As Tom Ryan begins his seven-year term as director general of the GAA, we sit down with the Carlow man to get his views on some of the most pressing issues facing the Association.
What are the biggest challenges facing the GAA in your tenure, and how much of an impact can a director general have?
Tom Ryan: "The biggest immediate challenge is the forthcoming Championship season. 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 an opportunity for us to present ourselves in a new light to people and I’m really looking forward to that.
"There are more long-term and fundamental things I think, and one particular theme we do need to examine is urbanisation and the shift in population from the western seaboard over towards the eastern seaboard, and the challenges that that presents for units both urban and rural."
"I don't think that one single person sitting in my seat is going to be able to impose their singular vision or direction on the Association over the next seven years. The vision that the GAA will advance with will be a shared vision.
"I learned that very much when I came in, 10 or 11 years ago (as director of finances), it's not the case that you can just decide 'this is what we're going to do' and everybody does it. You can decide 'this is what we're going to do now' and you can enter into a prolonged period of coaxing and cajoling and convincing people to do it."
Are club players right to feel aggrieved by the fixtures calendar and do you see the Club Players Association having a role?
"What they’re seeking to achieve is not unreasonable. I think what everybody would like to see is to get to that stage where we have a decent fixture programme mapped out in advance for people.
"The difficultly is in the ‘how’ bit – how you go about doing that because there are all manner of local complexities attached to fixtures born out of the different shape and size of different counties.
"It is very, very difficult for us here in Croke Park to ordain to Leitrim versus Cork what their fixture programme should be and to monitor that. The GAA is built from the ground up and that does entail a significant amount of local authority and local control. Of course we have a role. But I think where real change can be effected is locally."
"I think the Association has made strides towards that in recent years, more recently with the changes that we have brought about to the championship structure.
"I think we'll see the results of that as this three-year programme unfolds. Quite apart from fixtures there is the question of emphasis in total in that the county game does predominate, it captures most of the attention, most of the resources, most of the time, and you would like to see over the course of the coming years where some of that balance is addressed a little bit.
Is 'April for the clubs' working or are rules needed to ensure the release of players?
"It’s maybe a little bit early to say. I’m hearing lots of anecdotal stuff but we’ll know at the end of April definitively in terms of the volume of games that have been played.
"The impact of the weather has been very unfortunate but that’s not really an excuse. We’ll measure it and judge it when we get to early May but until then I’ll reserve judgement on it."
Would you support a two-tier football Championship?
"I think it’s worth considering, worth looking at.
"It's interesting because in hurling that has kind of been accepted. Football-wise it just seems to be more problematic and I think that is probably borne out of any county, however small might like to think that on a given day they can get a result against one of the big boys whereas perhaps in hurling that's more unlikely.
"I can remember my own county playing in the 'B' football All-Ireland and winning one a long time ago, and it was a big thing. A few years after that, there was the Tommy Murphy (Cup) for whatever reason, didn’t really capture the imagination to the same extent.
"I’ve seen last summer the impact even a modest run in the championship in a small county can bring, so I wouldn’t dismiss those things for a second. At the same time, if you look at the league that we have just gone through it has been really, really good. The attraction with a competition like the league is that every team is going out with more or less a 50-50 chance of beating every other team which is a structure we haven’t always had with the football championship.
"We're about to embark on three years of trial and I think at the end of that we'll probably know where we need to go next in terms of the evolution."
Amid accusations of over-commercialism is it time to review selling TV rights to pay-per-view broadcasters?
"We’re not going to review it until the contracts expire at the end of the 2021 Championship season.
"It was at Congress in 2016 which means it can go back to Congress in 2020. It’s really at that stage that we’ll be looking at what opportunities are ahead of us for broadcasting.
"I respect all views on it. but what I’d ask people to do is to bear in mind that there are 140 or 150 (televised) matches over the course of the year, of which 14 (Championship games) are exclusively in the pay-per-view arena. There is a little bit of perspective there in those numbers.
"Most importantly, I’d ask people to take cognisance of the fact that if we’re going to put out 200 or 300 coaches in a year, spend five or six million on capital projects, we need to bring in an income.
"If we were to curtail things, and maybe we will curtail things, I don’t know, then, by definition you’ve got to curtail what you are doing in terms of expansion and ambition and all of those things as well.
"We don’t operate in an environment where everything we have is for sale. We don’t want to do that. We go into the market, for want of a word, with a view to trying to generate a fair and reasonable income with which to fund things.
"We are not pursuing the income from any particular partner just for the sake of pursuing that income. I’m always more concerned with what we do with the money as opposed to where we take it in from."
How would you deal with the issue of professional managers?
"It poses a problem on a few levels. First and foremost, you can see how it imposes a significant burden on clubs and on counties just to generate the income to actually pay for those costs.
"Beyond that, from a rule point of view, we have rules and we have provisions in the rule book at the moment that speak to that particular situation and while they are not being observed that creates a problem.
"But even more fundamentally there is a problem with us all saying that we want something, or saying that these are the values by which we want to run the Association and then doing something different.
"I don’t know how long that particular that particular version of the rule is in place. But things probably have moved on a little bit, so there is a bit of tidying up to be done about the rules.
"But the answer is not really in rules, and the answer is not really in penalties. The answer is in the whole lot of us signing up to a collective set of values and vision for what we want the GAA to be, and when I say they whole lot of us, I mean every county and every unit striving towards achieving that.
"It’s something that’s been there for a little while and it’s not something that’s going to be solved overnight."
Is the population growth and financial strength of Dublin having an adverse affect on competition?
"The first thing I’ve always said to people about Dublin is that the money is going into clubs in that county, not into the county set-up. Now clearly there’s a correlation and clearly the fact that county teams are doing well is a function of what the clubs are doing.
"There was a bit of rebalancing and we did adjust Dublin a little bit but the job was always to augment funding elsewhere. So Belfast is a case in point. It’s the second city on the island and it behooves us to make sure that Gaelic games is in a healthy state there. The (£1m investment) plan was launched last week and it’s going to be money well spent. I think we’ll be watching it carefully over the next three or four years to make sure that it is the case. There are similar ventures going into Meath, Kildare and a number of counties.
"The pressures that I mentioned – population drift and so on – are things that we can react to and arm ourselves against but I’m not sure the extent to which we can influence and change those things. The best that we can do is to make sure that 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."
What's your view on recent criticism of the Gaelic Players Association?
"Some of the criticism and some of the comment is maybe confusing a little bit the extent of funding that is going to counties to underwrite the cost of their teams as opposed to what is going directly to the GPA.
"Our relationship with them is important and they do fulfill some key requirements for us on the part of people who are our own members, at the end of it all, so I’m broadly happy with how the arrangement is working.
"Our job is to make sure that the money we’re putting into the GPA is being used for the purposes for which we want it used and I’m confident in saying that is the case."
Is bringing forward the All-Ireland finals and leaving the scene free for other sports in September a risk?
"That decision wasn’t taken lightly.
"September had a particular place in everybody's hearts. It was kind of etched in stone in terms of the calendar but there are lots of things over the course of the history of the Association that might have enjoyed similar status and have been changed. Things move on and new traditions are established all the time, so maybe that'll be a new tradition in years to come.
"Of course there are things to be concerned about in that and we’ll have to measure how the thing actually pans out but on balance, if you’re trying to weigh-up fixture congestion, if you’re trying to weigh up club players versus promotion I’m happy to give that a chance. I won't pre-judge the outcome. We'll see what the year presents."
What would entail a good 2018 for you?
"First and foremost in my mind is the championship that's ahead and given all of the talk and debate and work that went into formulating what that structure should be, a good year will be a year that the two championships have captured the imagination of the public, that have reached the heights or perhaps surpassed the playing standards of the previous couple of years.
"A good year will be one where we've made advances on some of the things that we've talked about in terms of club structures and club fixtures and people being able to avail of the opportunity afforded for April time.
"A good year will be one where participation numbers are advancing and are moving in the right direction relevant to 2016 and 2017. A good year will be one where we perhaps see one or two teams emerging and competing at levels that they haven't done in recent years."