Long road to the top a fitting reward for dedicated McCarthy

Corkman’s career path shows he has all the credentials to make a successful GAA president

Larry McCarthy: “The perennial duty of the president is to ensure that most people are satisfied, acknowledging that not everyone’s going to be happy with what you do.” Photograph: Ken Sutton/Inpho

Larry McCarthy: “The perennial duty of the president is to ensure that most people are satisfied, acknowledging that not everyone’s going to be happy with what you do.” Photograph: Ken Sutton/Inpho

 

In a way, Larry McCarthy, who takes over as the 40th president of the GAA this weekend, is the most qualified holder of the office in history.

An associate professor of business studies, specialising in the management, sponsorship and marketing of sport, he finds himself however taking the reins at a time of unparalleled uncertainty with the pandemic casting doubt over the association’s games, ancillary activities and finances.

And that’s before taking into account the most unusual thing about McCarthy: he’s spent the last 40 years or so in the US, becoming involved in administration through the New York board and then, nationally on Croke Park committees.

If there was any misapprehension about a well-meaning exile getting involved in the smile-and-slice world of organisational politics it was sharply resolved when McCarthy ran for the two Representative of Congress roles – formerly “trustees” – in 2018 and not only got elected but topped the poll and took the first slot.

That he has consequently had a place on the GAA’s management committee for the past three years is seen as good reason not to underestimate his grasp of the challenges facing the association even though operating at such a remove.

“If you can run for president from New York, then you know the mechanics of the association,” is the view of one, who has worked on committees with him.

The campaign for the presidency left little to chance and having taken time out in Ireland he was a regular attender of league fixtures a year ago, getting to meet various counties before Congress.

The influence of home has always been strong for him. During decades in America, his accent has remained distinct and involvement with the GAA has been a constant for a long time as well as summer visits back to Ireland.

Home was Bishopstown in Cork. His father, also Larry, was originally from Kenmare in Kerry and a bank manager. He was also a top-class amateur golfer whereas mother Aedin, from Cork, served as treasurer of then county camogie board.

Larry junior was born in 1955 and played in Bishopstown. His career highlight was winning an All-Ireland club football medal with Thomond College where he studied physical education but as a guide to the future, it was even more significant.

As reserve goalkeeper, McCarthy wasn’t the difference between winning and losing any of the matches but the All-Ireland wouldn’t have been won without him.

Kerry All-Ireland winner Mick Spillane was a member of the Thomond team.

“He was an absolutely fantastic secretary,” he says of the future president, “the best I ever came across and the driving force behind the club together with Dave Weldrick (the late team manager). Getting that team together meant organising students through the summer if we were going to get through the Limerick championship.

Unpopular competitors

“I remember – and this wasn’t exactly usual in the 1970s – that he used to hire a car for the day to bring student teachers from Cork to Limerick for training and matches.”

There was more to it than that. Thomond – and their successors in title, UL – were deeply unpopular competitors in the county championship but McCarthy handled the administrative hassle, as the club’s delegate to county board.

“Imagine,” says a contemporary, “how popular the college was – a team of All Stars in the local championship. But he turned up at the meetings every month. That took bravery and commitment.”

Having taught in Dublin after graduation in Malahide Community School, he ended up in New York in the mid-1980s, playing football and availing of the local GAA network to find work. He studied sports management at NYU and played with the Sligo club, which decades later would nominate him for the presidency.

His academic reset from secondary to third-level teaching was completed at the end of the 1990s with a PhD from Ohio State University. Around the same time he embarked on his current position as professor of management and director of the Institute of International Business, in the Stillman School of Business in New Jersey’s Seton Hall University.

By then he was a familiar figure in the counsels of the GAA. He served as PRO, secretary and chair of the New York board and became a familiar figure at Congress on delegations from America.

The association’s affairs in the city were long dominated by the O’Donnell family, who owned Gaelic Park in the Bronx, and the venue remained a contentious issue.

Former president Nickey Brennan, though, says that in his term of office he took the view that it would better to retain Gaelic Park on leasehold rather than take the financial risk of investing in another property, Randall’s Island and that McCarthy had been very involved in the deal with Manhattan College to secure that.

Others point out that the incoming president’s interest was as much in games development, which in recent times have encouraged a surge on native engagement that has seen a team of New York children, two thirds of whom were first-generation Irish, win an elite Féile (Under-14 football, Division One).

Forceful contributor

His work with committees is well regarded. Despite obvious geographical limitations he has been a regular attender and forceful contributor, including as a member of the Towards 2034 committee – established to anticipate the challenges of the GAA’s 150th anniversary – which issued a report of far-reaching reforms that was buried on release.

“His speciality is in sports financing and the business of sport,” remembers one committee member. “The two great strategic guys in this space but not exclusively were Larry and David Hassan (the Derry academic, from the University of Ulster, who chairs the standing committee on the playing rules). For instance on the whole business of television rights and streaming they were so insightful, encyclopaedic in their knowledge. It wasn’t just opinion but knowledge formed by research and academia.”

Perhaps the report will be dusted off now that he has taken office.

As a candidate, McCarthy spoke to The Irish Times about his focus on three “tensions” within the GAA.

“I know we’re not running a business even if there are commercial aspects but it’s a voluntary sports and cultural organisation.

“The biggest challenge for any president is balancing all of the tensions in the organisation. I identify three currently: obviously the club versus county fixtures, between colleges and schools and the under-20 football championship and then managing the GPA and our relationship with county players.”

The intervening year has inadvertently moved the dial on the first issue to the point that this Saturday the GAA is expected to embrace the split season that materialised in 2020 as an improvised response to the havoc wrought by coronavirus.

The other two tensions remain and the horizon is clouded with others.

“Long-term challenges,” he said, “include the population imbalance, the soaring cost of games but the perennial duty of the president is to ensure that most people are satisfied, acknowledging that not everyone’s going to be happy with what you do.”

Larry McCarthy returned only a couple of days ago to take up residence in Dublin, home of his wife Barbara with whom he has two sons Conor and Shane, for the duration of the presidency, which starts in uncertain times.

Mick Spillane has no doubts. “My last word on it is that he’ll be a fine president of the GAA.”

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