The top man in charge of GAA affairs, President Liam O’Neill, will hand the baton on in a week’s time and Donegal will not forget his three years in charge.
An tUachtaran Uí Neill handed Michael Murphy the Sam Maguire Cup on September 23rd, 2012.
It was his first official presentation as the hurling final ended in a draw that year.
On his final official visit to Donegal recently where he was special guest at the dinner dance of St. Mary’s GAA Club, Convoy, the Laois man took time out to speak about his three years in the high profile role.
“It was a huge privilege to present Michael Murphy with the first cup I presented as President. It was the first cup; normally the Sam Maguire isn’t the first cup, but there was a draw in the hurling final.
“I had met him (Michael Murphy) earlier that year at the Glenswilly dinner dance and he is a fine young man.”
When reminded that it could easily have worked out that his last official cup presentation would also have been to Murphy last September, O’Neill replied:
“It came within a kick of a ball of being my last presentation also.
“The excitement generated by the first win in 2012 was staggering. I was really impressed by that; by the way the county came alive. It certainly brought a huge amount of colour to the three years of my footballing involvement as President.”
Asked if he had an opinion on the brand of football which Donegal played over the last few years which has proved so successful under the management of Jim McGuinness, O’Neill was very pragmatic in his reply.
“When I was a young man I think Donegal reached a league semi-final and a provincial semi-final in the early 1960s. We would have had a huge admiration for them and we would have had a few Laois players who played for them - Des Houlihan and I think Ivor Houlihan played club football in Donegal
“We would have had a huge interest in them at that time. People forget, there were only four games televised each year back then. We listened to the radio; television hadn’t made an impact at that time. There would have been a great affinity between Laois and Donegal.
“The (All-Ireland) victory in 1992 was huge and it was great to see them back. It doesn’t really matter what brand of football is played. When it comes to the business end of the championship, it is all about winning.
“Counties are not expected to entertain; that is what the league is for” said O’Neill.
It has been a busy three years for O’Neill, and he has been to Donegal a number of times in an official capacity during that time including dinner dances in Glenswilly, Killybegs and the Co. Banquet as well as the recent trip for the Convoy function.
“I would have been to Donegal before my Presidency in relation to Feile when it was held in the county and also when it was held in Derry.”
“I would have visited a number of schools. Just last summer I visited schools in Donegal in relation to the hurling Feile.”
Looking back over his tenure as President, he is happy that a lot of work has been completed.
“We got things done. We looked at Gaelic football. I think that is going to have a far reaching effect; we have tidied up the administration around the selection of sub-committees that strengthened county boards a good bit; we would have doubled the amount of games being played in both the hurling and football Feile.
“We also set up the Hurling Review. The Minor Review is going to be a significant document too because it is going to look after the youth player up to the age of 18. We are going to separate school and minor fixtures; second level schools will take precedence. Where players are on county panels, we are recommending that they stay with their schools and that the school gets priority during that stage of the year until they are finished,” said the President, who feels that the recent report on changing the playing season to confine all games to the calendar year will be very significant.
“The report on the calendar year, which was sent to Congress, I think will have far reaching effects. Bringing back the All-Irelands a week; playing two All-Ireland semi-finals over one weekend is creating gaps. It means that if counties are organised they can play club league football in the first half of the year and club championship afterwards.
“In early August now we will have only four teams left in both championships and that would give the other 28/29 counties plenty of time to run off their championships.
“We will then have a Gala Weekend in Croke Park around the second or third weekend of December where we will have the junior, senior and intermediate finals in football on the Saturday and the hurling on Sunday.
“We feel with the six games over one weekend in December that we could create a great festive occasion,” said O’Neill, who felt that it would be better than at present with the junior and intermediate played on a different date to the senior finals.
“It would also create a definite end to the playing season.”
Asked if he could ever see the structure of the provincial championships changing, he was doubtful.
“It’s hard to move geography, really. Famously, in the last year the Waterford people were asked if they wanted to play in a separate competition in football, they said, no we beat Kerry once in 50 years and it was worth being in the championship (Munster) to do that.
“Just consider before Donegal had its recent success in the last few decades, they hadn’t won an Ulster either. But no one was suggesting that Donegal should drop out. We have to listen to the view of the counties who aren’t successful. I thought the Leitrim secretary was really honest when he said he felt there should be a secondary competition as he felt his county weren’t ready for the senior at the moment. We have to listen to that too.
“There was a proposal from Connacht that there would a restructure of the championship within the provincial system and I would like to see that discussed,” said O’Neill, who felt that the incoming President, Aogan O’Farrell of Cavan, could take that discussion further,” said O’Neill.
The President agreed that the introduction of the Black Card in Gaelic football would be regarded as one of the defining aspects of his term in office, but he felt the changes to the media rights was probably his biggest legacy.
“People will look on the introduction of the Black Card (as being a big part of my Presidency) and I think there is no doubt that it has improved football, but I would be associated with the Media Rights deal with Sky. The biggest improvement in that is GAA Go and the fact that games are being seen all around the world.
“In my three years the first two All-Ireland hurling finals were talked about all over Ireland, but this year they were talked about all over the world. We have to remember that a lot of Irish people live outside of Ireland. I quoted Brian Boru when he said he was Emperor of the Irish not of Ireland. Our Diaspora goes all over the world.
“On my visits abroad in my second year in office, I came home with requests ringing in my years, please let us see all the games. I delivered that request for them. We got a bit of criticism for it, but the reaction in Britain has been fantastic; the expansion of games in North America. It is going to have a huge knock-on effect on sports tourism and on international companies in Ireland recognising that Gaelic Games are worthy of their sponsorship.
“I feel it is going to be a huge benefit to the organisation across the board,” said O’Neill.
The GAA President says there will be a sense of relief when he hands on the baton at the Annual Congress in Cavan in a week’s time and he will go back to his old job as a teacher.
“I go back to school now. I was a Primary teacher for 35 years. I can do six more. I don’t think after doing this job you could stop and do nothing. I’m very much aware of the Oisin in Tir na nOg syndrome - he went away for three years and he thought the world had changed. I hope it hasn’t changed. I enjoyed my years as President.
“I would have loved to have gone further in bringing the organisations together (Ladies and Camogie). We met a bit of resistance on that, unfortunately. But that will happen. I think I have set that on a course from which it cannot be blown off. It will just take what ever time it takes.
“You will always have regrets. There is a sense of relief that things went well in the main. It is a huge responsibility. At times it weighed heavily on me. Sometimes I was overawed by the esteem in which the position is held by GAA people. They expect a lot of you but the biggest feeling at the end is that things went well.
“I was a much shyer person at the start of my Presidency. I had to come out of myself to do this job. I enjoyed it thoroughly; I met wonderful people, Irish people all over the world,” said O’Neill, who is happy that Gaelic Games is getting stronger every year.
“We now have people all over the world playing our games. We never thought that would happen. For instance we have four Gaelic teams started playing in Galicia in Spain last year of their own volition. And the beautiful thing is they are using Gaelic football as an expression of the Celtic origins. There are no Irish people involved.
“We have a hurling club in Milwaulkee in America with a hundred native Americans playing organised by a Dane. These are the wonderful things that are happening. The expansion is huge. It was great to oversee all that. I will miss it terribly but you couldn’t do any more than three years,” said the President.
Liam O’Neill will be remembered fondly in Donegal. The memory of the Laois man presenting Michael Murphy with the Sam Maguire puts him up there with Peter Quinn, the only other President to present Sam to a Donegal man.
Hopefully, we don’t have to wait another 20 years for the return of Sam!