Kieran McCarthy chats to TOM LYONS whose three-year reign as Carbery GAA Chairman came to an end at the division’s convention on Friday night
KIERAN McCARTHY: To borrow the words of the late John Corcocan, he viewed himself as a keeper of the flame who saw his role as protecting the GAA for the next generation, so how do you assess the current health of Carbery GAA as you hand the baton over to the new chairman?
TOM LYONS: Despite all the hardships of the past two seasons, Carbery GAA is in a very healthy state as the new chairman, Aidan O’Rourke, takes over. Thanks to the many dedicated officers and workers in the clubs, and to the great work done by the executive and CCC of the South-West Board, we managed to play many of our championships in both football and hurling during the past two seasons. Survival, rather than progression, was the aim and I think that has been achieved. We would have liked to see more county titles coming to the division but the main aim was to keep as many of our players as possible active between lockdowns. It took a special effort by everybody involved and we can be happy that we are handing over the division in a reasonably good state. Of course, there’s work to be done in all areas and that is ongoing, especially as the division celebrates its centenary in 2025.
KIERAN: In your opening speech as chairman at the 2018 Carbery convention, you spoke about the disconnect between the board and the clubs, a them and us attitude. Do you feel relations are in a better place now?
TOM: It’s difficult to say if there was an improvement as we had only one open meeting with the clubs this season. You would miss that kind of connection, face to face with people. But there was great cooperation between the board and the clubs to overcome all the problems thrown up by Covid and that is one big positive that came out of this pandemic. It was all swim together or sink and it was great to get the backing of the clubs in what we were doing as an executive. Hopefully, when we return to ordinary meetings, we will all have a greater understanding of the difficulties faced by the clubs and by the board.
KIERAN: Reflecting on the last three years as chairman, what do you look back on as your greatest triumph?
TOM: Simply, keeping the show on the road despite many difficulties. Able to fit championships into shortened seasons and making sure all clubs were functioning properly. That was achieved through the great work of the CCC mostly. I was also delighted to see the coaching in the division taking a big step forward with the appointment of Paudie Crowley as GPO. He has been doing massive work in the schools and with the underage players. We are also in the process of introducing new-style junior championships and I’m looking forward to seeing how they work next season.
KIERAN: And your greatest disappointment?
TOM: Not being able to improve the refereeing situation which is now at crisis point. But it’s not just a Carbery problem. Unless there’s an influx of new, young referees over the next few years, there is a grave danger that we will have to seriously cut back on competitions. All clubs must share in the responsibility of providing referees and, unfortunately, that’s not happening right now. Also, the failure to field a Carbery hurling senior team for the past two seasons is disappointing. The reasons are varied but Carbery hurling is poorer without a strong representative team in the senior championship.
KIERAN: What are the big challenges facing the Carbery division and its clubs?
TOM: Club and divisional finances are always a concern and problems have been magnified during the pandemic. Many clubs are struggling financially and the board’s revenue is taking a big blow. The county board looking to maximise its income, especially through the clubs, hasn’t helped matters. Declining numbers in rural areas is also a big concern and while amalgamations do seem to be working in general, they are not the long-term solution. The problem goes much deeper than just GAA, it’s a national and political issue that needs greater attention. A third problem is the difficulty in getting officers to run clubs and boards. Volunteerism now carries with it a lot of responsibility and people are wary of getting involved. Covid has also put a much greater stress on families and parents are finding it difficult to get involved outside the home.
KIERAN: We know there’s a review of the role of divisions in Cork ongoing right now, but what do you think the future holds for divisions? Is a change inevitable?
TOM: Yes, I think there will be a big review into the structures and duties of divisions shortly and I welcome that. The present system is almost a hundred years in existence and the world is a changed place. Change is definitely needed, if it is change for the good. For instance, the huge difference in size and club numbers in the various divisions needs to be addressed urgently and the actual functions of divisions must be clarified. Is there a place for divisional teams in our championships? What championships should be under the control of the divisions? Should divisional boards be represented on the county executive? Why isn’t finance provided so that divisions can have their own headquarters and central playing facilities?
KIERAN: Is there a danger that the value of divisions could be diluted if the power is held centrally?
TOM: Cork is far too big a county, with too many clubs, to be governed centrally, although some people in power would like to take us down that road. Travelling from Beara to Mallow is longer than Cork to Dublin and only at a local level can we understand the types of problems our clubs are facing. Maybe we need regions rather than the old-style divisions, but trying to run the whole county in all grades from one office in Cork is definitely a non-runner and would be a detrimental step for the GAA in Cork. Plus, losing the local rivalry that exists between clubs, as is happening at underage, would be a disaster for our games.
KIERAN: On Carbery’s divisional teams, senior football and hurling, do they have a future?
TOM: Unfortunately, under the present championship system and the confined split season, with clubs, especially dual clubs, playing week after week, there is no space and no future for divisional teams. Players must give first loyalty to their clubs and just can’t fit in divisional teams as well. The divisional section of the championship is now squeezed into midweek somewhere and divisions have to field without their inter-county players. No club would be asked to do that. Do players want divisional teams? Maybe. Do clubs want them? I honestly don’t believe they do. Does the county board want them, that’s the big question? I think their days in the championships are numbered, unfortunately.
KIERAN: Let’s look at the Carbery championships themselves. We’ve seen how the revamped championships are working well at county level and there are plans to introduce a similar format here in Carbery: what is the latest update?
TOM: There are plans to change the Carbery junior championships next season, the planning for that has been going on for three years. At present in football we have 22 teams graded junior A and no other division comes anywhere near that. Are all those teams fit for junior A? Likewise, in junior A hurling, are all the teams up to standard? We would hope to produce championships that are more equitable in grading, whether it be in the same style as the county board or otherwise. We have problems with the second teams that the county board doesn’t have, so we may have to come up with a different plan. We have put the options to the clubs and it will be decided, one way or the other, at convention. But we do need a major overhaul to balance teams and to improve standards.
KIERAN: We’re in the second year of the split-season model in the GAA. It has its positives and negatives. What are your thoughts?
TOM: On the surface, the split season looks to be a good thing as it gives clubs control over all their players for a certain length of time each season. It will help to avoid the clashes we used to have between commitment to county or club. However, there are many underlying problems with the split season that must be dealt with. Only two percent of GAA players are involved in intercounty yet that two percent will now get 50 percent of the season, that can’t be right or fair. Secondly, counties are being given only 13 weeks out of 52 to run off all their county championships. Divisions are getting even less. That is causing a huge squeeze in fixtures, especially for dual clubs, and we had clubs this season who played 18 weekends in a row. That kind of pressure on club players and clubs is unacceptable and the split season is definitely biased in favour of intercounty. The general idea is good but the practicalities must be ironed out properly.
KIERAN: One of your goals was for Carbery GAA to have its own headquarters, a central hub. Where does the plan stand now?
TOM: We had a large amount of work done on the project and were in discussion with a central club before Covid struck but we then had to put it all on hold because of the pandemic, especially the financial consequences for clubs. We are getting it back on track again and looking at a more modest venture but it is our intention to be officially opening our own headquarters in the centenary year 2025. The uncertainty of the future for divisions isn’t helping and we need decisions from the county board and also, financial aid for the project. The existing committee will stay active until the project is completed.
KIERAN: How would you like your time as Carbery GAA Chairman to be remembered?
TOM: My chief objective as chairman was to keep the GAA in West Cork in a healthy state and to ensure the future for our existing clubs. Covid certainly made it a testing time for all clubs and I am happy that the clubs are in a good position going forward. I would have liked to make more progress in a few areas like the championships, standards, provision of headquarters, etc., but circumstances didn’t allow for that, unfortunately. The Carbery division has always been looked on as one of the best-run divisions in the county and I think we have maintained that high standard during the past three years. I suppose I would like to be remembered as the chairman who kept the ship on course despite all the trials and tribulations of Covid. The Covid chairman!
KIERAN: As one chapter closes, another will open, so what’s next for Tom Lyons?
TOM: I am only stepping down as chairman and intend to stay involved in a number of areas. I am involved in the coaching committee, the planning committee for the new headquarters, the committee planning the centenary celebrations in 2025, the structures for the new championships and I would like to see all those to a conclusion if the incoming executive allows. I have to step aside as an officer for the coming year according to regulations but would not rule out anything afterwards, if health allows. I am also working on recording the full history of the Carbery division since 1925 and hope to have that book available for the centenary. Also, I had to forego much of my journalistic work with The Southern Star during my three years as chairman but now intend getting back into full swing there again as it is something I really enjoy. Overall, it’s been a busy but highly enjoyable three years as chairman, a great experience, and, if God spares us, there’s plenty of work to be done yet.