The Kieran Shannon Interview: They have the potential to be the biggest change agents

The plight of club players was front and centre once more this week when Cork delegates debated radical new championship structures.

The Kieran Shannon Interview: They have the potential to be the biggest change agents

The plight of club players was front and centre once more this week when Cork delegates debated radical new championship structures. Micheál Briody, chairman of the Club Players’ Association, was an interested observer of the discussions in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and now believes that progress is slowly but surely being made by the GAA in tackling the thorny issue.

They haven’t gone away, you know. They haven’t yet dropped out. The way they see it, too many club players have dropped out as it is and will continue to do so until the GAA, with a bit of help from themselves, fix the fixtures.

So Micheál Briody is still the chairman of the still-in-existence Club Players Association, two and a half years since its foundation and his appointment. In a years’ time, that might be different. He hopes it’s different. That’s the plan. That they no longer exist because the problem no longer exists. But until then, he promises, he and they will keep working and chipping away.

Over the last six months they’ve had several meetings with the GAA, most notably president John Horan and director-general Tom Ryan. And from those recent communications, Briody and the rest of the CPA executive have been led to believe that Horan is on the verge of establishing a high-powered committee to review all existing inter-county championship structures. Central Council is ready to rubberstamp it.

It’s quite the change from when you might have last heard the words ‘CPA’ and ‘Horan’ in the same breath. At Congress back in February, Horan was perceived to have had a bit of a pop at the organisation with a show-us-your-proposals jibe, something which a displeased Briody at the time criticised as “disrespectful” and “playing to the audience”.

To Briody now though, that’s all water under the bridge. He says he can see why some of his own comments in 2018 might not have been viewed too kindly by Horan either. They’ve all moved on from all that, he contends.

“Look, some things were said and we were disappointed in the remark, but maybe it was taken out of context by us. Since then we’ve spoken and we’ll continue to speak and there’s no issue there with all that now.

“We are determined to work with them on the formation of this committee. We’ve been told that we will be part of that, that we will be one of the seats on that. We’re excited about that because it affords an opportunity to the GAA to change the whole intercounty fixtures [schedule] for the better good for every player – intercounty college, club, the whole works.

“We do believe there is good faith being shown by an Uachtarán [Horan] and the DG [Ryan]. We know they are committed to this. What we’re concerned about is the timeframe. We’d like to set it up ASAP.

“But they are committed to it, and ultimately it will be they who lead it. And they have the potential to be the biggest change agents in the GAA of the last 30 years, since the Peter Quinn presidency [when it was decided to revamp Croke Park]. Their legacy could be that significant.”

In their talks, Briody has found that their language has become more conciliatory and even shared. At the start of the process, the CPA felt it had to introduce terms into the discourse. Fix the Fixtures. Blank Canvas. Designated periods. Some of them are still useful and used by both parties.

There’s broad agreement that there needs to be club-designated periods, and something a lot less ambiguous than the supposed current club month of April. The fixtures still need to be fixed. But as for blank canvas?

It achieved its goal in opening minds and the debate itself but he can see why it didn’t catch on and never will with GAA officialdom. Its inference, says Briody, “is that everything about the GAA is arsewise, that everything they’re doing is arsewise. And it’s not.”

Some competitions in themselves, he finds, are fantastic. The national football league. The hurling provincial championships. Even the Joe McDonagh Cup – if it was marketed and televised properly. It’s just that their knock-on-effects aren’t, especially on the club. The fixtures still need to be fixed.

It’s going to be quite the challenge, but then again, in the day job, Briody is having to deal with the one issue of our times that is even more head-wrecking issue than the GAA calendar – Brexit.

Although he’s still only 43, Briody is in his fifth year as CEO of Silver Hill Farm, a duck business with its headquarters based in the border town of Emyvale in Monaghan, but with multiple breeding farms and contract growers north of the border just miles away.

Already he’s got his green card to cover his car insurance crossing the border. It’s a commute he makes almost every day. For lunch he’ll often go up to the breeding farm in Aughnacloy, five miles up the road, paying in sterling.

As a company, they’ve had to make arrangements too. While their best-known client is the Asian market, exporting 20,000 ducks a month to Singapore and its finest restaurants, 40% of their exports is to the UK. Just as his fellow CPA executive colleague Liam Griffin introduced a lot of the GAA world to the concept of scenario planning, such as how his 1996 Wexford team would deal with being a man down in the All Ireland final, Briody and his team have also prepared for a number of what-ifs.

“We’ve done a lot of planning for it. We have a Brexit manager. But we’re not making any decisions until it actually happens, or we know in what shape it’s happening, or if it happens at all. You can’t say to me, ‘Oh, we’ll put a plant up in the north as well.’ I will not! Do you know the cost of doing that?! And then Brexit might be reversed? Or not happen at all. Until Westminster and Brussels decide what the hell is happening, businesses can’t make actual decisions.”

In that sense, life as a GAA member has familiarised him well with uncertainty. Briody is from Oldcastle, a small town in the north-west corner of Meath, and for 25 years played championship football for the local club, St Brigid’s. He takes no offence if you never heard of them.

They had a player, Micheal Flood, alright at corner back on the UCC team that won the Sigerson earlier this year but the last player they had on the senior county team would have been Gerry Farrelly back in ’75 before his place was taken by a lean left-legged kid called Colm O’Rourke.

Most of their football has been in the junior ranks, though the county they won in ’94 offered them some respite from that grade. And yet rain, hail, snow, Briody was there through it all. He remembers the decade he lived in Dublin and the madness of leaving Dun Laoighaire at five in the evening and not returning from training until near midnight. “You’d get back and ask yourself ‘What kind of committed eejit am I when there were lads just around the corner from the pitch who didn’t bother to pop down because there was a Champions League match on?”

But there was nothing he could but do everything he could do. At 28 he was club chairman. At 40 he was still playing midfield in a county championship quarter-final.

“One time I was marking this other older lad and he said to me, ‘I thought you’d retired!’ I said to him, ‘I thought you’d retired!’ And he said, ‘Well, let’s not be codding each other. The only reason we’re both playing is because of this emigration shit! It’s not like we’re any good now!’

“I was still playing for the [reserves] until last month. Pulled my hamstring. I said, ‘Lads, good luck. I’m 43, get me out of here!’”

But still he helps out in other ways. He’s currently coaching the U10s, both the boys and the girls, as at that age they play together; numbers dictate it. And indirectly he’d like to think his work with the CPA is helping the club’s adult players too.

He knows their plight and pain. This weekend the club championship in Meath kicks off. For years he fought in that battlefield, he was that solider, with all the waiting and boredom and uncertainty that went with waiting for the next battle.

You’d play a couple of games in April and then sit around, not knowing and not being able to plan until Meath were knocked out of the championship.

"Then they could be toppled by someone unexpectedly in the qualifiers and you’d be ‘Oh, Jesus, right!’ and all the texts would be going round, ‘We need to have training tomorrow! Championship could be next weekend or if not, the weekend after.’

“It was just madness. I used to look enviously on at lads who’d get their soccer or rugby schedules at the start of the year and it’d have a firm time and a date five months in advance. I didn’t know if I was playing the next week!

“Now for the first time in 20 years I can book my holidays without having to see how the county gets on in championship. I never had a June or July holiday in case they were knocked out and we were out the following week.

“But you won’t have that blind loyalty to the GAA anymore. Times have changed. Young fellas have a lot more options and opportunities.

“If we think club players over the next 20 years are going to give the same blind loyalty to the GAA as my generation did, we’re deluding ourselves. Because they’re disillusioned.

“I see it in my own club. I see it in all the emails we [the CPA] get. ‘Look, I can’t take this anymore. I’m 30, getting married, trying to get back home for training but there’s no idea of when there’s a match.

“And that’s why there’s a real urgency to all this. A lad at 27 won’t be playing at 31. By then he’ll be engaged and she’s saying ‘What are you at?’ And you know then what he’ll be at? Soccer, because he knows it’s on every Sunday at 10am.”

He didn’t volunteer to be chairperson, it just ended up that way. With his work in Fern Hill, he’d stay up in Emyvale once a week and use Declan Brennan’s gym nearby and when the Clontibret man floated the idea of a CPA, he asked Briody from his business experience would he facilitate its first meeting.

“You know yourself then,” he smiles, “when you’re sitting in a chair and you’re asking for a chair, it’s very hard to get out of being in the chair!”

So, 30 months later, what have they done? On the surface, to date, very little. But that is about to change, he thinks.

“Have we been successful in getting motions through Congress? Absolutely not. And if we were here for the next 20 years and go through the route we’ve taken to date, would we achieve anything at Congress? No. We’re viewed as outsiders.

UCC's, Paddy O'Loughlin and Muskerry's, Declan Hanlon in action in the SHC Divisions/Colleges Section Rd.2 at Pairc Ui Rinn. Pic: Gavin Browne.
UCC's, Paddy O'Loughlin and Muskerry's, Declan Hanlon in action in the SHC Divisions/Colleges Section Rd.2 at Pairc Ui Rinn. Pic: Gavin Browne.

“Now, that perception is completely incorrect, because we’re all members of the GAA and doing various things in our own club. But maybe we’re to blame to some degree for that misperception. We never sat down with every county board and every provincial council.

“But we took the view that we have a limited time with this. There’s an urgency to this. So we took the view, ‘Right, we’re going right to the top.’ So we first of all engaged with Paraic Duffy and Aogán Ó Fearghaíl, and now we’re engaging with Tom Ryan and John Horan.

“Not for one minute do I now believe that you start some motion in a club and bring it all the way to the floor of Congress and get it passed. It doesn’t happen now. But we’ve met and talked with the DG [Tom Ryan] and an Uachtarán [Horan] quite a few times since Christmas and it looks like this competition structures and fixtures group is about to be established.”

Although Horan has yet to finalise who’ll be around that table, there’s an understanding that everything should be on the table, so everyone can benefit.

Briody isn’t going to dictate any of the terms but he has his own views. The football qualifiers will have to go, just as they have in hurling.

They’re the one thing that has brought uncertainty to every county. Because you don’t know exactly if or when you’ll be out in them.

The provincial football championships will also need to be reassessed. As in when to have them, or indeed whether to have them.

“It’s all to do with equality. One of the beauties of the national league is that everyone is out at the same weekend. Everyone knows when they’re playing in it. Even in the Super 8s, though I don’t agree with them, they’re straight-forward enough in that you know when you’ll be playing in them if you are playing in them.

“But what messes it up for so many counties are the provincial championships, where there can be a three-week gap between a Mayo playing their first game in it and Sligo then playing their first game in it.

“If you look at it, the whole provincial system was set up a time when people were going to matches on a horse and kart. I’m not saying the provincial [football] championships have to go, but there’s ways you could run it where it’ll allow counties to designate windows for the club.

“You could maybe have midweek fixtures in Leinster; there’s plenty of floodlights in every county now. There are different ways to cut this. We’ve to know when we need to decouple ourselves from tradition. That something that might have been brilliant through the years is no longer fit for purpose.

“There’s a whole lot brilliant about the GAA and its competitions but it has to be looked at holistically.”

He himself is like Horan: there is a case and a need for football to have a two-tier championship. But he’d be looking at something much different – and more attractive – than what Horan initially floated. You can’t have the qualifiers and then some new version of the Tommy Murphy Cup. The last thing that’s needed is another layer of games. And one of the first things it needs is TV. And not just for its final.

“It was shameful there was so little coverage of the Joe McDonagh Cup last year when it had so many games people would have really enjoyed on TV. But take it from a business point of view. I’m a businessman, and to me, it’s very simple. If you take the Premiership when it sits down for a TV deal, it says right, everybody has to be covered here, from Huddersfield up to Man U.

“It should be the same with us. ‘Right, you can have your marquee game on Sunday, say Cork-Tipp in the hurling, but for every Liam McCarthy game you show, you show a Joe McDonagh game. Same in the football. If you take Kerry-Monaghan as your 4 o’clock game, you need to take Sligo-Carlow as your 2pm game.’ Simple as! That’s taking both a business approach and a holistic approach. Everyone wins.”

The CPA’s role and agenda is all the more relevant considering the recent Option C proposal in Cork. For Briody, it was concerning but inevitable. He’s not totally sold on the idea that you just have a separate club-county calendar; somewhere in that is the assumption that all county players should play all county games and that mere club players should play only half the number of games that county players do.

“County players can’t be expected to play every game for their clubs,” he says. “They’re not a piece of meat.”

But should they be available to play every championship game for their club? Absolutely, he insists.

“I’m not surprised Option C was tabled. There are very good people in Cork, led by Kevin O’Donovan. But for me personally and other members of the executive of the CPA, we would not have liked that to see it passed because it would have been the beginning of the end with the precedent it would have set. And that would punish the club for producing a player. A club should love having one of its players representing the county, it should love supporting its county and supporting that player. I’m also not convinced that club players will stay around for the summer if they had to play lesser-valued championship games as they would have in Cork (had the option succeeded).

But it did further reiterate the need to do something centrally and how much of a crisis it is, that counties like Cork are having to come up with solutions like that to try to appease their club players.

"Compromise is required on all sides – clubs, county managers, provincial councils. With the group the Uachtarán is setting up will probably be looking at windows as to how a county player can play for both his club and county in the same month. And it’s going to take a bit of innovation and brave thinking. Otherwise, the Cork proposal is going to come up again somewhere and this time be passed.”

The GAA can avert that. He and the CPA are hoping that Horan’s committee will soon be established and then able to meet over the summer, before having some proposals for Congress 2020. Again, urgency is the order of the day; as he repeats, the engaged 30-year-old isn’t as compliant as his generation was. The CPA won’t be able to dictate anything to Congress, he feels Horan might.

“Am I optimistic? Well, from previous experience with Congress I can’t be blindly optimistic that we can influence it. But I do think Tom Ryan and John Horan fully recognise the issue now. I think they do want to change it and they recognise that some things have to change or else you’re looking at a different GAA.”

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