O’Neill has doubts over GPA deal

OUTSIDE Donal O’Neill’s office in Malta, the winter sun sparkles. His CBN online gaming company is booming. He’s out the doors busy. Life’s good. Again.

After taking a few years to recover from losing a packet to disgraced solicitor Michael Lynn, he’s back on his feet. “I was a bit of a visionary because my money disappeared with him a year ahead of everybody else,” he chuckled. “I lost a very considerable sum.”

It was the GPA, his baby, that kept O’Neill in Ireland up until the late noughties before he set up a clothing line.

Although his knowledge about the online gambling industry was minimal, O’Neill saw it was growing and saw an opportunity. After being stung by Lynn, he felt he needed to reinvent himself. His initial steps were tentative ones — embarrassing too.

He’s now at the stage where he’s au fait with the gig and the GPA seems a lifetime away.

He’s still in touch with former treasurer Ciarán McArdle, a good friend of his, and he visits Ireland a handful of times a year (his cousin is Down manager James McCartan), but says all of his ties with the organisation are exhausted.

After having a parting shot at the players’ body in 2008, there were murmurs he had left because he wasn’t getting enough commission for the commercial agreements he had brought in for the GPA. “I did all the deals but there was never any question of taking a cut of those.”

He just didn’t like the direction the GPA was going. Back then, he warned the GPA risked being compromised by following the official recognition path. Now, as Central Council are today set to confirm the GAA’s new five-year agreement with the Dessie Farrell-led body, he fears they run the risk of becoming irrelevant.

He would never have accepted the deal offered by Croke Park. He wanted a percentage of commercial income, and he would never have budged on that.

“The only really powerful player organisations in the world are those that have a percentage of commercial income,” O’Neill explained.

“Those that don’t simply don’t count in the long term. There’s no real precedent for it in Ireland but that’s how it works and that’s how the business of sport works.

“The biggest challenge now for the GPA is to remain relevant. It will always come back to money because that’s the one thing the GAA understands. It’s something that unfortunately players, being from the generation that they are, fully understand and I just don’t see Ireland setting a different precedent than anywhere else.

“Player associations that don’t have income that rises in line with the organisation’s get put to sleep. I’d like to be proved wrong though.”

Briefed on the €8 million-plus five-year deal between the GPA and GAA, O’Neill takes his hat off to Cooney and his negotiating team. “It seems like a small thing but the GAA writing the cheque is a big thing.

“The GAA knew they had to do more for players. In five years time, the GAA’s line to players will be that they’re putting €2.2m a year into resources for them. It’s a great deal for the GAA, a better deal on balance for the GAA in headline terms.”

When O’Neill heard that Fintan Drury - the former Anglo Irish board member, who was in the news this week for a game of golf with Taoiseach Brian Cowen and the bank’s ex-chief executive, Sean FitzPatrick - was on the GPA’s side of the negotiating table, he smiled.

“He’s a very accomplished, powerful individual but I remember a comment he made the week before we did the Club Energise deal (in 2003 — an agreement which is still in place). He said we didn’t know what we were doing commercially.

“Dessie wanted to respond but I told him the response would come with the deal, and a week later we delivered just that.

“Business is business; Dessie needed assistance, and the man I put them in touch with was Nick Couchman (an internationally-regarded lawyer). His expertise surpasses anything that’s available in Ireland and I was disappointed he wasn’t engaged further.”

O’Neill takes pride in being a thorn in the GAA’s side. Being regarded as a pariah in Croke Park, he says, is a back-handed compliment.

“At the point where they tried to work with us and gave me the killing with kindness routine, I knew we were going the right way.

“They made moves to bring me in and manage an entire marketing scheme for players and some of the guys in the GPA thought this was a good idea. I had to talk sense into them. They thought if they offered me a good wage, I’d be interested but I had no time for it.

“I knew from others who have worked with Croke Park on a consultancy basis what the opinion of me was. Bottom line, like or lump it.”

Part of that achievement O’Neill now regards as being diluted. He doesn’t like how his baby has grown up, but it’s not his problem anymore.

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