Liam Griffin: ‘It’s not about who is right but what is right’

The corridors of power in the GAA have proven a tougher battleground than anything Liam Griffin experienced on the field of play when leading Wexford hurlers to All-Ireland glory in 1996.

Liam Griffin: ‘It’s not about who is right but what is right’

The corridors of power in the GAA have proven a tougher battleground than anything Liam Griffin experienced on the field of play when leading Wexford hurlers to All-Ireland glory in 1996.

The challenges he and his colleagues in the Club Players Association faced has left him frustrated — but his hunger for change at grassroots level remains as powerful as ever.

A saint once cautioned: “Those who travel seldom come home holy.”

Maybe wiser as well.

Liam Griffin found himself, mid 1960s, working in a restaurant outside Zurich. He thought of joining a local hockey club, being a talented hurler away from hurling.

Further training had brought him from Shannon College of Hotel Management to Switzerland.

“I looked into that place they were playing hockey,” Griffin recalls. “But I felt myself too shy to walk up to somebody and say: ‘I’d like to play. Can I play?’

"I had never played before, and didn’t know the language, and I’d have felt like a bit of an eejit.”

Time abroad, as so often, meant new clarities.

He continues: “I had to think totally for myself out there. There was nobody to support me except myself. But it was a great experience, and I had to survive it. I turned 21 out there.

“I missed my sport. I’d no sport anymore. I had been playing for Clare, had won County Championships at U21 and senior with Newmarket [on Fergus]. So you have a feelgood factor about yourself as a human being, in terms of being a sportsman.

"I got on the plane and cried nearly the whole way out there. It dawned on me that my chance at becoming an intercounty hurler was really gone.”

Then Griffin turns reflective, ribs himself: “And that was not bad, either, to be fair. You were equal with everyone else, and you didn’t have this cockiness about yourself.

"Because I would have been reasonably cocky when I was playing. I thought I was reasonably good.

"A lot of fellas brought me down to size, I can tell you! I learned very quickly.”

An emphasis on planning and thought, rational thought, remains a Swiss stereotype.

But the experience proved durable in two arenas. That hesitant youngster became today’s fresh engaging figure in his seventies.

His name is known all over Ireland not just as a successful businessman, someone who built his own hotel group, but also as one of hurling’s most compelling voices.

Liam Griffin, following extensive coaching work in his native club, St Mary’s of Rosslare, managed Wexford to All-Ireland success in 1996.

He subsequently became an influential radio and TV analyst and a Sunday Tribune columnist.

Griffin realised a whole culture of Wexford underachievement needed to be expunged. He introduced a raft of changes, adding a sports psychologist and a dietician to his backroom.

Intensive training work on the field, plus attention to detail and discipline, recalibrated his county’s addiction to long distance wides.

For the mid 1990s, these innovations counted as dramatic. All-Ireland success, drawing inspiration from Clare’s triumph in 1995, made Wexford revolutionaries.

High achievement did not sate Liam Griffin. These last three years, he has been immersed in the Club Players Association (CPA).

This group was founded in January 2017 as a platform for the GAA’s non intercounty players. The CPA hit the news last month when they pulled away from the Fixtures Review Task Force onto which they had been invited.

The crux proved a CPA belief that this body was “a Trojan horse” for reverting to the status quo, a scenario that leaves club players mired in an attritional fixture list.

Even now, the passion remains unspent. I am in Monart Spa, one of his hotels, amid the placid acres of Mid Wexford. Half 11 in the morning and fog still swags the estate’s trees.

The hotel closes over each Christmas break for renovations. Liam Griffin moves through the lobby and takes all in.

For two hours, his voice crackles with italics, with emphases born alike of frustration and conviction. He possesses a businessman’s impatience, a sportsman’s concentration.

To frame the CPA’s perspective, he imagines a 21st-century couple chatting in their kitchen.

Griffin stresses the significance of historical context: “You’ve got to remember the family today is a completely different unit than the family when I was a kid. My father was a garda, from near Inagh in County Clare.

"My mother, from north Wexford, stayed at home. Now she was an industrious woman and did lots of work from within our house. But she wasn’t a breadwinner, in the way of the times.”

He elaborates on the Ireland facing into a new decade: “Take someone who retires at 26, like so many players at the moment.

They’re not even into their best years. It’s pure frustration. The GAA has a system whereby you don’t know when we’re going to play.

"That man is at home, with his wife, and they’ve two children, say. The wife is paying the mortgage and he is paying the mortgage. They’ve two jobs.

"So the wife says to him on Christmas Day: ‘When are we going on holidays?’ And he says: ‘Well, Wexford have to play Dublin in the first round of the football championship, okay?’

"She’s probably starting to switch off, already, at this stage.”

Griffin is enjoyably mordant: “So this man goes on: ‘And if Wexford lose to Dublin, which they probably will, they’re in the first round of the qualifiers. When the qualifiers start, they have to make a draw.’

"And she says: ‘Your point is, so far?’

“And then he says: ‘Well, I’m not finished yet, because Wexford play Laois in the hurling. And if Wexford beat Laois, and they might, they go on to the next round of the Leinster Championship.’

"And she says: ‘When are we going on holidays, like?’ And he says: ‘Well, when that gets sorted out, because then the club has to play. So I don’t know when we can go…’

“And you think she is going to put up with that, in this day and age? Having to work for a mortgage all the time, having to pay childminders, having to drop kids to school?

She now hears ‘We don’t know when we’re going on holidays’… That’s reality. And no one wants to deal with it.”

Mordancy turns ferocious: “No one just wants to deal with it, fully and logically. What they’ll tell you is: ‘That’s the county board’s fault. They should have fixed it.’ Bullshit. It is nothing close to many county boards’ fault. They can’t play the county championships until the All-Ireland series is finished.”

Long before 2017 and the CPA’s foundation, his personal background embedded lessons. Griffin had long known the passage of time’s impact on dreams in sport.

“We didn’t have a hurling club, really, in Rosslare,” he reflects. “We had brilliant teams up until the end of national school.

"After that, in those days, a lot of our lads joined ships down in Rosslare and went off, because they could get good money, could get more than as a carpenter or as an ordinary worker.

“So we would have lost all of our young lads. If they didn’t do that, go to sea, they went to Coventry to build motor cars. And we were very good at football.

"We were good at both. But we lost the vast majority of our lads.”

Griffin saw an inflection of the same pattern when that move to Shannon sent him hurling with Newmarket on Fergus.

His father’s Clare origins eased the passage. Two senior titles in a row, 1967 and 1968, were won with his new club.

“I was never on a beaten Newmarket team in my life,” he observes. “I thought I had landed in heaven when I wound up there. The matches in their field were better than any matches I’d ever before played in.

"Newmarket had a serious team and I think they won 11 County Championships in 13 years. But they were all together. They were all the same age group.

"So that means you come together and you fall together. So the club has only won one since that era.”

Therein the moral: “That’s probably because the refreshing of the panel didn’t happen. Somebody has really got to say: ‘Lads, there’s a lesson to be learned. Today has to look after tomorrow.’

We’ve got to make sure that the next team, our second team, can be Intermediate. That should be the aspiration, to get them from Junior to Intermediate.

Following his Switzerland days, Liam Griffin worked in England for Trusthouse Forte.

He acquired business know-how and savvy at tremendous rate but hurling’s hold never slackened.

On native ground, the grip resumed: “I obviously wanted, when I came home, came back to Rosslare, to develop hurling. Because the joy of hurling for me was something phenomenal.

"It was exhilarating. I loved football as well. But the joy of hurling was… I know this sounds a bit fanciful but it was kind of a hidden gem in your life.

"You didn’t realise until you got fairly good at it what a game it was. You were surprising yourself when you went out to hurl. You discovered things that you could do that you couldn’t believe you could do.

"Like turning around close to the sideline and putting the ball straight over the black spot from 70 yards. Without even looking…”

He bristles at hurling’s sparseness around most of Ireland: “The thrill of some of the things you could do, in the sport, was just massive. You’d love every kid in the country to get that chance.

"Of course, to our shame, every kid in the country doesn’t matter. We’re not getting it out there. We have a situation in Ireland where there’s an apartheid type system in hurling, when you think about it.”

Pat Daly has done wonderful work for hurling development over many years. But has Pat been fully listened to?

The fixtures tangle snagged Griffin’s attention. He devotes untold hours to the CPA project.

He is plain, Swiss plain: “I’m just saying that if the data says we have a problem, then you either deal with that problem or not. But you don’t sideline the people who want to deal with it.

"And there’s no reason why we should have a disorganized and dysfunctional system. Because, like it or lump it, the system is dysfunctional.

“That’s not an emotive thing to say. That’s a factual thing to say. All you’ve got to do is throw it all up in front of you and examine it, as I have done, extensively, within the CPA.

"And you will see that it’s absolutely dysfunctional, from top to bottom. And there are actually very few competitions that are even fair, when you work on the basis of integrity, fairness and honesty.”

He offers specifics: “If you look at any of the All-Ireland Series championships, at the way they’re constructed… They sleepwalked into a system that doesn’t necessarily work on fairness.

"Everybody should have to play at the same time. You can talk all you like about ‘snobbishness and soccer’ and ‘snobbishness and rugby’ and ‘snobbishness and this and that’.

“Soccer and rugby have very good systems, irrespective of whether they’re playing too much or getting paid too much money. That’s immaterial.

"Their competition structure is functional. Each division is played on the same system.”

That ferocity returns: “You don’t say: ‘You’ve got a Second or a Third or a Fourth Division team and that’s a lesser system.’ Everyone must play at the same time, and in a meaningful competition.

"Once you put that down, and draw up a plan, people will immediately go for you left, right and centre, for saying these things. But the point is: It’s either true or it’s false.”

Griffin withers platitudes: “If it’s true, we need to do something about it. That’s all. Will we get everything right day one? Of course we won’t.

"My point in the CPA and my point to John Horan [GAA president] was: We’re talking about people here. It’s not about just structures. It’s about people.

A lad of 27 is now 30, since we started talking first. That’s a lifetime in sport. How much are those three years as a percentage of that man’s career? And how much as a percentage of that man’s adult career?

"And suppose he’s injured twice in his 20s: How much now is it? Could be up to 50% of his total career you’re talking about here, at adult level. And still we procrastinate…”

Frustrations that prompted the recent CPA withdrawal resurface: “The GAA just pressed pause. Just left the matter in limbo.

"Or came up with a half baked solution, until we suddenly get a form of a solution that still needs ratification.

“As part of the CPA, we said: ‘You need a blank canvas.’ You can’t start by saying: ‘This is this and this is removable, and that’s not possible.’

"You get a blank canvas and say: ‘Right, we need to do it.’ It’s the logical way to proceed.”

He instances business life: “I’m here [in Monart Spa]. There’ll be people coming in this door and they want decisions.

"We need to manage. And we’ve had to manage it through a big crisis. Managers manage. Bad managers hide.

“As we said at the time: ‘This is reality. We’ve got to deal with it.’ It’s unfair that there are vulture funds.

"It’s unfair that we’re not being treated, as Irish citizens, as good as the Foreign Direct Investment companies. But at least we’ve tried to find a way.”

He insists on the high road of logic and analysis: “Am I trying to point the finger at individuals? No. Collectively, as an organisation, we are dysfunctional in some of these issues. And there’s no reason for that.

"All you’ve got to do is put it down and analyse it again and do it so that it makes sense. Does that mean you’re anti county, anti club? Absolutely not. I’m pro everything that’s positive in the GAA.

"But I’m also pro the reality of ‘where do we want to be 10 years from now?’ What’s the GAA going to look like when I’m dead? What’s it going to look like when my grandchildren are starting to play?”

He corkscrews to this timber’s knot: “It’s simply not good enough to tell fellas: ‘We don’t know when you’ll be playing.’

"We are dealing with statistics from the ERSI, not just with fellas like Liam Griffin jumping up and jumping their mouth off. The ERSI is a dispassionate body for research.

"They are in the business of cold hard facts. The GAA is losing 70% of its footballers and 60% of its hurler during their mid 20s. The 2013 ERSI report says so.

“I’m not suggesting that anybody’s a bad person. But our system needs to be looked at.

"If they don’t look at the system, we’ll continue to muddle on, while people of 20, 21, 22, 23 around the entire country are being adversely affected, and we expect them to be loyal to us, every day of the week. Ain’t gonna happen, long term…”

One possible rationalization of fixtures? Finessing the provincial system in football into four divisions or conferences, with eight counties in each one.

Griffin and his CPA colleagues endorse this initiative. “In the middle of all the chaos, hurling doesn’t thrive,” he summarises.

“Hurling has nothing to fear from a top-class, well-organised system. If you could get everyone playing intercounty at the same time, then you give clubs the same time.

“There is no reason why, then, you cannot say: ‘Right, in a county, we are going to allow time within that county for both hurling and football.’ And develop the game of hurling.

"But it has to start, if you want to go and develop the game, at underage in clubs. Why should you have some people that never play any hurling?”

Recent CPA experience delivers the sharp side of puckish: “The GAA is a ‘Big Brother’ organisation. [George] Orwell wrote 1984 back in the 1940s, and it’s a great read. He had ‘the thought police’.

"And I often think, when I’m reading the book, it’s like the GAA and the way we work: ‘There are people who know better than us.’

“That’s the vibe. And they don’t know nearly as much as us on the ground. Right? But they are convinced they know better.

"We went onto the [Task Force] committee.’ We did everything, by the way, by the book in the GAA.”

The mood intensifies: “We came back the following year and we wanted transparency across the whole lot. It was our organization. We’re members. We’re volunteers. We don’t take a penny.

"That [transparency motion] was voted down. Now, that caused no outcry .… Because all of us are GAA people, and we don’t really want any trouble.

"And we put ourselves at their mercy. And their mercy was: ‘Get out of here. You’re not wanted.’

“The CPA Executive includes some of the very finest GAA people I have ever met. I am proud of them and of their mantra: ‘Fix the fixtures!’ It’s not about who is right but what is right.”

Likeable impatience co-exists with impeccable courtesy. Liam Griffin sees me back out to Monart’s elegant entrance. Lunchtime now and fog still.

Liam Griffin will never be a weary person but he does conclude, shaking hands, on a level note: “I’d just like to get the whole thing sorted and get back to normality, encouraging youngsters and so on. People can forget that’s what it’s all about.”

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