Oh no. Not another article about money and the Dubs. Turn the page, Mammy. Make the bad man stop. It's All-Ireland final day. It's nearly Christmas week. It's been the worst year of our lives. Seriously, can we not?
Okay, wait. Just wait. This one is different. For a start, we come in peace. The worst thing about the Dublin funding debate is always the refusal of either side to give an inch. State that the Dublin players are supremely talented and you’re accused of ignoring the money. Mention that the five-in-a-row might have been influenced by Dublin’s financial might and you’re insulting the players. If there ever was a middle ground, it has long been grown over.
Well, this is a dispatch from that middle ground. Or at least an attempt to locate it. Our guide for the journey is someone uniquely placed to give a view. Bernard Brogan comes to the debate wearing two hats. One is that of a player who lived inside the bubble for the best part of 15 years and experienced all the changes along the way. The other is that of someone who was deeply involved at the planning stage when Dublin set about becoming a financial powerhouse.
Actually, he has a third hat. He is a Dubs fan. Outside the tent for a Dublin All-Ireland final for the first time since he was 11 years old. A fortnight ago, after the Cavan game, that new status allowed him break the habit of a lifetime and he got involved in a bit of Twitter to-and-fro on the subject of the day.
“Clinical display from Dublin,” he wrote, “my argument is that this Dublin financial debate is masking the conversation about how good these Dublin players are, Once in a generation players in full flow!”
There followed the sort of calm and civil back and forth that has made Twitter such a force for good in the world. One lad told him to go home to bed. Another said they said the same things about Lance Armstrong. Another told him if he wanted his opinion, he'd ask what the specials were down at SuperValu. Which was pretty funny, in fairness.
“Ah look,” he says “The middle ground is where I’d like to be on this. That’s what I would love to be able to find with people. I got involved in a debate on Twitter because I felt annoyed that the Dublin players were being dismissed and not getting the credit for the work they’ve put in over the years.
“I know that I come from a position of bias. Obviously I do – I have been in a bubble with those players for a long time. I’ve seen their development all the way along. So I get annoyed when I see people saying that these players are only able to win because of financial doping. I’m not saying I know everything – I definitely don’t. But what I can bring to it is the view from what it means to be a player in the middle of it. Maybe that can help find that middle ground.”
So let's get into it. Can we start by admitting, on some level, that finance is a factor? That feels like an important thing for anyone involved in Dublin GAA to come out and say. If money is the great unmentionable in the GAA, that is exponentially the case when it comes to the Dubs. Can we at least say it matters?
“Of course it does, yeah,” says Brogan. “Dublin have brought in a lot of finance over the past decade, plenty of it. It was got for a good reason and it worked. I wouldn’t go knocking something that worked. There’s loads of counter-arguments, absolutely, I accept that. And I know it’s easy for me to say it because I’m a Dub. But this is something that worked. My feeling would be that we should take the learnings from it and apply that to other areas of the GAA.
“Loads of counties are doing it well. Dublin aren’t the only success story when it comes to raising finance. Kerry have been able to go to the States and raise half a million quid here and there when they’ve needed to build their centre of excellence. They have as much finance at the high-performance level as Dublin would have.”
At this point, it’s probably worth trying to nail down what we are talking about. We could spend the day talking about the ins and outs of the GAA’s funding of Dublin being multiples of what other counties get. But in fairness, not even the most fervent critic of the system can claim that funding made Bernard Brogan. It’s not really in the scope of his experience.
No, the area where he can speak with authority is what it’s like to be in the Dublin senior football set-up and the role finance plays in it. In the bubble, he says, the conversation just doesn’t exist. He is visibly surprised to find out that the debate isn’t any more heated this year than in other years, which just goes to show how little headspace players have for it.
“I know there are Dublin fans who, as soon as anyone mentions money, they take that as saying, ‘Well, anyone could win All-Irelands for Dublin.’ And it annoys me a bit now that I’m removed from it. Because I just feel that it is questioning the team, even if it isn’t meant that way. I have seen the efforts of everyone there and I am able to say how small a factor the financial side of it is.
“But on the flipside of that, I can say as well that maybe that’s a subconscious thing on my part. That maybe, when you’re a player, you just don’t see day-to-day all the resources that go into allowing you to concentrate on getting yourself right.
“So I know it’s fine for me to say, ‘Look, this is all just hard work by the players’. And meanwhile, in the background, there’s resources going into technology that other counties might not have. Not that a few laptops are a big outlay but you know what I mean? There are things like that that maybe I just take for granted.”
Well, okay. Let's talk about something specific and tangible in that case. Let's talk about Bryan Cullen. Five years ago, more or less to the day, the 2011 All-Ireland-winning captain was headhunted from Leinster rugby to take up a role as Dublin GAA's high-performance manager. Since then, Cullen has been responsible for the athletic development not just of the Dublin senior football team but of the stream of footballers and hurlers flowing into the senior set-up.
It’s a huge job and Cullen is uniquely suited to the role. Nobody is saying Dublin are wrong to employ him. But the fact remains – Dublin were able to prise him away from the country’s most successful professional sports team to oversee the crucial strength and conditioning aspect of preparation. Plenty of counties have top-class S&C coaches but even the very best of them are doing it part-time.
“I think that’s a fair one to point out,” Brogan concedes. “As you say, the investment in Bryan Cullen is much broader than the Dublin football team – his role goes right down the chain from the footballers and hurlers in the senior panels all the way down to underage teams coming through. He’s part of a structure of development which is a well thought out process of operation.
“So yes, that’s definitely something Dublin are able to invest in. And not every county can do that. But I’ll turn that question around slightly and ask you how many counties are paying their manager? None of our managers or selectors have ever been paid in Dublin. You’d know the figures better than me but if some county is paying a fortune for their manager, would it not be better to invest that in someone who could oversee the athletic development of a group of young players all the way up into senior?
“Fundamentally, Dublin are a successful organisation because yes, they have finances but they have good people and good processes. Finances are important. They allow you do to things and try things and make mistakes and go again. But to say money is the main driver is wrong. You have to have the right plan, you have to have the right culture. Finances alone are a guarantee of nothing. Finances didn’t win five All-Irelands in a row. I guarantee you that.”
Okay, rapid-fire round. Here and there over the years, you get to hear various stories about the ways Dublin players are making out like bandits. So confirm or deny, Berno . . .
Claim One: Mitsubishi Motors provide 60 cars, 30 for the footballers, 30 for the hurlers.
“No, definitely no. I think it’s 10 or 12, around that. And they’re split up between the footballers, hurlers, camogie players and women’s footballers.”
Okay, Claim Two: Gourmet Parlour sort ye with free meals in 25 Dublin restaurants.
“I wish! No, we got a discount card that gave you a percentage off in some places but I was never able to use it because when do you ever get out for a meal when you’re in season? We got our food after training and all that obviously. But no more than any other county.”
Claim Three: What about Aer Lingus? Free flights on tap for you and your partner?
"Ah here. No, in fairness, the Aer Lingus partnership helped with the team holiday. The whole idea that we started off with in Pat Gilroy's time and carried on by Jim was that if we could at all, we weren't to be going to the county board with our hand out. That was the thinking behind getting those sponsorships on board. Something like catering is a big cost but if you can self-fund it through a partnership, you're not a burden on the county board."
The sponsorship side of things is Brogan's daily bread. Along with Gilroy and his cousin James Brogan, he was in there on the ground floor at the start of the 2010s when they set about getting different companies on board to make Dublin GAA into a commercial brand. His company Legacy has been involved with numerous sponsorships over the past decade so it's an area he knows well.
He is, therefore, just the man to ask for an answer to a stupid question. If we are to accept that one of Dublin’s unavoidable advantages is the size of the commercial market they can command, then would it not be fairer on everyone to pool all sponsorship money?
How about something like this – take whatever AIG stump up annually and throw it into a pot with the contribution of everybody else from Avonmore to Kingspan to JP Clarke's New York Saloon (the Leitrim sponsor) and spilt the whole thing 32 ways. Why couldn't you level the playing field that way? Why wouldn't that work?
Brogan thinks about it. And thinks some more. And, because he wants to get the answer right, asks can he take the evening to give it some proper consideration. So we finish up our Zoom call and a couple of days later, he comes back with an answer. Two, actually.
“Potentially, yes, there could be something in it,” he says. “The reason sponsorship works well in Dublin is that they have a great structure. I don’t even think Dublin GAA would have a big problem with it if they felt that the money was being invested in the right way. I’m not speaking for them, obviously.
“The problem comes though when you really dig down into different county boards and how they have used their money in the past. There was a report a few years ago where a million quid went into hurling in a few counties and when they went back and looked into how it was spent, loads of it was wasted.
“So if there was a way of ring-fencing money, of making sure that it was focused directly on grassroots and participation and the future of the game, rather than on facilities or capital projects, I think there would potentially a way of getting it to work. I think there could be scope there. But it would need a lot of accountability and there would have to be real oversight from the GAA. If things were done in the right way, yeah potentially it’s something that could be looked at.
“Another thought I had is there’s a potential maybe to pool counties off the pitch. Maybe you take four counties in different provinces to give a brand a national feel. Or maybe you set up regional commercial managers who feed directly from a group of counties into the GAA and form partnerships that way. From a sponsorship point of view, you want to have as much scale and population as possible. That’s why Dublin can attract brands to work with them.
“So maybe if you have commercial managers for regions or for different sets of counties, that would help some smaller counties who don’t have that weight that the big counties have. There could be a pooling of resources there and when you add one to the other to the other, you have a bigger population and a bigger territory to create sponsorship assets.”
See? You don’t get that kind of reply on Twitter. Bernard Brogan doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. But he is at least willing to have an honest conversation about it all, one free of the usual snide point-scoring and bad faith straw-manning.
If we’re ever going to get anywhere in the debate, it’s surely the only starting point worth considering.