Blue yonder beckons for GPA chief and former Dublin star Dessie Farrell
He has yet to decide on a plan for life after the Gaelic Players Association
Outdoing Gaelic Players Association chief executive Dessie Farrell: “The organisation is in a really good place and 14 years is a long time to be in the position.” Photograph: Eric Luke
Dessie Farrell: stepping down as Gaelic Players Association chief executive after more than 14 years in the role. Photograph: Damien Eagers/Sportsfile
Dessie Farrell removes his glasses and waves from across the lounge in the Croke Park Hotel. We were supposed to meet across the road in Croke Park but instead we locate ourselves in the hotel’s nicely appointed library.
Farrell has had a busy time of late, between announcing a new deal with the GAA – that should benefit members of the Gaelic Players Association (GPA) to the tune of €6.2 million a year between 2017 and 2019 – and announcing his decision to step down as chief executive of the body after more than 14 years in the role.
A key feature of the new GAA deal was securing 15 per cent of its commercial revenue. “That was something that was important to us,” he says.
The day after we met, Farrell was off to the United States for the latest round of fundraising, which generates about €1 million a year, mostly in dollars.
“We’ve been running an event in New York for the last five years and we’ve established an advisory board over there. We’ve also moved to Boston as well and established an advisory board there. The relationship with Fenway Park [and the Boston Red Sox] has been very interesting, too.”
The GPA held an 11-a-side hurling game at Fenway last year and hopes to repeat the exercise. “We would hope to have another hurling event in Fenway in 2017,” he says. “It’s been a hugely interesting project and I would hope it would be the catalyst for more TV interest in our sports, particularly from some of the US sports networks.
“We’d like to see a situation where one of the big players would broadcast the next time or perhaps do a series around it, bring a game to Yankee Stadium as well and maybe that could whet the appetite for some interest in covering the games back here as well.”
Irish PR executive Declan Kelly, co-founder of the New York-based consultancy Teneo, has been helpful to the GPA with its American activities. Back in 2000, in the early days of the GPA, Kelly helped it secure a €63,500 sponsorship deal with the now defunct Marlborough recruitment group.
“Declan has been a great supporter of ours over the years. A good Tipperary man of course, and passionate about his GAA and his hurling. He would have been extremely helpful to us in the early days, and in opening a few doors in New York,” says Farrell.
Not everyone is a fan of the GPA. The GAA initially resisted its attempts for recognition when it was founded in 1999, while many grassroots members saw it as pursuing a pay-for-play agenda.
Joe Brolly, a Derry footballer from Farrell’s era and these days probably the most high-profile GAA pundit around, attended that first meeting of the GPA but has since made no secret of his feelings for the players body.
“I deeply dislike the GPA,” Brolly told Irish Country Living last month. “The GAA shouldn’t exist to create a livelihood for footballers.”
“Some individuals just want to be different and have a different view and that’s fine,” Farrell says in response to hearing Brolly’s quote. “He’s a colourful character and it’s useful to have different views.”
Farrell’s diplomatic response to Brolly’s remark suggests he could be a politician in his next career. It might also be the product of his training as a psychiatric nurse.
It turns out the Dubliner hasn’t made his mind up on his next move, even though he informed the board of the GPA of his intentions a year ago.
“Everyone thinks that I’m stepping into something already and when I say that I’m not they’re surprised. I need to figure that out over the next few months.
“The organisation is in a really good place and 14 years is a long time to be in the position. For the first five or six of those I was just chief bottle washer and that was about the height of it but in the last number of years, as the organisation has grown, it’s been a great experience for me personally.
“I thought that getting the deal done with the GAA, hopefully a new deal with the Government [on player grants], getting good people around us and having a succession plan in place, that now was the right time for me to pass on the baton and introduce some fresh thinking.”
An open recruitment process will be undertaken to find a successor, with the role being advertised next week.
Potential replacements might like to know that, while he’ll always be “available” to offer some support, the “new person coming in needs the space and the autonomy to direct it as they see fit”.
So what would he like to do next?
“I definitely want to go back into business. I’m just not entirely sure how. I’ve had some conversations with individuals in the last month or so. Nothing concrete. It’s just one of those things that I need to take my time with and be a little bit patient and be sure that the next decision I make is a smart one.
Will it be sport-related?
“Not necessarily, no,” he says. “It’s an option but I’m not wedded to the idea that it has to be in sport. Possibly not, given that the sports market in this country is limited enough.”
He hasn’t ruled out involvement in a start-up.
Farrell will leave the GPA in a good place. He expects revenue next year to come in at a record €7.5-€8 million. The association has 11 staff and its own base in Santry, a far cry from the early days of operating out of the back room in his parents’ house.
He’s hoping that next week’s budget will bring good news in the shape of increased grants for GPA members. Before the crash, the Government was providing €3.6 million a year to intercounty players. This was reduced to just shy of €900,000 as exchequer spending was trimmed back in the recession.
“That deal is up and we’re negotiating a new one with the Government at the minute. I think we took more medicine than anyone else. So we’re keen to push it back up close to the levels it was at. That might take some time but we’re keen to get it there as quickly as possible.”
According to Farrell, the highest-profile players in football and hurling would get between €20,000 and €50,000 a year in various payments connected with their status as top intercounty performers.
“Now that’s a really small minority of players,” he says. “The vast majority of county players don’t get any commercial activity because there isn’t enough appeal in the game to sustain that, unfortunately.”
Back in 2005, in his book Dessie: Tangled up in Blue, Farrell said some form of semi-professionalism was inevitable in the GAA, which would end its tradition of amateurism.
“My view now is that we’ve a really good model in place in relation to the retention of the amateur status and this model to support players in all aspects of their lives outside of the games,” he says.
“We road-tested that theory . . . with a gathering of players [in 2010] and we asked the question as to how many players would be in favour of it going professional or semi-professional. There was probably about 100 players in the room and I’d say that 80 per cent put up their hand in favour.
“Then when we described the scenario and the way the game would inevitably have to change to sustain a semi-pro model, and pointed out that many of the players in the room probably wouldn’t be playing in that model because their counties wouldn’t be in a position or the county boundaries may actually erode entirely . . . it dropped to 15 to 20 per cent of the players.
“There will still always be a percentage of players who think this should happen but I think the vast majority would take the model we have in place.”
We met just three days after Dublin had beaten Mayo in the All-Ireland football final replay, securing their fourth Sam Maguire in six years. Farrell has experienced that special feeling himself, having won Sam with Dublin in 1995, after a few years of near misses.
He currently manages the Dublin under-21 footballers, leading them to All-Ireland success in 2014, having coached Dublin to a minor win in 2012. Add in his time with development squads and he has given 10 years to nurturing young talent in Dublin.
“It’s a big commitment but it’s enjoyable,” he says. “It keeps you sane outside of the day job. The one thing about dealing with younger players is that it’s hugely rewarding. They’re very engaged and they want to learn so much and you’d like to think you can influence them in a positive way.”
Farrell will continue in his role with the under-21s next year. Would he like to manage the senior team in the future, maybe succeed current boss Jim Gavin at some point?
“It would be a great honour even to be considered for it but actually I’m very content working with those younger players. It would be a big, big step up to move into the bigger job and I’ve huge admiration for all the managers out there doing it on a voluntary/amateur basis.
“The commitment that’s required is abnormal in many ways. I don’t think that would be for me ultimately, if anyone did come knocking.
“For me, it’s not just about winning and losing at that age, whereas at senior level it’s very black and white. It’s all about winning and losing. When you move into the bigger stuff, it’s cut-throat.”
Dessie Farrell on. . .
Player power (Galway’s hurlers and Mayo’s footballers ousted their management teams prior to this season):
“We’re working on proposals with the GAA. A lot of this could be avoided in the future but it’s dependent on county boards and players signing up to a charter or protocols around the appointment of managers.
“It should be taken out of the hands of both [groups] with a separate subcommittee in each county to make a managerial appointment, to make a recommendation to the county board. That subgroup should consist of a liaison from the squad and the county board and an independent chairman. There’s definitely an easier way because, at the end of the day, it affects everybody.”
Pay-per-view broadcasters such as Sky being given rights to GAA games:
“We took a view at the time that we’d support the GAA’s move in this direction. One of the big issues is trying to grow the commercial revenues of the organisation. There are limitations to how we can grow revenues for an indigenous sport on a small island with a small population. TV is one of the obvious areas to try and make inroads.
“There are more live games being broadcast on terrestrial TV than ever in the history of the sport and that’s positive as well. From a commercial perspective it makes sense for the GAA to have gone down that road.”
Splitting Dublin into two teams to curb its dominance:
“I’ve no doubt that will raise its head again, particularly after winning two [All-Irelands] back to back. It would be a huge, huge move. Now, if Dublin were to win the next 10 All-Irelands, I would say ‘maybe’ at that point. What the game thrives on is competition and it’s not good if one particular team wins everything. But it’s far too early to say the county should be split in two.”
Best player he played with:
Paul Curran [Dublin].”
Best player he played against:
One change that might make Gaelic games better:
“A rule that would speed the game up would be, like in rugby, where you can toe-tap the penalty to yourself. In essence, you could take a free kick to yourself. There’s a lot of messing . . . players trying not to let you take a quick free. So if I stood in your way I’d be sin-binned.
”It was introduced in hockey and transformed the game overnight. I’m in favour of a sin bin, five or 10 minutes depending on nature of the foul. I’d also be in favour of going to the video ref and seeking support there.”
Name: Dessie Farrell
Job: chief executive of the Gaelic Players Association
Lives: Clonee (on the Dublin side of the border with Meath)
Family: a son and a daughter
Hobbies: “I love all sport. I’ve gotten very interested in Everton football club of late as my first cousin Séamus Coleman plays for them. I’ve been over with the kids and it’s great to have the interest.”
Something we might expect: he’s a big Dubs GAA fan.
Something that might surprise: “It’s very unusual for a GAA player to have played hockey for Ireland . . . underage, I played up to under-21 [level]. At provincial level I played senior [for Leinster]. Given that I didn’t go to a private school, it was unusual to make the ranks of representative hockey at the time.”