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Interview – Brian McAvoy – facing the challenges of leading Ulster

Niall McCoy interviewed Brian McAvoy about his five years as the Secretary and CEO of Ulster GAA.

 

Brian McAvoy: It’s five years since I was appointed then I took up the post on December 5. It doesn’t be too long going around, a lot has happened in those five years.

There are two aspects to the role. There is the provincial secretary role, which is more the public facing one, and then there is the CEO element, which is a lot to do with internal staff and structures. We have made a lot of inroads in governance and that is something people maybe wouldn’t see.

We have a whole new raft of policies and we are much more aligned with where we should be. We’ve brought independent board members on. There were none there in my time and now there are four.

We’re trying to improve our organisation in terms of staff. Staff policies, we did a full assessment of every job role so a lot of stuff has gone on behind the scenes.

But the key element has been Covid and that has certainly been the most challenging thing.

NMcC: I was going to ask you what has been the most challenging part of the last five years, but it’s the obvious answer.

BMcA: There was no handbook, there was no guide on how to manage a pandemic because it hadn’t happened in 100 years and the world was a very different place then. We were learning on the hoof.

The initial lockdown almost had a novelty factor but then the plan was to get people back to some sort of activity. Luckily enough we got the club championships run last year. We had to run the club first, there was no other way. In fact, if we hadn’t have done that, there wouldn’t have been a club season last year. That was good because 98 per cent of our players don’t play county.

We were never intending to run the provincial club championships last year because we were trying to run a whole season in a couple of months, so we got the intercounty championship behind closed doors. It wasn’t the same but at least it was done and we had two great results with Cavan winning Ulster and Tipperary winning Munster.

NMcC: Some people felt that you were too slow to get children back playing, and I’m sure your response will be that there was no handbook.

BMcA: I think the important thing was to block out the noise and go with the science, and that’s what we did. We would have all loved to have seen kids back sooner but we got them back when we could.

It’s very easy for people to say things from the sidelines but they have no responsibilities, they don’t have to deal with the consequences. We got it 100 per cent correct, of that I am certain.

NMcC: So Covid has been the biggest challenge in your time so far, but what has been the most rewarding?

BMcA: The fact that Ulster GAA is in a good place. The most rewarding thing from a purely practical point of view is that we have come through a pandemic and everyone has kept their job. That’s an important milestone for staff.

Covid has unfortunately put a number of things on hold, but I think we’re starting to see things like the split-season – and I suppose it took the pandemic to get it – and I think that will be the way forward and it will be a very positive development. It might have consequences on all the competitions we previously run, we mightn’t be able to run them all or certainly we’ll have to do some in a condensed fashion, but I think it is important that county players have some sort of off season.

NMcC: You mentioned staff there and some of Ulster GAA’s staff were furloughed last year, do you feel more confident about their stability now?

BMcA: Listen, we’re still in this pandemic and you can never predict the future, but touch wood, come 2022 we’ll be back close to what we would have seen as normal back in 2019. That being the scenario, hopefully we should be able to maintain our workforce. They’re great people.

There are only so many Zoom sessions you can do, our coaches need to be on the ground working and thankfully they are getting there. Our key stage three coaches are back in schools, for example, and it’s a work in progress. The signs are more positive.

I’ll be honest, a few months ago I was worried about the club championships with numbers rising but we seem to have it under control. We have lost one or two games, a couple of games in Fermanagh and Monaghan, but by and large we’re on track.

NMcC: Moving onto Casement Park, there seems to be a bit of light at the end of the tunnel now. Are there are any further updates?

BMcA: We got our planning permission on the week of the Ulster final, four and a half years after we lodged the application. We can now finalise the business case, which will have to be approved by government departments, but we’re working closely with them.

Okay, you always have the potential of a legal challenge or something hanging over it, that may not come, but it will be next year before we’re on site anyway for the preparatory work to be done and all that stuff.

NMcC: Best case scenario, no challenges, when can we expect Casement to reopen?

BMcA: 2024.

NMcC: So many challenges and different things, and I know a lot of it preceded your time with Ulster GAA, but I’m sure there are some lessons to be learned by all parties. It has been a long process and there has been a bit of Casement fatigue almost, I have found.

BMcA: It has been a long process, yes, but it wasn’t helped by the fact there was no Executive for three years. That was the biggest issue in terms of time. First time around from application being lodged to decision took six months, this time it took four and a half years. A lot of that time was down to the fact that there was no Executive.

I can understand civil servants wanting to get it right but it was an added difficulty for them that they didn’t have the added buffer of a minister.

NMcC: We speak here off the back of an Ulster side winning the Sam Maguire. I know as a Down man you’d have like the ribbons to have been red and black rather than red and white, but I’m sure you’re very proud of Tyrone’s achievement.

BMcA: I took over in 2016 and Dublin were in the throes of their success and people were worried that they were going to dominate for the next number of years, they haven’t gone away of course.

We’ve see the gap narrowing and I’m really looking forward to next year’s Allianz League where hopefully we’ll get a full league programme. We saw this year that there was hardly a kick of a ball between Armagh, Tyrone, Donegal and Monaghan in the league and that transferred into the Ulster Championship. We saw Derry getting close (to Donegal), Cavan of course won Ulster in 2020. They’ve gone to Division Four so it just shows how competitive it is.

Ulster teams are up there and competing, and that’s very good. Derry won last year’s All-Ireland Minor, which had been held over because of Covid, so there are signs there. We saw an exceptional Tyrone minor side this year who were very unlucky not to win an All-Ireland. We also saw an exciting Down u-20 team that is a work in progress but looks good. Ulster football is in a good place.

NMcC: That Tyrone win, just like Down in 1991, maybe it could be a starter gun for Ulster counties.

BMcA: It could be the starter gun hopefully. Tyrone were the better side against Donegal in Ulster but Donegal could point to a missed penalty and a sending off that had a big bearing on the game. Tyrone were Covid affected in the Ulster final but Monaghan’s second-half comeback nearly came off, so all those teams will feel that they are in with a shout. Armagh probably have as good of a forward line as there is in the country.

I think we’re in a good place and I’m looking forward to the Kerrys, the Mayos, the Dublins coming in 2022. There will be some great games in the Omagh, the Athletic Grounds, Clones.

NMcC: Switching codes, are we going to see a return of the Ulster Senior Hurling Championship?

BMcA: I think the split-season will make things trickier. There was a three-year experiment with Munster and Leinster in different competitions and grades. The third year of that hasn’t happened yet because of Covid so it will happen in 2022. By that stage we will know where we are.

The weakness is that the provincial competition is divorced from the All-Ireland and it has diluted it so much that it very much becomes a secondary competition. There is no doubt the Ulster Senior Hurling Championship, once it came divorced from the All-Ireland series, lost a lot of its status.

I would still like to see it happen, but if we are running with a split-season, and I realise that we still have a hangover from 2021 and club provincial finals will be played in January 2022, it’s going to take to 2023 to really look at this.

The difficulty is that you start your Allianz Leagues and run straight on, where do you play it? Can you really say to counties we’ll play it after the conclusion of the Liam MacCarthy Cup, the Joe McDonagh Cup? By that stage they’re already clued into their club championships.

I would like to see it resurrected but I see problems with how it will fit into a split-season.

NMcC: Ulster club hurling does seem to be flourishing though, and the return of the provincial championships will be great this season.

BMcA: Ulster club hurling has been great. Obviously Sleacht Néill have brought it to a new level and one of the best games I saw in recent years was when they played Ballyhale Shamrocks in Newry. Getting it to Newry was an ordeal in itself but once we got it there it was great. Having a high-profile hurling game involving a team from Kilkenny there was great because I can’t remember the last time Kilkenny played in Ulster.

Even outside senior, we have seen teams from other counties giving Ulster a real go and it was great to see the likes of Dungannon getting to an Ulster final and teams like that. In the club championship everyone gets a go at their level and we’ve seen some great games.

At intercounty level we’ve seen the renaissance of Antrim, we’ve seen the renaissance of Down. Down survived in the Joe McDonagh but unfortunately Antrim are back in it. Hopefully that’s just a blip because they’ve made great strides under Darren Gleeson.

NMcC: How important is that? You can look at hurling structures and coaching, and obviously that’s massively important, but the visual of seeing your Clare and Wexfords at Corrigan Park and Down back at Croke Park is massive.

BMcA: We saw what happened in Corrigan with what Antrim did against Wexford and Clare, they have their stand there now and it’s a great setting. Antrim hurling is in a great place and hopefully Ulster is starting to get there too.

We’re still a long, long away from challenging at the top level but I think one of the big success stories has been the Ulster Junior Hurling Development League and a lot of thanks must go to Kieran Farmer in Fermanagh, Kevin Kelly and Ciaran McLaughlin from Ulster GAA. I think they have a great competition. There were five finals and only one was lop-sided.

Clubs playing at their level is the way forward and we have to tear up the script in terms of parish boundaries and county boundaries. To really develop hurling we have to go to cross-county competitions.

For example, there is only one really established team in Fermanagh in Lisbellaw, although foundations are coming through for others, but if that means that they go and play club championship in another county then so be it.

We’ve done it on a league basis, from 1960 Down teams have been playing in Antrim, in the Armagh Hurling League you’ve had teams from Down, Monaghan, Tyrone, wherever, and that’s the way forward. More of that, more cross-county competitions, particularly north of Dublin.

NMcC: This could be one of the biggest months in the history of the GAA as the football championship structure is up for debate at a Special Congress. I am going to take a wild guess that you are vehemently opposed to an All-Ireland Championship that is not linked to provincial championships, which is one of the options.

BMcA: Absolutely. I explained about the Ulster Hurling Championship, the same would happen the football championship.

Basically there are two proposals on the table and I don’t particularly like either, but I would favour one over the other.

The one I see absolutely no merit in whatsoever is the league-based championship. I think there are a number of significant weaknesses in it that haven’t been identified. I know some people are coming out and saying this will be great, but I don’t think they’ve really looked at the stats and I don’t think they’ve really looked beyond the top line of it.

What we are proposing here is that your provincial championships become your pre-season. That will be the only opportunity for a manager to have a look at potential players because there will be no McKenna Cup, no O’Byrne Cup – that becomes your pre-season.

Then your league-championship rolls into one. Every league game is a championship game. You lose your first three or four games and you’re in danger of relegation but you’re also out of the championship and you have already lost your main focus.

Moving then down a level to what happens with the Tailteann Cup which, unfortunately, hasn’t started yet but we’ll see it. You can have a scenario where a team can finish bottom of Division Three in the seven rounds of league games, end up winning the Tailteann Cup – and when you see the likes of Tipperary and Cavan then it’s a very plausible possibility – and suddenly they’re not relegated, they’re promoted to Division Two. Who would vote for a system that allows a team that is relegated to get promoted? It makes no sense. The team that should have been promoted doesn’t get promoted so there is an inherent weakness there.

They do talk about a lot of teams getting trouncings in provincial championships. I looked at this year’s results and if we take a figure of 15 points, there were seven games in 2021 where there was a winning margin of 15 points or more. Only in two of those games was there a scenario of more than one division between those two teams. In fact in one of them was Westmeath and Laois who both played in the same division.

There will be hammerings no matter what system there is and they won’t cure that with what they are proposing here. They’re actually looking at a system where the sixth placed team in the country, the team that finishes sixth in the Allianz League, sees their championship season over and they’re being replaced by the 25th best team in the country, the team that wins Division Four because they go into the last 10 of the All-Ireland series.

It hasn’t been thought through and people are looking at one or two results and not drilling down. There is no meritocracy in that proposal.

On the four eights proposal in provinces, I don’t favour it, I think there are other options in the status quo. There are other alternatives within the status quo that maintain the provincial championships but at least the four eights does give every team in every province the opportunity of winning their own provincial championship.

NMcC: When it comes to the four eights, you’d lose an Ulster county and there seems to be a bit of confusion about how that would happen.

BMcA: Do we lose an Ulster team? You could argue that the county loses Ulster if they lose the preliminary game.

NMcC: So that’s how it will be decided? The initial proposal – or how it was reported – seemed to be without that detail.

BMcA: There will be a preliminary game between the two lowest ranked National League teams at a neutral venue and the loser will go into Connacht and the winner will stay in Ulster.

It’s the better of the two but my own view is that we can do better and have some sort of round-robin like in the Munster and Leinster Hurling Championships, although unfortunately we’ve only seen two years of that three-year trial.

Round-robins within the provinces are probably the answer. Some people will say Kerry this and that they beat Cork by 22 points in a Munster final, but you’ll still be getting a number of competitive games within the provinces which will help the standards.

NMcC: There is also the possibility of sticking with the Qualifiers or the Super Eight system.

BMcA: If neither of the two new proposals gets 60 per cent then the status quo prevails.

I would think what could potentially happen would be that there could be some consensus formed from the debate and there could be a motion goes to Congress in 2022 to address that. It probably wouldn’t come in then until 2023. Theoretically we’re due to have Super Eights in 2023 if there is no change. With Covid restrictions, will that still happen? I don’t know.

October 23 is going to be a key, key day. At least it’s in person but unfortunately it’s only a 50 per cent representation on what could be a momentous occasion, but we live in strange times.

NMcC: It sounds like GPA members are leaning towards that league-championship system, but do you think all the players have digested and understood the full proposals?

BMcA: I am quite certain a number of them haven’t. I was speaking to an intercounty player the other night who played in this year’s Ulster Championship and not only had he not read it, he had not been contacted about it. He had no communication with the GPA about it.

NMcC: Would you have any communication with the GPA?

BMcA: We do, but then most of our dealings are with Croke Park. I think they do some good work, particularly in the education sector, but they have a very narrow focus, by their own admission. They are a players’ association for the two per cent.

They’re up front about that so even sometimes they are out of touch with the 98 per cent I think. They are very clear that they don’t speak for the 98 per cent and have no desire to speak for the 98 per cent. They don’t hide that.

NMcC: Coming to inclusiveness, I am sure to continue that path but flags, anthems etc, it’s such a difficult situation in Ulster.

BMcA: First of all we are a community-based organisation. We saw that during Covid, from the outset GAA clubs all over the place led the way. Ulster GAA was at the vanguard of the volunteer vaccinations at different centres.

On other issues, our starting point, and the clue is in the title, is that we are the Gaelic Athletic Association. Trace back our origins to 1884, it was part of a whole rising tide of nationalist identity. You had the Gaelic League around the same period. There was always going to be that link with nationalism, and the rules still have that in terms of playing gear manufacturing and things like that.

We do start from that premise. For some people, I don’t think they have a difficulty with that per se, but it still is an issue at the back of their mind. I think we have a lot more to do on our education though and what we do to reach out.

What we’ve always said is that we have to put ourselves in each other’s shoes.

If I am loyalist and I look at a club like Kevin Lynch’s, well they would see a club named after a hunger striker. You can see why they would have a difficulty with that. Equally we would say look at it from our point of view, he was a member of Dungiven and this is how they are remembering the person.

It’s trying to get that balance and we’ll not convince everyone, but we are starting to make some strides.

We have a number of cross-community initiatives. I was at an event hosted by the mayor Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council there honouring the achievements of the Lisburn Cuchullain’s who represented Ulster in the ABC Games in London. There were two councillors there, both of whom were from the DUP. That’s positive.

We are making strides but we have a way to go. It’s a long process.

We are making a big push into the integrated sector and we want more of those (schools) involved. Hopefully through time we will but that is a weakness, that Gaelic games is not on the curriculum of a lot of schools. It’s up to us to try and push that.

Where we would do a lot of work, that wouldn’t be replicated in the other provinces or national level, would be the joined-up work we do with other sporting organisations, particularly Ulster Rugby and the Irish Football Association. I would have a meeting at least once a month with my counterparts in those organisations and there is a lot of work we do together.

We are doing initiative with prisons, for example, so there is a lot going on that people maybe don’t see, but there is a lot of room for improvement too.

There is wider debate to be had and sometimes we haven’t helped ourselves, there have been one or two issues with buses and bands and that sort of stuff that puts us on the back foot to an extent. That’s a minority though.

We had Arlene Foster at the Ulster final a few years ago, we had Peter Robinson at a game, and we want to see more of that. It’s still a work in progress.

NMcC: Finally, if we met in 10 years’ time, where would you like to see Ulster GAA?

BMcA: Ah, we’ll be meeting in Casement by then hopefully.

It was be nice to have an Ulster Senior Hurling and Ulster Senior Football Championship linked to the All-Ireland series.

It would be nice to still have a vibrant Ulster GAA, a sustainable one. We want teams challenging for honours but we have to get more people involved, we need to grow Dads and Lads and things like that.

We also need to tap into the communities not traditionally linked to Ulster GAA. They have a lot to offer.

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HIGHS AND LOWS….Brian McAvoy has reflected on five years at the top of the three in the provincial body

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MOMENT TO SAVOUR….Brian McAvoy was delighted to see Ulster’s first Sam Maguire of his watch as Tyrone claimed the All-Ireland this year. MC 20

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WHERE TO GO?…Brian McAvoy has said that there will be major issues surrounding the resumption of the Ulster Senior Hurling Championship – especially as it’s no longer linked to the All-Ireland series

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IMPORTANT…Brian McAvoy said it was a positive to see Arlene Foster attend an Ulster final when leader of the DUP

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