Keeping the provincial wheel turning

New Munster Council CEO Kieran Leddy has one obvious challenge looming; a Munster Hurling Championship swelled to almost three times its old size. But there is much more in his in-tray; the financing of clubs, the ever-tightening squeeze on facilities and a shortage of referees

Keeping the provincial wheel turning

Underneath the bonnet, the engine keeps motoring away. The markers of the GAA season are obvious to even the casual observer — the big games, the build-up, the joy and despair following the final whistle.

Facilitating that whole carnival takes work, however, and the contributing agencies — the county boards, the clubs the teams — all need support and help. The provincial councils are often the first port of call.

Kieran Leddy was announced as the new CEO/Secretary of the Munster Council a couple of weeks ago. Having already served as operations manager in Munster, he’s familiar with the structures involved, but this year there are different challenges. Different questions being asked.

“I’ll obviously be taking an overall role in terms of the organisation of our championships and various competitions, something which brings on a whole new life this year given that we’ll be having 11 games in the hurling championship compared to four, which was the case for years.

“I’ll also be working much more closely with the clubs on the legal side of their property ownership and so on, particularly with the GAA corporate trust to be implemented. That’s in place for the last few months and I’ll work with the clubs on that.

“Some parts of the role sat much the same in terms of having an overview of the finances and so on, but there’ll be new parts to it in terms of administration and the games in particular.”

It’s become an easy stick to beat the GAA with, the ‘commercial agenda’ targeted by many a disgruntled columnist. But funding clubs, in particular, is a live challenge for every sport, not just within the GAA. Leddy agrees that that may not be on most GAA supporters’ radar: “It wouldn’t be, and to be fair it only really becomes an issue for the clubs themselves if they’re setting about borrowing money from a bank or disposing of property, but apart from that the ordinary member of the GAA wouldn’t be aware of it. But neither would most clubs until it comes time to borrow money or purchase land, or whatever it is they want to do.

“We’d work hard with clubs when they do undertake those projects to make sure everything is correct in those areas.”

This is where the tension can arise: a club is keen to provide the best facilities it possibly can for its members, but there are also financial considerations. Is there a danger that some clubs’ dreams outstrip their ability to meet their financial obligations?

“In fairness to clubs they’re very realistic. There’s a process in the GAA where if a club wants to borrow money it has to go through the proper channels, whether that’s a provincial council or Central Council.

“That helps clubs in that we can look over their borrowing application, the exact details of what it is they’re planning to do, before that goes to the Central Council.

“In my own case, with five years with the Munster Council we’ve had dozens upon dozens of clubs come to us with various projects in mind, and in that time there’s really been only one club’s plan, which I can recall, that was too ambitious for the size of the club involved and could have left the club in serious debt in years to come.

“In my experience clubs are very responsible and realistic in terms of what they can do, what they can take on — and at the same time they’re also ambitious.”

For ambition read facilities. Last week’s announcement that the GAA, Camogie Association and Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) had agreed draft memorandums of understanding served to underline the pressure on facilities within Gaelic games.

“The reality is that there was a time when clubs had one pitch, and that was all they needed, but most clubs now need two pitches. Thankfully there’s been a huge growth in membership, as well as in participation in camogie and ladies football, so most clubs now cater for one or other or both.

“That requires facilities, and every year we have a €1 million grant scheme for clubs, and we’ll get up to 120 applications for funding every year. They might be grants to put up floodlights, to build a hurling wall, to add another pitch, to buy land... the whole area of facilities development is going on the whole time, and it’s great to see. It shows the level of activity is increasing as well, hence the requirement for facilities.

“That’s a big area of work for us with clubs and towards the end of the year the grant scheme is a major undertaking for us in terms of administration, but it’s good to see the ambition there on the part of the clubs.”

Interestingly, Leddy notes the degree of co-operation between the provincial councils: “We would have a good deal of interaction because we’d have representatives on various national committees together — the national infrastructure committee, for instance, the insurance work group, the national CCC. Those are all major committees with plenty of work to do, so we’d be working with the other provinces in those areas.

“When it comes to rolling out the likes of the club officer training programme or the anti-doping programme that came in last year, we’d always co-operate with the other provinces. There are very good relationships with the other provincial councils, which obviously helps a lot.”

What helps to fund those programmes and grant schemes is the shop window for Gaelic games in the province — the Munster Championships. This year there’s one obvious difference for the new man to deal with, the revamped Senior Hurling Championship, which has almost three times as many games as its predecessor.

“One major difference for us is that this summer we’ll be running two major games on the one day,” says Leddy.

“So that means we need two ticket-selling structures in one place, for instance. Two sets of stewards in two different locations, all of those present challenges.

“But we don’t sit down a couple of weeks beforehand to plan this either. We began last November, talking to the stakeholders involved and planning for it.

“I think it’s great, that we’ll have major games played in the major urban areas in the province, for instance, because everybody knows we need exposure — the games need exposure and the sports area is a very busy place given everything being shown live on the television and so on.

“We need to be in that space as well and 11 games versus four has to be a good idea. It’ll give people ready access to top class hurling, which I don’t think was the case as much with the previous system.

“I think it’s going to be great and is certainly worth the initial three-year deal, and we’ll see how it goes then.”

There’ll be an obvious dividend for the towns and cities hosting the games. “There is because heretofore, depending on how the championship draw went, a county might go years without a home game in the Munster championship. That happened.

“A few years ago we saw the huge excitement in Limerick when they beat Tipperary and then Cork to win a Munster title, two games played in the Gaelic Grounds. There was huge excitement around the city and county that day, that evening and for few weeks after.

“But in the old system a county mightn’t get those games for a couple of years. Now they’re guaranteed a couple of home games, and not only that, they’ll know them a couple of years in advance so they can plan around it in terms of holidays and planning going to games. The structure means that the draw is effectively made for five years. That’s the way it works.”

On that note Leddy pointed out that Waterford may now be able to play ‘home’ championship games outside Walsh Park: “Central Council last week approved what’s called a deviation from rule which would allow Waterford to play their home games outside Walsh Park, so that option is now on the table.

“If required, Waterford will be able to play outside Walsh Park, then, but at this stage discussions are ongoing. The option is there.”

There are other challenges in Leddy’s in-tray. Match officials are always in demand, for instance.

“I’d be concerned that last December two counties in particular referred to the fact that they were finding it difficult to source referees for club games.

“In many respects we can have all the fixture programmes we like, but if we don’t have the referees to handle them we won’t have games.

“That’s something which certainly rang an alarm bell for me and it’s something we’ll have to sit down and discuss with the referees co-ordinators around the province to see what needs to be done.

“And now is the time to do it rather than waiting another five to six years when the problem may have become a lot worse. That’s certainly something to focus on in the short term.”

So are the pre-season competitions, but Leddy points out that the McGrath Cup and Munster Senior Hurling League are run for the benefit of the counties: “We’d be very firmly of the view that it’s up to the counties, really, whether they want to participate or not.

“A couple of years ago we sat down with the counties and discussed with them where they wanted to go with those pre-season competitions.

“We didn’t have an issue with counties saying they had no interest in them but what we heard from them — and there were inter county managers there as well the same night — was that they didn’t want to head into a national league programme without playing a few challenge matches to try out new players.

“That was particularly true of the hurling teams, which had only five league games and could find themselves under pressure if they lost their first game or two.

“Out of that meeting came the idea for the Munster Senior Hurling League.

“That was another concern being raised by those counties — that the old format had been knock-out, so a county might only get one game in the competition before going out, when they felt they needed one or two.

“Something people need to realise is that we run the competitions to help the counties, if that’s what the counties want. If they want games then we’ll run those competitions for them; if they don’t want them and want to organise their own games between each other, that’s fine too.

“People might think because a county doesn’t participate in the McGrath Cup or the Senior Hurling League that they’re not playing matches, but all those counties are playing challenge games here and there also.

“If that’s the approach they want to take that’s fine by us; it’s up to the counties to decide whether they want to participate or not.”

There are other markers of health. Take the Munster intermediate and junior club championships, which have spun out into their own compelling narratives over the years.

“Those are great competitions. The junior finals in Mallow every December are wonderful occasions, and you can really see what it means to clubs to go out and win a Munster title and then, hopefully, an All-Ireland title.

“In terms of Munster clubs we had a very good year at All- Ireland level: it was fantastic to see the likes of Ardmore win the junior hurling, Knocknagree win the junior football and Kanturk win the intermediate hurling.

“They’re great competitions, it was a great idea to introduce them in the first place and hopefully they’ll go from strength to strength. We’re lucky enough in that almost every year we’ll have a number of clubs which go on to win All-Ireland titles, which is a good indication of the strength of the games in the provinces.”

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