Helen O’Rourke Q&A: ‘They liked the game, it was fast, a purer form of football’

Dubliner Helen O’Rourke is celebrating 20 years as chief executive of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association. It’s been a hectic week at headquarters as the LGFA prepares for tomorrow’s TG4 All-Ireland finals in the junior, intermediate and senior grades.

Helen O’Rourke Q&A: ‘They liked the game, it was fast, a purer form of football’

Q: What kind of crowd are you hoping for on Sunday?

A: We had almost 35,000 last year, and we’d hope to meet that and exceed it. But a lot comes down to the weather on the day. If the weather is good, people will walk up and they’ll come but if the weather is miserable, sometimes you’d worry that if people bought tickets, they might say ‘ah to hell with it.’ But the fact that we had the Dublin and Mayo men in the final last Sunday, and that rivalry between the two counties, you can certainly see that flow over into the women’s game, with the same two counties. I would be hoping we’d have an excellent crowd, that would beat any of our records.

Q: What has this week entailed, in terms of getting organised?

A: Long hours, you’re talking about 15-hour days at least, for all of the staff. The ticket sales are done through the office. We have to prepare the programme, deal with the stadium, catering facilities, security and all of that. We also run an All-Ireland club 7s through the office on Saturday. There are 90 teams to be catered for. It’s pretty hectic. It’s a long and tiring week, but it’s also a fun week. It’s a small staff but there’s no such thing as ‘I’m CEO and I do my usual duties.’ We all muck in. It’s used in many ways as team-building as well within the office for a week.

Q: How long are you CEO now?

A: Twenty years this September.

Q: From where the Association was then, to where it is now, there have been huge changes?

A: I was the first employee they ever took on. Things are very, very different. I had to do everything myself, there were much smaller numbers playing, we had very little TV coverage, very small sponsorships, small crowds at All-Irelands. It was adults and a little bit of underage going but it’s a totally different scene now.

Q: Where were you based?

A: The O’Neills House of Sport on the Long Mile Road.

Q: Basic enough at the time?

A: In fairness, O’Neills gave me a nice office but being a Northsider, I had to get across to there. My role was everything that the team is doing now with me, and I had to do that on the road as well.

Q: The standard and profile of the games now, that must give you a lot of pride to see how they have grown and developed?

A: It does. People often ask when did the real change begin and that came with TG4 coming on board. We always felt as an Association that if we could lock people into a stadium, just to look at our game, that they’d like it, and they’d come back. With TG4 then, it got into people’s homes and people were talking about the game. They liked the game, it was fast, a purer form of football. And a lot of schools realised that this is a great team sport. You could use your 15 and subs, you were getting a lot involved in it. And parents saw it as a great sport for their kids. The introduction of TV really helped us and raised the bar then for us in ensuring we got good sponsors.

Q: What’s your own background in Ladies football? How did you get involved?

A: The first time the All-Ireland final was played at Croke Park was in 1986. That year, I got involved with Dublin. There was always a great GAA interest in our family. I got involved as Dublin secretary for a number of years and then became PRO for the national Association. I was President from 1994-1997 and then took up this job in September 1997.

Q: There are so many good things happening but what are the main challenges?

A: Sometimes when people look at sport, they just look at the elite end of it and what they’ll see tomorrow is very much the elite. But what’s going on underneath that is just unbelievable. One of the real challenges for us is to be able to sustain the growth that’s there. There are huge numbers getting involved, from small children up to older women, Gaelic 4 Mothers and Others, the recreational end of it. We need the resources to provide good programmes for those, to make sure our coaching is the best, and we desperately need more volunteers involved. It’s finance, sponsors, to be able to sustain the growth of what we have, but in doing that, to make sure we offer a top-quality service to everybody, whether you’re somebody playing in the club for fun, and don’t have an interest in being on the elite team, or the elite players that are here on Sunday. Sometimes people forget and think that we’re all about what we see on Sunday but underneath that is what the Association is all about.

Q: Cora Staunton was talking recently about young girls dropping out of the sport. The trick is to keep them involved?

A: We recognise that. Earlier this year we started Gaelic 4 Teens, because that’s a huge area where there was a lot of drop-out. It was piloted last year and any of the clubs that took part in that really enjoyed it. In many ways, it’s down to educating the volunteers involved in the club, on how to deal with these teenage girls, and make it fun for them, make it enjoyable for them. It’s definitely something we’re going to continue and expand but that whole age group would be a huge challenge for us going forward.

Q: You have close connections with Dublin. How do you handle the natural love of Dublin with being professional on the day?

A: It is hard! You’re sitting in the front row of the Ard Comhairle, with the President and Taoiseach. If you were sitting anywhere else and there was a score, you could…but I tend to try and keep my hands tight and you have to manage it because my role is there for everybody. But I’m a Dub and my heart will always be for Dublin. The other thing is that you tend not to wear the colours that the teams have. I’d have to wear my blue in different, subtle ways!

Q: How many staff are in the office?

A: Ten – and we’re looking at taking on another four staff in the coming months. We’re a very small team but we work very well with the volunteers around the country because part of our job is not to go out and do it for clubs, but to train up people to implement the courses and to be self-sufficient. There’s a lot of work entailed in that but yes, we are a small staff for the size of the organisation. Hopefully, that will expand in the coming years.

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