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The GAA's New Head Honcho Tries To Shed The 'Numbers Man' Tag

The GAA's New Head Honcho Tries To Shed The 'Numbers Man' Tag
By Gavin Cooney
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If the GAA is in a state of eternal tension between the lofty ideals of amateurism and the flinty, dreary realities of the finance needed to pay for it, it played out yesterday afternoon in the wood-panelled walls of Croke Park's executive boardroom.

Sitting alongside president John Horan at the shortest end of an enormous wooden table - cut in the warped-triangular shape of the GAA's now-defunct logo - was the Association's new Director-General Tom Ryan, meeting the media for the first time since landing the top job.

Originally from Carlow, Ryan was appointed as Paráic Duffy's successor three weeks ago, having served as the GAA's Director of Finance for the last 11 years. The appointment of The Money Man to the head role in the Association led to a deluge of early criticism. "A  pretty bleak day for the Association", bloviated Joe Brolly. "As expected, [it's] an insider, a financial man, a numbers man. Not someone who's known to GAA folk".

And so, Tom Ryan met the media to introduce himself to GAA folk.

Opening remarks were provided by new GAA president John Horan, the thrust of which was 'Folks, meet Tom Ryan: True Gael'.

Tom has been working here for the last 11-and-a-half-years and is steeped in the GAA through his family. If I am to give one short story: Tom and I had a meeting here the other evening, and he asked if we could fix it so that he could be out to Faughs [GAA club, in Templeogue] to go to train a team - or to a meeting, I'm not sure which - but he wanted to get on with voluntary work within the Association.

Ryan's affiliation with the Association seems genuine - he covered a few Junior B championship games for the Carlow Nationalist for some relief from his desk job and currently serves as Treasurer of Faughs GAA Club in Templeogue in Dublin.


Ryan spoke of his ambition to bring his predecessors " genuine decency and integrity" to his tenure, and throughout the thirty minute Q&A with twenty-odd journalists, he came across as well-spoken (it was the first time this writer has heard the word 'behove' used twice at a GAA press conference) and personable. (He referred to all journalists by their first name in response to their question, which is one of the staples of the How To Win Friends And Influence People doctrine. It was enough to have your correspondent blush in response to such effusive validation of his career and life choices).

We jest, and it would be appropriate or suitable for us to now move onto the action.

So Tom, are you an insider without any vision to take the GAA through this turbulent era of perverted technology, rampant commercialism, and fierce competition? (Note - not a verbatim reproduction of our question).


I think it is probably a little unfair to reach those conclusions before a person has started in their role. I am an insider to the extent that I have worked here for the last ten or 11 years, but that should not necessarily be presented as an impediment when it comes to achieving things, getting things done or perhaps changing things. I'd like to think I have a little bit of insight into how the GAA works, and how change can be brought about in an organisation that is, I suppose, inherently conservative, but that's not a bad thing.

I think have vision to the extent that I think I'm in a good position, as I work at both ends of the spectrum. I'm here trying to do my best from 9am to whatever time it tends to be in the evening trying to do a day job, and I'm also trying to do my best in a small or medium-sized club that faces all the issues that every club in the Association faces, in terms of participation, retaining players and fixtures.

It's very easy for me to counter any particular argument here, but it's not really what I say but it's what I do that's going to count.

Ryan openly acknowledged that he has "a little bit to do to distance myself from that financial debate, and you’ll see that happen over the course of the months ahead", clarifying that " the thinking I will bring to it [the job] is not purely financial".

It was notable how often he tried to steer potential solutions to issues raised around the table toward intangibles. For instance, on the issue of how to deal with payments to managers - raised by predecessor Páraic Duffy in his valedictory report earlier this year - Ryan veered away from talk of financial penalties and instead focused on a more holistic vision.

We have rules and provisions in the rule book at the moment that speak to that particular situation, and if they are not being observed that creates a problem. But there is a problem when we say that we want something and then we do something different...

...We can tidy up the rules a little bit, but the answer is not in rules or penalties, but the answer is in all of us signing up to a collective set of values and vision for what we want the GAA to be.


In the infernal grapple between club and county, Ryan assured the fixtures issue is to the forefront of his mind but also argued for a change in "emphasis".

Apart from fixtures, there is a question of emphasis in total. The county game does predominate. It captures most of the attention, it captures most of the resources, and it captures most of the time. You’d like to see a situation in which that balance is redressed over time.

On the specifics of the fixture issue, Ryan said that Croke Park "can try and set the tone and set a culture" in ensuring that all club players have a satisfactory calendar, although did not ignore the practical difficulties of homogenising a wildly different patchwork of fixture fiefdoms.

Everyone in this room wants to get to that stage where we have a decent fixture programme mapped out in advance for people. The difficulty is in the 'how' bit of how you do that. There are all manner of local complexities relating to fixtures borne out of the different shapes and sizes of the counties. It really is very, very difficult for us here in Croke Park to ordain to Leitrim versus Cork as to what their fixture programme could be.

That being said, Ryan wasn't in front us to slough off the white collar entirely. When pressed on whether the Sky TV deal will be reviewed before the agreement expires in 2021, he returned to the bottom line. The tension, however, plays out in these lines - he is aware of talking money. Even the use of business jargon like market is done somewhat apologetically.


It has engendered opposition. I respect all views on it, but what I ask people to do is to bear in mind that there are 140 or 150 matches or so a year, of which 17 are exclusively in the Pay Per View arena. There is a little bit of perspective in those numbers.

Most importantly - and I hate going back talking about money but I’m going to do it - but I’d ask people to take cognisance that if we’re going to put out 200 or 300 coaches out there, and if we are going to spend 5 or 6 million euro on capital projects, we do need to bring in income.

There is a natural balance in the GAA at the moment, and I hope people recognise that we don’t operate in an environment where everything we have is for sale.

We don’t do that. We go into the market, for want of a better word, with a view to generating a fair and reasonable income to fund the things we are obliged to provide. If we were to curtail things - and maybe we will, I don’t know - but that means that we have to curtail ambition and expansion.

We try very, very hard that the vast, vast majority of what we bring in is distributed out. If we were to recalibate things, it would have an impact locally. This year, you’ll hopefully see Pearse Park in Longford redeveloped.

Those things could take longer to do, could be done on a smaller scale or could not done at all were we to curtail income.

When asked to identify the biggest challenge facing the GAA as he takes over, Ryan first raised the incipient and much-changed All-Ireland championships. "We’ve undergone a period of significant debate and we’ve arrived at a new format for things so the summer ahead is going to be very, very exciting. It’s going to be very, very different and I think it presents not just challenges but it presents an opportunity to present ourselves in a new light to people and I’m really looking forward to that".


He then chimed with Páraic Duffy in raising the problems caused by the flood of people moving from West to East in Ireland, concluding that "the best thing we can do is to ensure we have well-resourced clubs at both ends of the spectrum, in terms of numbers and geographically, to be able to cater for the playing population in all parts of the country".

Only once did Ryan directly repeat himself, when asked about the GPA's lucrative fundraisers in America and if the GAA were happy they are getting value for money in their deal with the Players' body. "Our job here is to ensure that our funding here is being used for the purpose we want it used, and I am confident in saying that’s the case" came the incantation.

Perhaps understandably, Ryan did not let off any fireworks.

A tiered football championship structure is "worth considering, worth looking at"; the success or otherwise of the Club-only month will be "measured when we get to early May"; there isn't a "huge misalignment" in what the CPA and the GAA want for the club player regarding fixtures.

He was certain on one thing, however. There won't be any county amalgamation on his watch.

No. I can’t see it. Can you? That is one of the cornerstones of the thing.

Your own county is your own county. And if we got to that stage, it would be a very different GAA and it wouldn’t have the same appeal to anyone around this table or to me.

And that was that.

Although Tom Ryan may not appreciate the phrase, it's time to get down to business.

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