Trepidation as Cork head into uncharted waters without Frank Murphy

The imminent appointment of a new GAA secretary in Cork to replace Frank Murphy is a massive opportunity - but also a reminder of the value of institutional memory.

By the end of next week, we should know the identity of the new Cork GAA secretary — we won’t say Frank Murphy’s replacement, nor his successor. Murphy will never be replaced or succeeded but he will move on.

What happens will be a departure for Murphy as it will be for the Cork County Board. As Limerick continue to celebrate the end of a 45-year hoodoo, Cork prepares itself for an identical end of an era.

Who follows Murphy won’t want to model him or herself on Murphy for the simple fact that he can’t be replicated. From his appointment in 1973, his authority has grown to the extent he was able to shape his own profile. Despite the incredible breadth of his brief, he had an uncanny ability to combine it with his other interests from refereeing to rules, which in his role as chair of the rules review committee the GAA have been abundantly grateful for in recent years. After years of finding ways to shape rules to his will, Croke Park saw sense like the FBI did with Frank Abagnale as popularised in the Catch Me If You Can movie to turn a poacher into their gamekeeper.

As Murphy found himself having to devote more time to the reconstruction of Páirc Uí Chaoimh in recent years, the appointment of a senior administrator in the form of Diarmuid O’Donovan to concentrate on day-to-day operations was necessary. Fact or not, it was also presumed both inside and out of the county as Murphy warming up his seat for his heir apparent.

O’Donovan is understood to be among those interviewed for secretary in recent weeks, although Cork’s say in who takes over has been considerably diluted by the presence of Croke Park in the selection process. For the first time, central GAA will be contributing to the wages of the county secretary to the tune of €30,000, a grant on the proviso Croke Park have control of the employment, recruitment and selection process and contracts are limited to seven years. It’s a point that Freemount’s John O’Flynn has been making for quite some time at monthly board meetings.

Cork have also lost sovereignty with regard to the vacant stadium manager position with national stadium and commercial director Peter McKenna overseeing that appointment. There are contrary reports about the senior administrator position continuing after the new secretary takes his or her spot but the likelihood is it will remain given the extensive workload involved.

Going back to Nickey Brennan’s time as GAA president, there has been a determination to modernise the organisation. From children’s officer to policy maker, the various roles filled by former GAA PRO Danny Lynch in Croke Park were identified as such and a person assigned to each following his retirement. For the guts of five decades, Murphy has been that man for all seasons in Cork but there is a recognition now it can’t be fall to one person, particularly in a county boasting 259 clubs and eight divisions. Murphy could delegate when he wanted to but the next secretary will be encouraged to do it more.

Dublin are the only other county who don’t avail of the €30,000 grant but it’s a John Costello-like figure that sources close to the county board envisage in Cork.

“The job will fit the person rather than the other way around,” says an executive member.

“What we need is a person with vision, drive and a bit of neutrality in one sense. Somebody to unlock the incredible potential in Cork GAA.”

That neutrality remark is interesting but in terms of vision, it’s the recognition of what Cork is as a GAA county — big - and what it should be dreaming — big. It puzzles some close to the county board that for all the multi-national pharmaceutical and technological companies based in the county, they are sponsored by an insurance broker. As the likes of Leitrim and Louth open centres of excellence, the absence of one in Cork sticks out like a sore thumb.

For all the envious eyes Kerry cast towards Dublin right now, Cork as a county has more reason to be envious, bearing in mind their size and strength.

The commercial appointment of Maurice O’Meara in Kerry earlier this year could be interpreted as a nod to what Dublin did with Tomás Quinn in 2014. Cork, though, have done nothing of the sort to maximise their power, a case in point being the naming rights of Páirc Uí Chaoimh not yet agreed with a corporate partner.

The provision of a county season ticket as an extension of the national offer is an initiative that has been successful in several other counties. Given the myriad of fixtures in Cork, it comes as no surprise that it has been difficult to put in place but it would be a terrific vehicle in boosting crowd numbers.

The new secretary might see worth in encouraging more club chairmen and secretaries to put their names forwards for county board representation. There is a level of expertise that hasn’t been tapped possibly because the board has been a closed shop although the progression of Tracey Kennedy and Kevin O’Donovan is welcome in that regard.

But consider that the aforementioned O’Flynn in Freemount is a partner with Deloitte. It brings to mind Joan Kehoe, a Kilmacud Crokes administrator who is also global head of Alternative Investment Services at JP Morgan. She was involved in the selection process of Tom Daly as GAA director general and is now an executive member of the Club Players Association. Freemount is a small club but the large ones in Cork require that much running now that for Cork not to lean on their administrators to assist at county level is a missed opportunity.

It would be a missed opportunity if the new appointment does not use his or her honeymoon period to finally heal old wounds after a succession of player strikes. Considering the age profile of most secretaries, it’s unlikely the successful candidate will not bring some baggage from that tumultuous period to the table.

“We have to open up the wounds that are there and discuss them,” former Cork captain Pat Mulcahy told this newspaper last year. “It’s the spirit we need to mend.”

As Cork reflect on a second successive All-Ireland SHC semi-final defeat, the lack of depth in the panel is pinpointed as the primary reason for a third consecutive Championship defeat in Croke Park but Mulcahy’s argument remains valid.

The divisiveness extended to Brian Cuthbert’s departure and how he was treated having stepped away as football manager. In fairness, the county board at the time came to his defence but it’s about creating a culture whereby local interests have no role to play. A neutral chief executive can assist in attaining that.

“We’re not looking for a dictator,” says one Cork club chairman. “We’re looking for somebody who can bring people along with a strong personality. You can’t dictate anymore — day is gone.

“You’ve to bring people with you. You saw this year with the diktats from Croke Park about venues that they can’t be easily overturned by popular opinion. The rulebook is all fine and well but what’s more important is that you have people on your side. Do that and Cork have a huge opportunity.”

The new secretary won’t have the time to embrace a national role as Murphy did but that’s not to say the veteran administrator doesn’t leave a map to follow. The ability to not make things personal for instance — for all his rows with the hurlers in the 2000s, when they were playing nobody had their back more than Frank Murphy. The understanding of the power of yes and no — when it has come to vote for change on matters such as Rule 21 and 42, Cork under Murphy have been personified as stubborn but no other official has overseen as much change to the rulebook as the 74-year-old.

While many will welcome the fresh winds of a new start, there’s also trepidation as Cork sails into uncharted waters without their wily captain.

It’s an opportunity for sure but Murphy’s compass always provided an assuring guide.

By John Fogarty
GAA Correspondent

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