Frankly speaking... with Cork GAA Board secretary Frank Murphy

He has seen Páirc Uí Chaoimh through its various incarnations, and steered Cork GAA through both heady and turbulent times. Whenever Frank Murphy steps down as GAA Board secretary, it will bring to a close a truly remarkable era of administration on Leeside. But that’s only half the story.

Even in his 71st year, five and a half decades of that time spent at the bidding of the association, Frank Murphy is still planning ahead.

“I’m conscious of the legacy that will be left to the successor in this office, that this cannot be an albatross around Cork GAA’s neck into the future,” he says across the table in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

“It’s a major challenge. The total estimated cost is €70m. Between Government, our own funding, provincial and national monies, plus some fundraising, we have taken a conscious decision — even though GAA headquarters are still wondering about it — there will be no bank borrowing on the redevelopment of this stadium.”

If this sounds like something strident that the bombastic caricature of the secretary of Cork GAA might say, it is nothing like that at all. Forty years ago, in the early flush of his time as county secretary, Frank Murphy learned the lessons from the initial redevelopment of the Páirc that he has employed as his economic cornerstone: loaned money has to be repaid.

“It was a chastening time,” he says, “you had to be careful with your money. That was the great lesson from [the] 1976 [redevelopment]. It was scary stuff, a matter of survival. Essentially we weren’t viable.”

An initial contract price of under £1m for the new stadium back then sky-rocketed to £1.7m at a time when penal interest rates of around 16% were a sick joke. “We paid very close on £900,000 on interest alone,” Murphy remembers. “The interest in 1980 alone amounted to £171,000. There was major concern about the possibility we were no longer viable.”

Initiatives such as the £100 loan scheme nibbled away at the debt and indeed flourished into a cash cow for Cork GAA over the following two decades. There was also a ten-year ticket scheme. But nothing had the feel of a silver bullet solution like the decision to approach the concert promoter and manager of the Wolfe Tones, Oliver Barry — a good Banteer man — about running major events at the Páirc.

“He organised Siamsa Cois Laoi over ten-year period. Other major artists like U2 [twice], Michael Jackson, Prince. Then we had the Féile and Oasis on two occasions,” says Mr Murphy. “Twenty one days of concerts in total made a huge impact on our financial situation. In fact over 33 years we’ve now seen 33 Munster senior finals, three All-Ireland semi-finals, five National League finals as well as an International Rules test. There was also the Cork City Sports one year when Steve Ovett ran a sub-four minute metric mile.”

And Frank in the cockpit for one and all.

Whenever the legendary GAA administrator retires — and he is presumably intent on being around for the reopening of Páirc Uí Chaoimh in the spring of 2017 — the breadth and scale of his legacy will be vast. That is irrefutable. For everyone who claims he was the ultimate finagler, there are as many who describe him as the most astute and able official in the association’s history.

He was — in his own words — no more than a Junior B hurler with Blackrock in Cork who never rose above a handful of league games with the senior team. He was a referee at 16, the club’s minor secretary not long after and Cork GAA secretary at convention in 1972 before he’d turned 30.

“My interest was in refereeing from the outset, which is strange enough,” he muses. “I was at home a day when the late Michael O’Flaherty knocked at the door and said he had a City Division juvenile U16 match, would I do it? I said I would, even though I was only 16 myself. It went from there. I got really carried away with refereeing.”

The values young Prionsias learned about equanimity and consistency he still applies to refereeing standards today: “I would have always stressed consistency in your approach in any given game. That didn’t mean that you had to referee every single game exactly the same, consistency meant both teams were treated equally. You didn’t get involved in the fact that one crowd were four goals behind and give any bit of leeway in that regard.

“I was a great advocate of continuity of play. Before the advantage rule came in I used it a great deal. I would work with my umpires a lot and say to them, ‘take a note of the frees I give in a match’. Afterwards you’d get the details and you might say ‘I could have avoided blowing there’. Three matches later, a similar situation might arise and you’d let it go. I did develop a good system of refereeing, but you are always learning.

“I came off the field after a match between Tipp and Limerick and I met Pat Stakelum, who I had an awful lot of respect for. A former player, he was involved at the time with Tipp. He said to me about playing the advantage, ‘if a player is fouled 60 metres from the goal in hurling, and you say ‘advantage’ he then has to manoeuvre himself into a position, and he’s still under pressure to get a shot in on goal. Would the advantage not be to give him the 60m free because the likelihood is that he’d score?’ That was a very good point, I thought — that man was right. For the remainder of my time refereeing I employed that method.”

Though secretary of the board from 1973, Murphy continued refereeing for 19 years, arbitrating two All-Ireland finals and several Cork county finals, during the golden age of the Barrs-Rockies-Glen rivalry when crowds of 30,000-plus were not unusual and led to the re-christening of the decider as ‘the Little All-Ireland’.

The 1977 final, which Murphy handled, attracted an astonishing 34,151, beating the previous old Athletic Grounds record from 1955 of 31,019 by some distance. A plush, new stadium at the time, helped.

Mr Murphy acknowledges now, as he did then, that Páirc Uí Chaoimh had its limitations, some of them severe. “Unfortunately, it could have been better if we had more land available,” he concedes now, but stresses that everything had to be built to scale at the time.

“You didn’t have the amount of land that enabled us to be more expansive with the development. Everything was to scale — the size of dressing rooms, the tunnel situation came about as a result of being dictated by a limited design. While it was a very modern stadium when it was built, it was to scale.

“Efforts had been made at that time to secure more land through negotiations with Cork Corporation, the Munster Agriculture Society [MAS] that would lead to a more expansive development. There was some degree of success in that regard — but efforts to acquire land on the north [uncovered stand] side of the stadium were not so successful. So the existing design and stadium progressed with very grave restrictions on what you could do. We had to cut our cloth according to our measure. That is easily forgotten,” he says now.

Nothing he has done or said in his 42 years as county secretary in Cork has, arguably, been as far-reaching as the husbandry of the county board’s finances, putting them in the happy position this year of being able to put €10m on the table in liquid cash for the €70m undertaking at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Along the way he has fostered friendships and sparked rancour but invariably, he has lived by the creed ‘business is business’. He can be withering in his criticism, caustic too, but allies say he moves on quickly. His attention to detail is as legendary as it is meticulous. Just as well: Mr Murphy, along with his officer board, have had to rely on fathomless reserves of patience and stickability to bring the Páirc Uí Chaoimh redevelopment to this point.

At times, as the project veered perilously close to being shunted into the sidings, the board executive must have considered upping sticks and heading for a greenfield option.

“It was said more than once,” he agrees. “At one juncture, in fairly recent times, we did wonder would we be better off abandoning the proposal here and going elsewhere. We did say that to the City Council people as well. Unless we were in a position to do what we’d been hoping for years, that we’d be better off elsewhere.”

A Bord Pleanála decision on two objections is awaited, probably in late September. The detailed design is underway and all things progressing as anticipated, Cork GAA are hoping to break ground next January.

“We have an agreement [with the City Council] that the development of the main stand and of the second pitch must proceed simultaneously. Our design people are saying 24-27 months of work for the whole lot to be finished in the first quarter of 2017. Certainly to be available for Munster Championships in that year.”

He walks over to the window of his office — the biggest home-court advantage in Cork GAA — to draw a mental image: “The ground floor of the new stadium — dressing rooms, gyms, rehab areas, that will be exclusively for players only. To gain access to seating, patrons will go up onto the first floor. You turn left for the main stadium and right to go into a further stand for 1,000 people that will overlook the second playing pitch. It’s a unique thing in its own way. That will be all-weather and floodlit, and used for club games, by underage squads and clubs — especially local clubs.

“The stadium will house around 40 commercial units and that is the key word because Páirc Uí Chaoimh will be a commercial entity in its own right and will have to be operated separately from the games end of things. It has to pay its own way.”

It also has to be right. First time. Because the board and Murphy knows this is a one-shot deal, a legacy for future generations of players and supporters in the biggest GAA county in the country.

They visited the new stadia of similar stature in this country and the secretary visited The Arena in Amsterdam too. Apart from understandable envy at its 2,000 underground car-parking spaces, he was tickled that the agronomist who had been showering praise on the Páirc surface earlier that week was now advising Ajax Amsterdam on how to deal with their pitch problems. The Cork surface, rescued and rejuvenated by specialist Bob O’Keeffe about 15 years ago, will not be dug up during the redevelopment, even though Mr Murphy accepts it will be a challenge to maintain its well-being through the construction phase.

Players and inter-county management were consulted, extensively, as were leading concert promoters. The board did a lot of listening, he says. Murphy remembers better than most how concerts dug Páirc Uí Chaoimh out of a deep financial hole in the ’80s.

“We invited the major concert promoters to meet with our design team, and they told us what was going to work for them. They had been critical of some stadia, where their views were not taken on board. What we wanted to know was what elements of the stadium, what changes, would assist them and make it more financially viable to stage concerts in Cork rather than Dublin.

“They made their submissions, we listened and gave instruction to our design team to do what they recommended. For example, with the City Terrace, it was mooted that we could retract part of the terrace back for the purpose of putting in a stage — the concert folk were enamoured by this, so one third of the City Terrace can be moved away and a stage slotted in. It takes up less of the playing surface as a consequence.”

Tomorrow though brings business as usual. Business with pleasure. The Munster hurling final between his own Cork and Limerick, the last to be played before the wrecking ball moves in. Whatever happens with the shiny new arena in 2017, it will hardly compare to the original reopening 38 years ago when the Páirc staged three Munster finals and a pair of All-Ireland hurling semi finals between Galway and Offaly — Murphy refereed the first of these but withdrew from the replay as Cork had advanced to the final in the interim.

“One of the new concepts was to have no wire fencing, just a low wall,” smiles Mr Murphy, consciously slipping into his raconteur mode (anyone who knows Murphy says he is a marvellous storyteller). “The laissez faire approach was, let’s say, availed of by the patrons coming in for the Munster football final against Kerry. There was 50,000 there and they conducted themselves very well, but they were still sitting on the sideline.”

There was a decision made by Munster Council that wiring had to be erected for the replay — if the replay was to be in Cork at all. The Kerry chairman of the time, Gerald McKenna — a close associate of Murphy then and now — ensured it was, but not everyone in the Kingdom was pleased. When the reason for the modest dressing rooms was broached by a Kerry delegate at a subsequent meeting of the Munster Council, it led to an exchange that has gone down in GAA folklore, with Carrigtwohill’s Denis Conroy reputed to have explained: “When our engineers were designing the dressing rooms, they were fully familiar with the size of Kerry heads, but never realised their arses were just as big...!”

The Cork secretary neither confirms the veracity of the tale or otherwise, but uses the moment to confirm the robust Cork-Kerry alliance that exists off the field.

“There is a strong alliance there, very much so,” he says. “It breaks both ways. We do have some difficulties with other counties, who seem very narrow-minded in their approach to minor issues. Whereas with Kerry, they’d say ‘fine, you have a problem, we’ll deal with it’. There is never a problem with Kerry. And you reciprocate. It might even be inconvenient, but you’d put up with that.

“McKenna was a top rate man, a decent man, I must say I always got on very well with him, even to the present day where he is chairman of the national bye-laws committee, and I’m chairman of the Rules Advisory committee, of which he is a member.”

Other firm friendships, with characters and counties, were fostered in the most bizarre circumstances. Recalling the day Dublin brought “tremendous colour and excitement” to the 1983 All-Ireland semi-final replay in the Páirc, Murphy heartily applauds the “flexibility with fixtures” around that time.

“We had a difficulty once with regard to the staging of Siamsa Cois Laoi, as it clashed with an All-Ireland hurling semi-final we were involved in with Galway. We made representations to headquarters about the economic importance of Siamsa and we were told ‘talk to Galway’. So I spoke to [then Galway secretary] Feidhlim Murphy and he said ‘that’s fine, you’re welcome to come up to Gort and we’ll meet and discuss the matter’.

“Feidhlim was waiting in the hotel for us with Bernie O’Connor and we were gearing up for a lengthy session of negotiation. I had come well prepared.

“Before we go in here now,” says Feidhlim, “we must have a bite to eat.”

“I said: ‘would we be better discussing the question of the game first, Feidhlim?’”

“What’s to discuss?”

“Well, putting off the All-Ireland semi-final, I thought.”

“That’ll be agreed, don’t worry about that, now let’s eat.”

“We were astonished. We rang headquarters, and said Galway have agreed. The match was put back a week.”

He won’t properly enjoy tomorrow’s final, because Cork are involved. The most relaxed finals are the ones when Cork are not involved, like the Tipp-Clare sagas back in the ’90s. Or Limerick-Tipp back in the day.

“I only refereed one Munster hurling final and that was in Killarney — Cork were dominant in a lot of these years. I did the National league final here in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in 1971, and then I was also appointed to the Munster final that year, Limerick and Tipp.

“There was a story attaching to a free awarded to Tipperary that day which grew legs. Donie Nealon, who was a Tipp selector at the time, was reputed to have replaced the ball for a Babs Keating 21m free with a new sliotar. That story was propagated by [journalist] Raymond Smith. The ball in use ran in under the endline seating at the upper goal in Fitzgerald Stadium, and there was a delay in taking the free. In the meantime, I spotted Donie taking out a ball and getting it onto pitch. I saw the other ball coming back, so I picked up the ball Donie had thrown in, tossed it back to him and placed the ball that had been in use. Whereupon Donie picked up the used ball, dried it with the towel and put it back. It was the same ball and, of course, Keating buried it. It was a good story but...”


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