Malachy Clerkin: Why does GAA keep shooting itself in the foot?
Liam Miller episode the latest in a series of PR disasters for the association
Cork City fans display a banner in memory of Liam Miller during their Champions League tie against Legia Warsaw earlier this month. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
They have a new wheeze in Croke Park on match days this year. When you go in through the press entrance, they check your bag and put a security tag on it and then you hold out your wrist so they can put one on you as well.
Now, this is going to sound like an incredibly small nit to pick but here goes anyway - when your work is typing on a laptop, anything extraneous hanging loose on your wrist has the potential to be annoying. Catch it once on the corner of the computer as you’re reaching for the ‘y’ key and it’s an irritation. Catch it twice and it’s a catastrophe on a par with the Hindenburg going down.
So now, every time I get one at the press entrance, I have it torn off by the time I reach the press lift, a 20-second walk around the corner. I stick it in my pocket in case anyone asks to see it. Nobody ever does. I don’t throw it away in case somebody decides I need it to get into a press conference or the press lift or, I don’t know, a bespoke jacks or something. Nobody ever does.
And instead of spending time wondering why it’s necessary to wear a security tag that doesn’t get you in anywhere and that you don’t ever have to show to anyone, you just shrug and put it down to one of those GAA things that happens. Then you get on with your life.
The point of the story isn’t uppity hack preciousness - although job done on that score, says you. It’s that the GAA are great at sweating the small stuff. Somebody somewhere decided it was important and so it became a thing and so it is a thing. Carried out to the letter. Done and done and done.
None of this would be worth remarking on in the slightest if it didn’t contrast so starkly with how they’ve handled the huge PR disasters of the past few months. Not for the first time, you have to wonder how an organisation that is so precise when it comes to the tiny, picayune matters that nobody notices can make such an unholy mess of things when the wider populace is watching.
They must wonder at times how they get themselves into these tangles. How can an organisation with a reach so wide and deep and necessary throughout the country end up finding itself portrayed as cruel, heartless and lacking empathy, as it has over the past week with the Liam Miller row?
How does an administration that genuinely helps so many people and communities - in sport and beyond - allow the word go far and wide that they’re bullies, as happened during the ‘Newbridge Or Nowhere’ farrago.
How can a sporting association that runs literally thousands of competitions every day of every week of every year end up getting tagged with a reputation for rank unfairness, as it does with the Dubs in Croke Park thing?
In the past month alone, they’ve made a pig’s ear of three situations that weren’t all that obviously connected yet shared one crucial element - a complete failure to anticipate (a) how their actions would be perceived and (b) the possibility of it blowing up in their faces. More to the point, each situation had an easy an obvious fix, an open goal each time to change the thing that annoys them most, ie the notion that the top layer of suitdom in Croke Park are disconnected from the general membership.
Take them in no particular order. Newbridge was a fiasco born of complacency. No county had raised this sort of row about a home venue before so it caught them on the hop when Kildare wouldn’t lie down. But once it became a national outrage session, surely that was the moment for the new Director General to not only swoop in but to be seen swooping in.
Tom Ryan was praised afterwards by Cian O’Neill for his work behind the scenes brokering a solution. And for sure, there is something admirable about a man who is all about the work and not overly interested in doing things for show.
But imagine if he’d gone on the news on the Tuesday of that week and said something along the lines of, “We made a mistake. Kildare are entitled to natural justice, the game will be in Newbridge.” At a stroke, the story would have gone from the little guy getting bullied by the GAA to a new broom coming in and cleaning house.
Or take the Dubs in Croke Park. Nobody seriously imagined there was a chance of moving either of their Super 8s games this year but it’s surely obvious to everyone that it ought to be changed for next year. Yet when new GAA president John Horan was asked about it a couple of weeks ago, he first said that this was only an issue because Dublin were successful and then essentially recused himself from the conversation on account of being a Dub.
“No matter what I say in that debate,” Horan said, “it’s always going to be seen I’m going to say something with a bit of a shade of blue on my back. So I’m going to leave that to others, but we will resolve any of those issues.”
Well no, actually. All he had to say, as the new president, was that this pre-dated his time in the job, that it was clearly an anomaly and it would only be fair to fix it at next year’s congress. Again, just like that, the GAA hierarchy would have another new voice saying something new and, moreover, advocating something that might cost them money.
As for the Liam Miller situation, any sympathy you’d have for their predicament in a delicate situation disappeared as soon as they started quoting legal advice. That’s just missing the point to an almost wilful degree. Worst of all, it made them sound like cold, aloof dinosaurs.
They aren’t that. Above all, they need to find a way to show it more often. Never mind the small stuff. Get the big things right and everything else will follow.