Seán Moran: Tom Ryan must tread carefully in times of change
Ryan’s emphasis on the imminent championship trial reflects reality of the challenge
GAA director general Tom Ryan: knows from his financial background the immense importance of getting the All-Ireland championships right. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
If it’s a curse to live in interesting times, is the corresponding blessing, ‘May you live in experimental times’?
In the latter circumstance you can wait and see how everything goes before becoming too dogmatic and if it’s not working, go back to the drawing board. It mightn’t however be as straightforward as that.
Tom Ryan took his media bow as the GAA’s latest director general in a Croke Park briefing on Tuesday. He was just a few weeks past the 10th anniversary of his predecessor Páraic Duffy’s similar exercise in 2008. It was hard not to compare and contrast the two overtures.
Ten years ago, the new DG surrounded himself with various line managers – a symbolic detail at a time when there was a perceived rift between the old GAA and the new Croke Park – to emphasise collegiality.
He also took office in ‘interesting times’. In fact he left his first media conference to accompany Kieran Mulvey, then the chief executive of the Labour Relations Commission, on a diplomatic mission to Cork to try to sort out a player strike that would affect the county’s participation in the national league.
A couple of months later, the issue of players’ grants would go before Congress and although there was hardly a rustle by the time the initiative was approved, in the lead-up to the decision the island was full of noises, heralding the death of amateurism.
It’s no slight to say that, by comparison, Ryan’s first weeks haven’t been as eventful and at his media exposition he had the relaxed demeanour of someone who had been busy doing something else and was glad of the break.
He identified the first summer of the championship experiments as being foremost in his mind. This may have been reflecting the caution he articulated last January at what would be his last financial presentation during which he suggested that the round-robin formats might not have the seismic impact that some have been hoping for.
“If you look at some of the qualifier games in the course of hurling, some years they tend not to be hugely lucrative. So I don’t see it that the two provinces will gain and we’ll lose out. I think in the totality of things it will be better across the board for both of us but I think on the football side, the first thing that occurs to you is that it’s going to be a [bonanza].
“I don’t think it will be, because it is going to be physically difficult for people to get to every game week in and week out. So I would temper some of the expectation around that.”
In other words, the risk inherent in such a radical departure from established practices might not necessarily pay off in compensatory gate receipts.
During Tuesday’s media conference, the new DG demonstrated the even-handedness that informed his financial reports; don’t get too carried away by good cheer nor too gloomy about bad vibes.
Whereas the new championship format will be monitored closely for its effect on public interest and competitiveness, the more pressing concern of the new calendar will be to what extent it helps to redress the balance between club and inter-county activities.
The club fixtures problem is of more long-term importance than the success of the championship reforms in the sense that the latter format can be re-evaluated and tweaked whereas the GAA needs to see some sort of progress on the redressing the county-to-club ratios.
The Club Players Association is balloting its membership for a more confrontational approach and, already, the April experiment is under the microscope. Is it working?
You don’t have to be Zhou En Lai to believe that it’s a bit soon to pronounce on that. In as close as he came to chiding his audience, Ryan pointed out: “It’s the 17th of April, it’s maybe a little bit early to say.”
Already the anecdotal evidence swings either way but it’s certain that counties with early championship engagements are more reluctant to gift-wrap their players for club activities.
The GAA deserves to be cut some slack on April, as the awful weather pushed the inter-county season farther into the month than could have been reasonably envisaged. The more telling verdict will come later in the year when the additional weeks freed up by the condensed inter-county championship calendar come into play.
If counties can’t make good use of weeks when their inter-county season is over the new calendar will have failed and Ryan will be aware that such an outcome would intensify the headaches caused by this issue.
Other challenges are less immediate but there was a ripple of laughter when Ryan responded to a question about new president John Horan’s advocacy of a tiered championship by affirming that he would always be supportive of the president.
The new director general recalled what a big deal it had been for his county, Carlow, to win the All-Ireland B football title (as it was unglamorously styled) in 1994 and how the Tommy Murphy Cup a decade later had failed to ignite the same interest.
That was largely because the All-Ireland B was played late in the year – scheduling now impossible – and at a distance from the championship proper whereas the Murphy Cup was for a couple of years perceived as a dungeon for counties who might otherwise get a crack at the All-Ireland qualifiers.
Ryan knows from his financial background the immense importance of getting the All-Ireland championships right. They contribute the vast preponderance of Central Council’s gate receipts. Throw in the implications for club activities of the trial structures and it’s easy to see how they’re preying on Tom Ryan’s mind.