GAA chief Páraic Duffy leaves behind a decade of radical change
Monaghan teacher will go in March after holding almost every role in association
GAA director general Páraic Duffy: huge changes are in train from 2018 onwards to make more room for club activity. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
When Páraic Duffy was announced as the successor to Liam Mulvihill in November 2007, he made one thing abundantly clear. He would not – repeat, not – be putting in a 28-year stint as the Longford man had done as director general of the GAA.
In the beginning, Duffy was fairly adamant that the seven-year term that came with the job would be ample. In the end, he stayed for a decade and oversaw some of the most radical changes in the association’s history.
The Monaghan schoolteacher rose to the top of the association having been a player, a trainer, a selector and a county board chairman, as well as holding various national roles including player welfare manager and chairman of both the Games Administration Committee and the National Audit Committee. Short of picking up litter on Hill 16 after a game, he will retire at the end of March 2018 having held just about every conceivable role in the association.
It is likely that history will be kind in its judgment when the time comes. Back in 2007, Duffy was openly nervous of how his lack of business experience would count against him in the job and yet he guided the association through a brutal recession with a steady hand.
Revenue for 2016 came in at €60.5 million, just over double the turnover recorded for 2006. In conjunction with Peter McKenna, Duffy has overseen the development of Croke Park stadium into a commercial behemoth and an enormous asset to the association.
His watch has also seen a fundamental change in the way the GAA runs its most high-profile competitions. From next year, the inter-county championships in football and hurling will feature more games between the best teams in the country.
The round robins in the hurling provincial championships and the Super Eights at the quarter-final stage in football are historic changes to formats that have only ever undergone a couple apiece since the foundation of the GAA.
In a previous generation, Duffy came up with a skeleton plan for the original football qualifiers in the living room of then GAA president Seán McCague. Add in the Super Eights – a term Duffy rails against but one that is likely to stick – and hurling’s answer to them and it’s arguable that no one person in history has had more effect on the way our GAA summers are structured than Duffy.
Before he took the job, his last act as player welfare manager was to broker a peace deal with the Gaelic Players Association to prevent a strike over the issue of player grants.
In the decade since, the GPA has been recognised as the official players’ body and has taken up a place on Central Council. Significantly, the two bodies have a framework agreement in place up to the end of 2019. Duffy has always been seen as an honest broker by the GPA and the lasting peace between the two sides is in no small part attributable to his efforts.
As director general, Duffy has overseen plenty of issues that were controversial, none more so than the Sky Sports deal. The symbolism of putting televised championship matches behind a paywall has always felt anathema to spirit of the association.
Even after Congress emphatically rejected a 2016 motion proposing that all championship matches be shown on free-to-air TV, the unapologetically exclusionary move remains for many a stain on the GAA.
It is in keeping too with the increasingly commercial face of the GAA, an aspect that still sits uncomfortably with plenty of members. The move in recent years to shift the balance beck towards grassroots has unquestionably been a response. One of Duffy’s earliest declarations 10 years ago was that he was going to be a voice for clubs.
“There’s a huge, huge issue there,” he said at his unveiling, “and if I do nothing else over the next seven years, I really want the clubs to feel involved again. I want it so that they can say, ‘Well, maybe he knew nothing about business, that fella, but at least the club scene is better.’”
Few would argue that to be the case in 2017. The necessity for the formation of Club Players Association in January of this year would suggest much the opposite, in fact. Duffy has long made his frustrations clear at the inability of county boards to run their club competitions in a timely manner but in the end, he did accept that the intercounty game was swallowing the clubs whole.
Moving the All-Ireland finals out of September is a massive change in Irish life, never mind just in the GAA. But combined with the abolition of replays in all games but finals, huge changes are in train from 2018 onwards to make more room for club activity.
In time, it may turn out to be his lasting legacy.