquarters to Duffy.
On Monday he was back there for a 7.30 meeting, Ulster title or no Ulster title for his native county the previous evening in Clones. There was the scheduling and promoting of the fourth-round qualifiers, this interview with the Irish Examiner, another marketing meeting in the afternoon before heading to Tullamore to meet the Offaly county board executive who wanted to meet up for a chat.
More and more his and Croke Park’s time is being taken up with helping them cope with the impact of the recession.
“Emigration is having a serious impact on counties and clubs. So what we’ve been doing the last year or two is encouraging people to look at the rules and make them more flexible in terms of teams coming together and amalgamating and allowing lads to play hurling with another club and so on. Just ways of making it a bit easier for people to keep playing the games.
“But the biggest thing of all we’re finding is finance. That would be the biggest concern. This year in particular we’re noticeably getting more and more clubs onto us. We’ve obviously had a lot of clubs with high debts because of the money they borrowed to improve their facilities but this year we’re getting more and more complaints of clubs just trying to meet the day-to-day expenses.
“I had a letter last week from a club in Cork who had a debt of €600,000. They’d paid back €100,000 through various means but were finding it harder and harder to buys hurls and sliotars and equipment to play the games.
“They wanted to know could we provide funding for them to buy jerseys and that but I had to write back and say unfortunately we can’t. Our policy at central level is to provide funding for infrastructural development and provide grants through provincial councils. At this level we can’t get into the business of running the day-to-day expense of clubs but more and more you’re getting complaints like that.”
Duffy and headquarters are still doing what they can, just like the clubs are. They understand a lot of them built facilities during the good times and were dependent on revenue from bars and social centres. Now people can’t drink and drive. They can’t even afford to drink. The GAA, and especially its financial head Tom Ryan, have sat down with clubs and the banks when it has seemed both those parties can’t come to an arrangement but despite those interventions often being successful, more and more financial interventions are being requested.
Counties are struggling too. Headquarters will always be fine financially because they’ll only spend what they can afford; 85% of what comes in always goes out. But counties haven’t been so prudent. They’ve rolled the dice and lost. Duffy would be forgiving enough of those that at least have facilities to show for their expenditure; they’ve been an investment for generations to come. He’d be more scathing of counties that put almost all of it into county teams.
“About a third of the counties would be very solid financially; covering their costs or doing even better than that.
“Then you’d have another 10 that would be finding it tough going but you wouldn’t have any real concerns about. Then you’d have another 10 in which you’d have concerns about, some of them, huge concerns. Some counties were very unlucky that the crash came when they were developing their infrastructure but there are counties that ran up debts solely because of the cost of running county teams. That really shouldn’t have happened.”
The cost of running county teams and the possible payment to managers was a particular bugbear of former president Christy Cooney, prompting Duffy to write a lengthy discussion paper on the subject which he presented to Management Committee and Central Council. Nearly everyone else has forgotten about it now but he can’t.
When you ask him did it take up a lot of his time, he says: “A huge amount.”
And was it worth it? He pauses. “In the end, I would say probably not.”
It’s not that the paper is gathering dust. There were action points stemming from it. Last autumn Central Council ruled that managers couldn’t be paid and counties would have to provide a detailed register of everyone involved in a county team’s backroom and what their costs were. The success of that intervention hasn’t exactly been overwhelming.
“The experience has been fairly typical of trying to establish standards of governance. Some counties have been brilliant; very open and above board. Some counties have submitted the stuff and you’re chasing after them to complete stuff. And some counties have been dreadfully difficult.
“You ask me has it a difference. It’s very hard to say it has. What surprised me was the sheer number of people involved in county teams. I’m not saying they’re getting paid but there’s a lot of people involved now. The biggest problem I’d say is that from what information we’ve assembled so far by and large most counties are operating within or the edge of the rules. We’ve asked our auditors to look at several counties. There aren’t as many managers being paid as some people might have thought but there are some and where and how they’re being paid, well it’s probably not through the county board. It’s impossible to say how.”
He’s not exasperated by that. Duffy doesn’t do exasperation or resignation and while he wouldn’t be passive either, God or someone has granted him the serenity to know what he can and can’t control. He’s not David Stern, the NBA commissioner who can pull a franchise or owner up because he sees something he doesn’t like.
“I might be chief executive but this organisation is absolutely not like a business. You have 32 counties all of whom feel they have a level of autonomy and when it suits them they can be as distant from the centre as they want to be. So you do not have the level of control over counties and provinces that your position might seem to indicate and that can be very frustrating.”
For instance, as outlined in yesterday’s Irish Examiner, he would have major reservations about the purpose of lower-tier hurling competitions like the Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher Cups, and the provincial and All Ireland junior football and intermediate championships too; for him they’re not adequately promoting or developing the game. Donal Óg Cusack’s idea of a Team Ulster, in contrast, excites him. Duffy is certain that would hugely promote and develop the game. But trying to review or scrap those intermediate championships, trying to tell the original HDC that the Christy Ring Cup hasn’t been a success even though most of those committee members no longer go to the Christy Ring final, try getting a Team Ulster through the right political channels and hoops; it’s a hard slog and a hard sell.
Tweaking the main provincial championships would be a hard sell too. Duffy himself wouldn’t be a buyer.
Some people have called for four provinces of eight, moving Wexford, say, into Munster; but where then does that leave Wexford in hurling and Leinster as an administrative unit? Others have called for a round-robin league system within the provinces but doesn’t that just mean Kerry and Cork dish out even more heavy beatings to Waterford and Clare? Though there have been recent reports that Eugene McGee’s Football Review Committee are only going to put forward a discussion document on the competition structures for the sport, Duffy is expecting a full report from them — “That is the second part of their brief” — to bring to Central Council later in the year. It’s one he’s looking forward to and has an open mind to but he suspects that while there might be some change, some things shouldn’t.
“I have a completely open mind about any discussion about the championship structure. And I accept there is a huge issue there around the provincial championships. Everyone accepts there are six or eight counties that have little chance of silverware in their province. The difficulty is these same counties are reluctant to give up the chance to play in the championship. And you look at what the last three weeks have done for three counties — Dublin hurling, Limerick hurling, Monaghan football. It’s very hard to see a system that replaces that.”
There have been slow, subtle and sure changes though, ones that don’t maybe grab the headlines but reassure Duffy that he and his office and the system are doing their job. Last Friday week he chaired a management committee meeting at which the four provincial chairmen each provided a comprehensive report on how counties in their jurisdiction were getting more club games played.
“Even some of the counties that we had problems with last year have played championship games this year. And that’s because Congress this year gave powers to the CCCC [Central Competitions Control Committee] whereby a county committee can’t overturn a decision of the CCCC.”
It could be even better, of course. He’d like the minor grade to be played at U17 because of the pressure of exams, and then make it U20 instead of U21. But he still feels you need to have your national league in February and your All-Ireland finals in September to give the games a media profile and window co-measurable with their rivals. The spring is always going to be hectic because if you were to move U21 county football into the summer it would be too much for clubs. You can’t play the colleges any other time really because some of them have exams just before Christmas while others have them just after it.
“Look,” he says, “you’ll never really solve the problem because you have so many players playing on so many teams. It’s an enormous quandary and while I feel we’ve made progress, you’ll never really solve the problem.”
But that’s the joys of it. As Leonard Cohen would say, there’s a crack in everything; that’s what lets the light in.
Realising that and accommodating that is what made a sunny day in Clones last week so glorious and it’s what brightens up and powers a supporter of theirs called Páraic Duffy.