In Woody Allen’s 1971 spoof comedy, the movie opens with legendary sports announcer Don Dunphy — playing himself — looking deadpan into the camera, as he begins his broadcast: “Good afternoon. Wide World of Sports is in the Republic of San Marcos where we’re going to bring you a live, on-the-spot assassination. They’re going to kill the president of this lovely Latin American country and replace him with a military dictatorship. Everybody is about as excited and tense as can be. The weather this Sunday afternoon is perfect and, if you’ve just joined us, we’ve seen a series of colourful riots that started with the bombing of the American Embassy, a ritual as old as the city itself. Following that, the leader of the Labour Union, Julio Doaz, was dragged from his home and beaten by an angry mob. lt was one of the most exciting spectacles I’ve ever seen…”
Don then hands over to Howard Cossell, who gives an excited play-by-play of the assassination.
The scene came to mind as I contemplated the upcoming Mayo County Board convention, an event that, in recent times, has had elements of Woody Allen spoof and banana republic rebellion sprinkled over it like fairy dust. Back west, the drama in the boardrooms is often as Hollywood as that in the arena, and that’s saying something.
Any hope this year’s entry would sail by unnoticed was gunned down like the aforementioned president of San Marcos, with the publication in yesterday’sof an interview with financial trader and Mayo superfan Tim O’Leary, in which he laid bare his revamped manifesto for change in the county, plunging himself feet first back into the zeitgeist in the process.
The upcoming convention was always likely to garner attention, regardless of O’Leary’s Bobby Ewing return, but his strategically timed needle drop will likely cause a few headaches for those who wear the blazers in Castlebar.
Two years ago, O’Leary and the county board engaged in a pretty brutal campaign of accusation and counter-accusation, which culminated in O’Leary initiating High Court proceedings against Mayo seeking the return of a €150,000 payment he made to the board which he claims was not used for the purpose he entrusted it (claims the Mayo county board denied).
Peace broke out with the election of Crossmolina native Liam Moffatt to the chairmanship of the county board in a move that was widely viewed as progressive for an institution suffering from legacy issues and burdened by extreme financial stresses. Moffatt was not of the establishment, and as an ex-player and local businessman, hopes were high he could diplomatically unite the many clans of Mayo football while steering, or at least manoeuvring, the county out of the financial mire compounded by a debt owed to Croke Park for the redevelopment of McHale Park.
Whatever optimism accompanied Moffat’s ascension to office, nobody in their right mind could have expected drastic change in two years (two years fractured by the blight of Covid-19 as well as the pressures of successive All-Ireland final appearances for the Mayo senior footballers).
Despite being largely credited with bringing enhanced transparency, governance and professionalism to the running of the board, Moffatt announced last month he would be stepping down just two years into an expected five-year term.
Naturally, he has had his critics, but few working in Mayo would dispute his legacy will be one of progress, particularly in the areas of financial stability, improved commercial reach and the rather unsexy but hugely important area of mental health initiatives across clubs in Mayo. His reasons for stepping down are personal, and with a young family, he has more than earned the right to reprioritise.
And so, as one man departs the arena, another re-enters, revitalised by his short absence, and primed to disrupt.
Prevailing wisdom always had it that O’Leary, who voluntarily disappeared himself from the Mayo landscape in February 2020, would always execute a dramatic return. It may have come regardless of Moffat’s exit, but his reentry into the fray a week out from a convention and election for chairman will undoubtedly send feathers flying.
In Barry J Whyte’s piece, O’Leary forensically describes his frustrations with the Mayo county board as well as detailing his strategies for staging a San Marcos style revolt (minus the assassinations of course). O’Leary told the Business Post that ahead of the 2019 county board convention at which Moffat was eventually elected, he and his tiger team “decided to proceed and develop a strategy to do maximum damage to the existing board which we hoped would create an opening for Moffatt. We engaged the services of a high-profile PR company and we devised a plan which was codenamed Operation Scorched Earth”.
Operation Scorched Earth! No, you are not reading about the American Tet offensive in Vietnam, but a GAA county convention. Remarkable stuff. All the more remarkable that O’Leary is willing to divulge and say so openly what heretofore has been only whispered in snugs and speakeasies.
It’s O’Leary’s utter disregard for convention and protocol — the foundation blocks of the traditional county board structure — that make him such a compelling, if at times uncomfortable, character in the Mayo footballing landscape. He is unbound by the code of omerta which usually permeates the structures of the great institutions. Who he offends in that pursuit seems to bother him little.
How ready the good footballing folk of Mayo are to once again have any laundry — regardless of cleanliness — aired in public will go some ways in determining the success or otherwise of O’Leary’s latest attempt to disrupt the present structures and change the future.
The shenanigans of the autumn of discontent in 2019 left a bitter taste on all sides, but while Moffat’s tenure was largely a conciliatory and positive one, the fallout from the All-Ireland final loss to Tyrone this year has served as a reminder that many of the issues O’Leary so aggressively exposed may still remain.
All that is certain is there’ll be drama aplenty. Quelle surprise, as they say in Garrymore, ’twas ever thus.