Mayo’s Chris Barrett: Balancing work and play for GAA ‘not sustainable’ any more
Mayo star says intercounty GAA players should be offered tax breaks similar to other athletes
At 5pm on Saturday 30-plus amateurs will play a game of football. They’ll do it in front of over 80,000 at Croke Park, while several hundred thousand more watch on screens around the world.
Barstool Joe Brolly wannabes will pontificate over their pints on the failings of these folks on the pitch. There will be conspiracies about team selection, affronts at a lack of effort and a dropped ball.
And, of course, during both semi-finals this weekend these saloon bar sport savants will trot out the all-weather trope that it’s really all about the money. Sure, the GAA rakes in the cash on days like this, controlling everything from the swing of a hurley to the slip of a ball in order to arrange a payday replay. And sure it also sorts all these guys out with cushy jobs.
The doctors, gardaí, construction workers, businessmen and teachers who tread the Croke Park turf this weekend would no doubt disagree.
They will go to work on Monday regardless of the result. One of those amateurs likely to be holding the back line for Mayo on Saturday evening is Chris Barrett. He will be part of what Keith Duggan described as Mayo’s Panzer Division, an all-star defensive line-up. And on Monday morning he will be back at his desk as a director at project management specialists Leading Edge.
When we meet, Barrett is clearly reticent about singling himself out as some sort of special case. He’s here to talk about project management and how lessons from being a part of Project Mayo have practical applications in his day job.
But he does reckon that players now need some return on the other side, a recognition for the effort and sacrifices. And he’s not singling out the top football tier. He’s talking across the disciplines and in every county on the island.
Barrett graduated in 2009 from civil engineering in NUIG. He then worked for Walls Construction for two years as a site engineer between 2010 and 2012 at UCD’s student and leisure centre.
“It never crossed my mind. Football was always the draw, to keep you at home as well.
“I can remember looking over the skyline of Dublin and counting two or three cranes. I know that the big thing now is the crane count at The Irish Times, but I can remember looking over Dublin and there was literally two or three over the whole skyline back then. So I was fortunate enough that Walls gave me a job at the time as well, and it did give me a good grounding in the industry.”
While others were emigrating, it was not on the cards for Barrett. “It never crossed my mind. Football was always the draw, to keep you at home as well.
“In 2012 I did a masters in energy and sustainability in UCD. And then I started working in Leading Edge in 2013. So I’m with them for six years now.”
Current duties include representing Bain Capital in its multimillion euro joint venture housing developments at Knockabro, Goatstown and Dodderbrook in south Dublin. Among the other projects he has directed was the €50 million phase two redevelopment of Kildare Village, where he was on site three days a week for a year.
“I like the cut and thrust of construction. And here at Leading Edge, there is a huge variety in the work we do. You have to be able to talk to the investment bankers, and the legal side of things. But you also need to be able to work with a project team, architects, contractors and sub-contractors.”
He admits the GAA link helps break the ice sometimes, but that’s about the limit of its reach. “It might open more doors, but you need to convince someone you can deliver. Two minutes into any conversation, the GAA talk has passed. You know, good luck at the weekend and it’s down to brass tacks.
“You’re handling something for a client, which is very dear to them: they’re spending money and time and they have to trust you with what is usually a very large project.”
One common trait between Barrett’s project work and his intercounty career are the time constraints. A typical week during the championship season involves juggling both.
On Monday he is in the Dublin city centre office from 8am to 6pm. “I need to set up my structures of the week. I need to set up my priorities in terms of each project, what needs to be done. And then into that I need to fit the GAA schedule. And I need to make sure that, for the full training session down in Mayo on either Tuesday or Wednesday, that my meetings need to be over before three o’clock that day.”
We’re getting back generally between midnight and 12.30am. I try not to sleep on the bus because it kind of affects my routine
“Monday evening is home, gym, food. Tuesday is generally the training day in Mayo, so it’s into the office early and then leaving here around 3pm and heading down. We get a bus from Lucan, we meet up there and get driven down and back again. There’s generally around eight of us travelling down. On the bus if you have some mundane tasks that you have to get done, like typing up some stuff or reading a couple of reports, then it’s the perfect time to do that. You can have an hour to get through these things. We’re getting back generally between midnight and 12.30am. I try not to sleep on the bus because it kind of affects my routine as, when I get home, I would end up laying awake for a while. You try and get the sleep back the following night and get a good rest.”
A typical Wednesday is back in the office at 8am for a day’s work followed by the home, gym, food routine. Thursday is usually an off night, “to spend some time with my wife and keep that relationship going as well”.
Friday is work and then Barrett drives down for training , often in Castlebar. “Then after that I usually go home to Belmullet. That’s a fair drive as well, it’s a terrible road. Sometimes we train in Ballyhaunis and you think, ‘it’s going to be one hour 45 minutes to get home to Belmullet and I’d be back in Dublin in two hours’.”
But generally it will be home to Belmullet late on Friday night. There may be a match over the weekend and then it’s back to Dublin on Sunday.
Often his wife stays up in Dublin. The weekend sacrifices on the personal front are something most people don’t consider in terms of amateur sportspeople. Outside the Mayo commitments, he is playing club football for Belmullet as well, though “in fairness the club at home don’t have much expectations of me at this stage”.
Barrett is hesitant to appear critical of the sport he dearly loves but he does believe it is at a crossroads.
“I think, it’s a commercial product, it’s hugely valuable, which it wasn’t maybe 20 years ago. So I think there needs to be a bit of joined-up thinking between GPA, GAA and the Government as to how we continue with the GAA as an amateur organisation that’s very much rooted in the heart of the community spirit and amateur ethos.
“On the intercounty scene, the teams are just getting more and more professional. And there’s never going to be a case where you want to step back and say, hold on, we’ve gone too professional, let’s reverse back 10 years, and let’s get rid of the S&C [strength and conditioning] coaches and stuff like that: it’s only human nature [that] you’re only going to want to evolve and get better.
“So we’ve got to a stage where it’s very much near professional in terms of setups. You see the size of the teams that are involved and all the time you have to put into it. And yet you’re expected to hold down and fulfil your career at the same stage if that’s the way you want to go.
“I think we’re getting to a stage where there’s so much commitment [needed] that you could have players deciding not to play because it is going to impact on their careers, or the other way, they might decide not to pursue their careers, but to concentrate on the GAA, which is kind of contrary to what we’re trying to promote, that it’s amateur, it’s community-based.
“I think we need to be proactive on this, not reactive, and realise that it’s got to the stage now that it’s not sustainable as it is at the moment.
“I guess from my side, as an intercounty player for 10 years, there are things that can be done that will help to incentivise players to want to be successful in GAA, to dream of the big days out and give the enjoyment to all the people that it does, but also that they can further their careers at the same time.”
Barrett doesn’t claim to have the answer, but reckons one way might be to consider tax breaks similar to those offered to other athletes, based on income earned in your regular work.
Under the Revenue’s Sportsperson tax relief scheme, upon retiring from participating, a person can take their 10 best years of earnings and garner 40 per cent relief on the professional earnings from their sport. It benefits everyone from rugby and tennis players, to jockeys and racing drivers. “When they finish they have a lump sum. I guess that incentivises them to be more successful as well, because the more successful they are, the more they get back. I’m not saying this is the actual answer, but something to that effect that will just incentivise the intercounty player.
Somewhere along the line, we’ve forgotten that, the actual benefits to the economy and into the Exchequer from the GAA games
“For me it’s worth my time, because I want to be in GAA because I love it. I’m still playing with my home county, it’s not professional, and it’s very much still community-based. But, you know, there’s that incentive for me to actually play and not just give it up and say, ‘well it’s just taking too much of my time’.
“Somewhere along the line, we’ve forgotten that, the actual benefits to the economy and into the Exchequer from the GAA games. Again, take Castlebar last Saturday night, you have 30,000 people descend on a rural town; that is huge for local businesses, and it just creates a flow of money into the [local] economy. I think that sometimes gets forgotten.”
Not if but when
Back to the game at hand and this week started with a video conference for the team on Monday, and back down to Mayo for training on Wednesday. “You need to prioritise what we need to work on here, when you are together. That’s the biggest challenge of an intercounty footballer or manager at this stage, managing the time you have together because you’re not a professional team that can actually sit down on a Monday morning and review the game and go through everything you have. Like you have Wednesday and Friday to get everything right.”
Of course it doesn’t always go according to plan. “The media are quick to write us off based on performances. And that’s fair enough, because if you were to just judge us on, you know, [the Kerry game], then they will put us in a certain bracket, but I think what people tend to forget all the time is that we have some of the best players in the country.”
That’s why he sincerely believes it’s a case of when – not if – Mayo wins the All-Ireland.
“When we don’t perform to the level we know we can it’s frustrating. You know what’s there, [so] how come it hasn’t been brought out? I think a psychology major mightn’t be able to get to the bottom of it, but there is that underlying confidence. You look around the team, the squad, the dressing room, and you just see the talent, and you’re like, it’s bound to happen.”
Barrett puts down the incredible public interest in the future of the Mayo side and the end-of-an-era narrative to a general interest in the fortunes of the side. “Mayo is one of the most fascinating stories in the GAA, it’s going to sell papers, and more often than not, negativity sells more than positivity.”
He says you can’t control opinions, often espoused by ex-players with agendas of their own. And sometimes the performances don’t help matters either.
In that regard, having a busy job gets Barrett out of the bubble. “It helps this time of year in Dublin, you’re kind of out of sight, out of mind. I think the football and the training is a good switch off from work. And then on the flip side of that, in the lead up to Saturday, I concentrate on work for as long as I can. And then once it’s time to switch into the match on Friday evening I’ll be switched in.”
And so to the green grass of Croker on Saturday evening. On one of the Mayo News football podcasts this week, they summed up the preview by saying the facts suggest Barrett and the boys won’t do it, but no one can confidently say they can’t.
“It’s going to be a huge occasion. And from there it’s on to the final, which for this team at this stage is not unusual. This is not unusual. I’m absolutely buzzing for it. And I can’t wait. It’s what you play for.”