Burning brightly – Jarlath Burns unveils his plans for the road ahead

By Shaun Casey

JARLATH Burns didn’t take much time off when he decided to hang up the boots at the end of the 1999 season. He’d just captained Armagh to an Ulster title, ending a 17-year wait for the Anglo Celt, before Meath ended their All-Ireland quest.

While the Orchard County were on the cusp of national glory under the stewardship of the two Brians (McAlinden and Canavan), Burns had given his all to the orange and white cause over a playing career that spanned 12 seasons.

But in 2000, GAA President Sean McCague invited Burns to sit on the Ard Chomhairle as the first players’ committee chairman. The Monaghan man, who handed Armagh captain Kieran McGeeney the Sam Maguire in 2002, started Burns on his administration journey.

Over two decades on, Burns joins the late Monaghan man on the list of Ulster men that have been GAA Presidents, becoming the eighth president to hail from the northern province, as he takes over from Larry McCarthy.

“Every administrator maybe at the back of their mind will feel that it’s a road that they could go down at some stage,” recalled Burns, reflecting on when the idea of the presidency first popped into his head.

“Luckily there were people that put me into very important positions at important times in my life that made it possible for me to achieve that. It gave me that platform that I was able to go for the presidency.

“Probably most of all, it was Sean McCague who put me on to Ard Chomhairle away back in 2000 as the very first players’ committee chairman.

“That got me an insight and knowledge of how GAA administration works and the methods of which we have of making decisions so that really, really helped me.”

One year on from being elected as the next President of the GAA, Burns is now looking forward to finally getting started and like when his playing career finished, he won’t be waiting around too long before taking action.

He’s already set up a football review committee, led by ex-Dublin All-Ireland winning player and manager Jim Gavin, while the Silverbridge man has also committed to remaining as his club’s secretary throughout his three-year term.

“It’s incredible how fast the year has gone,” added the former Armagh midfielder. “I’m now anxious to get started into my term as President and it’s been a fantastic year I have to say. It’s given me great time to get all my plans in place and get all my thinking done.

“Now I’m just looking forward to being the President. It’s a great honour but it’s also a tremendous responsibility as well. I have to be an ambassador for the GAA which I look forward to being.

“You’re also leading central council, GAA management, congress, all of those things. There are so many facets to it, so many angles to the GAA and you really just have to keep all of those plates turning.

“But it’s something that I know, while it will be a challenge, it’s something that I really look forward to and every day is going to be different.

“My plans are obviously around football and hurling, as I said in my speech, and then of course watching out for the expenditure we’re making on county teams.”

Football has changed a lot since Burns last stood between the white lines. Systems of play, tactics, defensive structure and transitional periods are all the buzzwords that surround the game at the moment.

While a complete overall of the rulebook is unrealistic, Burns has set up a taskforce filled with knowledgeable people that are well versed in how the game is currently played to look about improving the spectacle.

“I really felt that this particular committee, and Jim (Gavin) isn’t the only big name on it, Malachy O’Rourke is on it, Éamonn Fitzmaurice, Colm Collins, Colm Nally is on it.

“I felt that I needed really big names from the world of football who have managed at the highest level and just understand the game, understand how to coach the game.

“I met Jim Gavin four times; I’ve been having meetings with him now since October. I have to be honest; I’ve never met someone who is as impressive as he is.

“All the preparations that we have done, linking the rationale back to the strategic plan and doing all of that work that has to be done, putting out the terms of reference, he thinks in a way that nobody else that I know thinks.

“His higher level of thinking skills are incredible and I know that he is going to bring all of those skills to that post as well as the incredible people who are on the committee.

“As somebody who played county football and somebody involved with a club and somebody who goes to matches all the time, you listen to what people are saying as well.

“You can go to ten matches, and you’ll see ten incredible football matches and you’ll think this game is brilliant. Then you’ll go to two or three matches and they’re not so good.

“And that for example, the match between Derry and Donegal, the Ulster final two years ago. an awful lot of people including myself watched that game as an incredible game of attrition.

“There was unbelievable skilll in that half-forward, half-back area where they were passing it and just waiting for a break. A lot of people really enjoyed that and then there were a lot of people that said that’s not what this game should be.

“I suppose one of the first things we’re going to have to do is to work out what does constitute a really good game of football.”

The redevelopment of Casement Park is another issue high on the list for the incoming President, who feels that Ulster GAA “deserve” to have this stadium.

“All we can say is that we deserve to have that stadium, we’ve waited long enough for it and the Euros gives us an enhanced opportunity at one of the best stadiums in Europe in west Belfast,” added Burns.

“I would say that stadiums everywhere are controversial. It doesn’t matter where a stadium is rebuilt, Croke Park was controversial.

“I remember at the time people saying we shouldn’t build where Croke Park is and we should build a smaller stadium, we shouldn’t spend the amount of money on it.

“But Peter Quinn, my predecessor, had great vision and said we needed Croke Park and when you look at Croke Park now, you look back and think that it was the right decision.

“I just think that we in the GAA in Ulster do deserve this stadium. Soccer got a stadium, rugby got a stadium, they deserved it and now it’s the GAA’s turn.

“But I would not be deaf to those people who would say that it’s a lot of money to be spending on a stadium considering all the other physical priorities that there are in Northern Ireland, and I do understand the people who would make that point.”

There are so many different things on Burns’ lap at the minute. Hurling and football of course, Casement Park, the cost of inter-county teams, the GAA’s amateur status, integration. Can he complete all those tasks during his three-year tenure?

“Three years is a very short term and I have done ten years as principal of my School (St Paul’s, Bessbrook) and I wonder how much that I changed the dial even in my own school and three years in the GAA is a tiny amount of time.

“Remember we have a strategic plan there that has two years to go on. My number one priority will be to remain faithful to that.

“At the management meeting last week, on virtually every single thing that we have put into that strategic plan, we are on green or amber in everything apart from one and I think that is a great success story for us.

“After three years when I stand at Congress and talk about how I did, I might not have made all that much impact in any of those because we will not know whether the football review will have succeeded until we see it being played for a few years.

“We will see how coaches get around the new rules that we bring in, the same with hurling, that is a very long-term project.

“The cost of county teams, year one and everyone might adhere to it, year two it might slip, so it is the upkeep of all of those, the adherence of the principles of all of those is going to be the real challenge.”

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