Seán Moran: Other presidents would have crumpled under pressures Horan faced

Departing Dubliner had to handle pandemic as well as angst over his county’s dominance

Larry McCarthy, left, becomes the first president to come from the association’s overseas units when he takes over from John Horan, right, on Saturday. Photograph: Tom O’Hanlon/Inpho

Larry McCarthy, left, becomes the first president to come from the association’s overseas units when he takes over from John Horan, right, on Saturday. Photograph: Tom O’Hanlon/Inpho

 

The GAA presidency: discuss. This weekend the chain of office changes hands and Larry McCarthy becomes the first president to come from the association’s overseas units when he takes over from John Horan on Saturday.

Incoming presidents never know what they’re going to get. Fifty years ago, Pat Fanning, a staunch supporter of the old ban on foreign games, had to administer last rites to the contentious rule.

In 1998 and a year in office, Joe McDonagh was inspired by the Belfast Agreement to make a determined effort at ridding the rule book of the ban on Northern security forces joining the GAA. It didn’t take but it put the prohibition on borrowed time.

Liam O’Neill probably didn’t bargain on his presidency being consumed mid-term in a raging controversy about the agreement to allow Sky broadcast some championship matches.

Beyond all of these discomforts, however, must lie John Horan’s fate in having to deal with the worst public health crisis in a century, which in the space of a few days a year ago shut down Gaelic games sine die.

His background was unusual for a president. Principal of St Vincent’s secondary school in Glasnevin, his progress through the GAA was in the arena of schools games even though he had a strong club background in Na Fianna and had been a football selector with the Dublin minors.

Despite his low profile he became chair of the Leinster Council in 2011. Leading the provincial councils is a lower-key position these days than it used to be and that combined with a lack of background at county executive level appeared early in his presidency to leave him uncomfortable with formal media interaction.

Visceral nature

In his first year, at a championship launch on the Aran Islands, Horan nearly had to be chased to the shoreline of Inis Móir before giving the standard press conference.

It probably wasn’t a great time to be the first Dublin president in nearly a century with the county’s growing dominance of the All-Ireland championship prompting a lot of angst about population and funding.

At times he was taken aback by the visceral nature of the coverage but neither was it easy for him. On one occasion he attempted to broaden the discussion of his county’s success by pointing out the involvement of so many willing volunteers as being more of an influence than the development grants that had poured into the capital.

It wasn’t an unreasonable point – that money alone couldn’t deliver what had been achieved – but morphed into accusations that he was ignoring the efforts of volunteers elsewhere and portraying the ones in Dublin as better and more committed than those in other counties.

All presidents however come from somewhere and not everyone’s unwilling to cut him some slack. As one experienced observer put it, “He’s a genuine Dublin GAA man and generally people don’t fault him for that.”

As someone who’s very comfortable in the committee room – he’s an excellent chair of meetings – there has been a tendency on Horan’s part towards intrigue and that wasn’t always welcomed.

Very effective communicator

Despite the media scrapes and his self-description on being elected in 2017 that he “wasn’t renowned for my speeches”, he would prove a very effective communicator on behalf of the GAA in the turmoil that unfolded a year ago.

As the public face and voice of the association he gave a series of interviews in his preferred broadcast medium, which maintained a steady policy of safety first, initially ruling out a return to play while social distancing remained a requirement but always in keeping with best medical advice.

Medical direction came to the GAA’s rescue with the prompting of his Covid Advisory Group, which analysed what was a dynamic situation before giving games a green light and devising the circumstances in which they could return.

Even then, the GAA held back a couple of weeks behind the Government’s exit from lockdown.

There were pressure points, including the belligerent demand last August that assistant CMO Dr Ronan Glynn furnish the GAA with “empirical evidence” of why they weren’t easing restrictions on spectators. One of the reasons the incident jarred so much was that it was out of keeping with the general policy of accepting public health guidelines without demur.

Although the summary calling-off of all county championship fixtures in October was a decisive act and unprompted by the authorities, it could arguably have happened a week earlier, as the first major sign of trouble, the Tyrone football final, had taken place a fortnight previously.

Even accepting this, Horan led the association conspicuously well in a time of constant stress, with all its core activities suspended and revenue crashing through the floor.

Improvisations

There were other achievements in office. Much has been already written and said about the transformation of the games calendar through a split season driven by the improvisations necessary last year as well as the reforms floated by his Fixtures Calendar Review Task Force – of which Horan supports the most radical, the league-based football championship.

The latter will be deferred until an in-person congress can be held but the split season will go to delegates at Saturday’s remote congress.

There has been less focus on one of the most original targets of the presidency, the whole architecture of games development. On taking office, Horan told his first media conference: “All the way from under-13 up to under-20 has to be looked at. We need to create a proper player pathway. People aren’t acting out of malice but some people are getting carried away by their own self-importance with the amount of training sessions etc.

“No young lads should be deemed a success or a failure. I think these lads should be going to county development training in their club colours to keep it in their head that they are still a club player.”

His discomfort with the elite development squads was a progressive perspective and the Talent Academy and Player Development Review Committee he appointed with Michael Dempsey as chair produced a thoughtful and hugely influential report that pushed the reorientation of coaching back to the clubs and away from elite assembly lines.

It’s been a good term of office despite pressures under which a less capable president would have crumpled.

smoran@irishtimes.com

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