Cork has had to again accept its affairs would be better off run by Croke Park

A year before the IMF, ECB, and European Commission landed in Dublin, the GAA’s own equivalent of a troika was ready to bail out a besieged Cork County Board and its long-time secretary Frank Murphy, writes Kieran Shannon.

Cork has had to again accept its affairs would be better off run by Croke Park

A year before the IMF, ECB, and European Commission landed in Dublin, the GAA’s own equivalent of a troika was ready to bail out a besieged Cork County Board and its long-time secretary Frank Murphy, writes Kieran Shannon.

At the time, Leeside was in the throes of its third and most divisive strike of the decade, prompting Paraic Duffy, just a year into his role as GAA director-general, along with president-in-waiting Christy Cooney, to fly into town, sit down with the warring factions, and try to draft some kind of truce.

After multiple midnight talks and late-night meetings, what would become known as the Duffy-Cooney document was presented to the striking players. If they were willing to play out the remainder of that 2009 season under Gerald McCarthy’s management, the Cork County Board were agreeable to a range of measures in which their affairs would be basically managed by HQ. At the end of that year, a review process overseen by Duffy personally would be carried out by a three-person committee, nominated by Croke Park, to review all aspects of the respective inter-county teams’ season and recommend who would manage Cork in football and hurling the following season.

Most significantly of all, a strategic five-year plan for Cork, reviewing its games development strategy, infrastructure and facilities, fixtures and “overall personnel requirements to manage the future of Cork GAA”, would be conducted.

It was an astonishing concession and admission from the Cork County Board, that essentially they weren’t fit to govern their own affairs. As Dónal Óg Cusack would describe it in his autobiography later that year, the document meant the county board would be practically “put into suspended animation”. Páirc Uí Chaoimh would ostensibly be run by Croke Park. The board were forsaking their sovereignty in the battle to keep Gerald as manager.

As it would transpire, the players wouldn’t take the short-term hit for long-term gain; by then they felt relations with McCarthy were so toxic as to be beyond repair, and with their age profile, 2009 was too precious a championship window to waste on a manager they hadn’t sufficient faith in.

And so Gerald went, under duress, and the board stayed in charge of their own affairs, albeit it was supposed to be only for a little bit longer in Murphy’s case. Six months after McCarthy’s departure, he announced his own would be imminent, that he’d be stepping down as county secretary before the end of 2010.

Among the first and loudest to pay tribute to him was the same Duffy who had been willing to intervene and even monitor Cork’s own affairs. He lauded Murphy’s “huge contribution to the GAA nationally” and how he envisaged him continuing to help out at national level with his unmatched knowledge of the rulebook. As for matters concerning Cork, he would be “difficult to replace” but “everybody is replaceable”.

The Cork County Board begged to differ: Frank was irreplaceable. Year after year his contract would be extended by another year or two, the perceived wisdom being that he was the best man – the only man- to navigate the building of a new stadium.

This weekend Frank Murphy will finally vacate the seat he was first entrusted with 46 years ago when he was a fresh, vibrant 27-year-old. The tributes will flow, and cited among his finest legacies will be the completion of that said new stadium. Even his critics would concede that it was something that simply had to be done and the end result is glorious.

Unfortunately, the cost and debt involved is also monumental.

In his outgoing report to this weekend’s convention, Murphy has revealed that the company which runs the Croke Park stadium is now running the Páirc Uí Chaoimh operation for at least the next three years.

Murphy was diplomatic in how he imparted the news. He phrased it as a “favourable commercial agreement”, and thanked “the personnel” who are currently managing the stadium and the “interest and support” of Duffy and his successor Tom Ryan and Ryan’s successor as financial controller Ger Mulryan, as well as Peter McKenna, director of the Croke Park stadium.

Let there be no bones about it though. Croke Park is running all aspects of the Cork stadium, operational as well as commercial. Just months out from the 10th anniversary of the Duffy-Cooney document, Cork has had to again accept its affairs would be better off run by Croke Park.

The stadium has ran way over-budget, or at least €15 million over what the clubs were informed it would cost. What was supposed to generate revenue for all of Cork GAA will instead be the subject of debt for years to come.

In short, the project and its debt has been too big and too much for them.

The first year of the stadium, the board appointed Bob Ryan, the county chairman at the time of the second of the county’s three strikes, as stadium operations manager but in the summer he stepped down.

Since then Peter McKenna has been around Páirc Uí Chaoimh as much as he’s been in Croke Park and will no doubt play a role in appointing a new stadium manager.

In ways, it’s all good for Cork. Croke Park will guarantee all the board’s loans in exchange for running the business. The inevitable sale of the board’s 20-acre site in Kilbarry will go some way towards paying off the debt, as promising as it was a possible centre of excellence site. And more so next Monday begins a new era as Murphy’s successor, Kevin O’Donovan, starts in his new job.

If anything O’Donovan’s appointment is as significant and as revealing a statement about Cork GAA as is the current management of its shiny new stadium.

O’Donovan has to know, more than anything, it’s the culture of Cork GAA has to change: just how it conducts business day by day.

At the time that third strike was reaching its crescendo, there was a particularly vivid image painted at a gathering of the clubs in west Cork. One club member spoke about going down to the offices in Páirc Uí Chaoimh about an inquiry and getting a delayed response. After repeated knocking, a small window was eventually opened. “What do ye want?” Not “What can we do for you?”

O’Donovan’s job is that people are made feel they’re welcome, not irritants.

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