Offaly GAA chairman candidate Michael Duignan talked to Kevin Corrigan
THEY have promised to take Offaly GAA in a “new direction”, putting a different vision in place. Time will adjudicate on that one but it is certainly a new direction for Michael Duignan as he seeks to oust Tommy Byrne as Offaly GAA chairman.
It is not something that was on Michael Duignan's agenda, he is not fulfilling a long held ambition by challenging but circumstances have thrown him into a contest for a role that could really take over his life.
Michael Duignan is one of Offaly's best known GAA figures. Best known for his hurling exploits, he was also an excellent footballer in his early days. A Banagher man and long serving member and player of St Rynagh's Hurling Club, he has lived in Durrow for many years and is now a member of Durrow GAA Club.
Life has brought him up a variety of paths, some of them of the saddest kind possible. He buried his wife Edel in 2009 after a lengthy battle with cancer and reared their young sons, Brian and Sean since then. Prior to that he worked in Naas for a number of years, working in AIB and other banks, before moving to Durrow in the early 2000s - he has immersed himself in the local community since then, becoming chairman of Ballinamere/Durrow minor club and serving as a manager/mentor with some of their successful underage squads. Sean and Brian have played hurling and football with the various clubs in the area, Ballinamere/Durrow, Ballinamere and Durrow, with Brian proving a particularly exciting prospect and playing minor and U-20 for Offaly while he is now on Michael Fennelly's senior squad..
His playing exploits won him the admiration and gratitude of Offaly GAA people everywhere. He first came to attention when he was full forward on the Offaly side that won the All-Ireland Minor Hurling Championship for the first time in 1986. Within a year, he had made his Offaly senior hurling debut, playing corner forward in a 1987 league win over Laois.
He went on to play 127 league and championship games for Offaly until finishing off with a 2001 league defeat by Limerick. Playing mostly in attack, occasionally in midfield and more rarely in defence, he won All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship medals in 1994 and 1998. A second half sub in the 1994 All-Ireland win over Limerick, he had his best year in 1998 – a never to be forgotten year during which Babs Keating was removed as manager after the Leinster final defeat following critical comments about the players and in which the team got a third game against Clare in the All-Ireland semi-final, finally defeating them on a famous day in Thurles. Kilkenny were routed in the second half of the All-Ireland final and the sight of Duignan doing a jig for joy after a scoring a spectacular late point is one of the abiding memories of that year. Lucky not to be sent off in the aborted second game against Clare, he was in sensational form that year and was rewarded with his only All-Star award.
He remained on as Offaly began a slow decline and since then his GAA life has went in various different directions. A National Hurling League medal winner in 1991, he juggled life as a dual player for a few years in the late 1980s/early 1990s, playing in a National Football League quarter-final defeat by Donegal in '91 and in Leinster championship games in that era before concentrating on his first love hurling under Eamon Cregan.
He also played with Raheen club in Kildare, before returning to St Rynagh's and then switching to Durrow. He helped inspire Ballinamere to the Junior Hurling Championship in 2010, winning the Offaly junior hurler of the year that year. He won four Senior Hurling Championship medals with St Rynagh's in 1987, 1990, 1992 and 1993.
Also a talented rugby player, he has retained a high national GAA profile since retirement thanks to his work as an RTE hurling analyst – a brilliant astute reader of the game with a quick wit, he has been one of RTE's top men for several years and not afraid to clash with individuals, most notably with Cork's Donal Og Cusack in recent years.
At one stage, he looked destined for a career in management. He managed Meath senior hurlers in 2001 and led them to a memorable Leinster championship win over Laois but his tenure ended after a clash with the Meath County Board over football club fixtures being played 24 hours before a National Hurling League match.
He coached Offaly senior hurlers under Mike McNamara in the mid 2000s and was also involved with Portumna senior hurlers but despite his role in Ballinamere and Ballinamere/Durrow successes, it became clear in recent years that management was not where his future lay. A controversial character, he has occasionally been an outspoken critic of the Offaly GAA County Board but paradoxically has always been willing to get involved in different committees and ventures when required.
He has made a particularly valuable impact with fundraising and was one of the chief collectors of money for the O'Connor Park redevelopment in the early to mid 2000s and in recent years for the Faithful Fields project in Kilcormac.
He has been in the wars on occasions. He wrote about rows he got involved in on social occasions in his excellent autobiography a few years ago, talking about the impact the death of Edel had while he was suspended for twelve weeks by the Offaly GAA County Board late last year after being reported for threatening and abusive behaviour towards a match official – the ban meant that he could not fulfill his customary role as master of ceremonies at the Offaly GAA awards this January.
His life took a happy new twist recently when he got engaged to Kildare woman Aisling Fennin during a break in Chicago – a sister of former Kildare footballer Tadgh Fennin, she has been a familiar figure at Duignan's side in recent years.
A man with a deep passion for Offaly GAA, he quickly got involved in the meetings held earlier this year by a group of people seeking change in Offaly GAA. As a result of these meetings, he put his name forward for chairman with Edenderry's Colm Cummins challenging for vice chairman, Clara's Dervill Dolan for treasurer and Brian Gavin for Leinster Council delegate.
The road to now
While Michael Duignan has not come down the tried and tested road that most Offaly GAA chairmen trod, he is not surprised that life has taken him in this direction.
“The GAA has been a huge part of my life. What I found when I reflect back is that it evolves all the time. When I was playing that was my only focus and I played for a long time, fifteen years with Offaly but 27 years adult with clubs, a couple of clubs. From sixteen to forty three and I finished up with Ballinamere. As a player I was focused on playing and didn't realise the huge work that goes on by hugely respected people in the background doing jobs.”
He began to get an insight into this as he became chairman of Ballinamere/Durrow minor club, chaired O'Connor Park and Faithful Fields finance committees. “I realised the volume of work but also realised the importance of it, that if things aren't being run properly, you won't have the success on field.”
He spoke about the road that has taken him to contesting the chair. How a small group of people initially held discussions but got serious this year and “mobilised”; how he did two years with Meath quickly after retiring from county hurling but then Edel got sick and that changed his life. They made a “lifestyle” decision to move back to Offaly and chose Durrow as their home. Both had successful careers in the banking industry and were “very ambitious”.
He worked initially in AIB, then Ulster Bank, Lombard and Ulster, back to AIB and a senior management role in the machinery firm, Caterpillar, before setting up in business himself – dealing in property, having an auctioneering firm and other interests as well as his analyst role with RTE.
He enjoyed his time as a coach with Mike McNamara. “We got to the Leinster final in 2004 and that defeat still haunts me to today. We should have won it. Damien Fitzhenry got an All-Star out of that game, we missed three or four goal chances. Brian Whelahan got a hamstring injury and they got a goal after he went off.”
The following year he coached his home club St Rynagh's and they reached the semi-final. “There were a lot of issues to be sorted out there. They had not been successful in a long time but they were getting there. My view was to stay but unfortunately Edel's cancer came back in 2006. I was approached by Offaly and other county and club teams but it was never an option because we never knew what would happen next”.
After Edel died in 2009, he made the decision to fully integrate into life and the community in Ballinamere and Durrow. Sean had been born in 1998, Brian in 2000 and it was not feasible for him to get involved with other counties or clubs, apart from that involvement with Portumna. “I decided in 2010, I needed to put my roots down. I decided to focus on the club here and that is where I have been ever since. It is the next evolution now. The lads are gone to college and I have the time and energy to invest. I think I have something to offer in the county.”
He had heard of people expressing disastisfaction about the County Board and the way they were doing their business for several years but unlike most, he decided he wanted to do something about it. “A lot of people around the county were talking but it is daunting, how do you go about changing this? Even in terms of what we did, it has been criticised. There were a few chats going on, different meetings, different plans. The Liam Hogan group (a hurling development committee) hit a stone wall and nothing was happening. A few of us, four-five people met, then eight or nine and it evolved to a meeting in Tullamore. Some people are unhappy about the way we did it but we are meeting clubs and explaining what happened there. A huge crowd turned up at the meeting in Tullamore, a good cross section, a lot of level headed people. A lot of people who put a lot in and care deeply about the GAA in Offaly. We met the County Board, mobilised and decided to go for these positions.
“We are mindful of the fact that there is a lot of people there with experience who have done a lot of work but there is an appetite for change. There is no doubt there is a lot of work going on but to me we are getting the same results. If you keep doing the same thing. . . We have won one Leinster Senior Football Championship match in ten years, our underage has been poor and our hurlers have been relegated to the Christy Ring. It is a slide and no matter what people think they are doing, the structure isn't working, the system isn't working and the games programme isn't working. Something has to be done as far as we are concerned before it goes any further. “
Is it fair to blame the current County Board for all Offaly's ills when there are so many factors and stakeholders involved?
“Everyone has to take responsibility but the leadership has to come from the top. I will answer that by telling you what we want to do. We are talking about a strategic plan. We have had plenty of plans in the past so what is in the strategic plan and how is it going to help? The first thing we will have to do is go back out and meet the clubs again. We have got incredible interaction with the clubs. To see the passion, the interest. It is not being reflected at County Board level which is made up of the clubs and maybe some of them aren't going to meetings now.
“To me, the clubs and the schools have to be going much better than they are going. They have to be operating at full capacity in order for the county to be going better. We have to understand every club. Every club in Offaly has different challenges. Some of them might be population, some of them might be big towns like Tullamore and Edenderry not being able to get as many players out as they might like. Some of them might be facilities, some money. We intend to do a full club audit, involve clubs in discussions about what is the issue. We have to understand in every area in Offaly where they need support. Is it in coaching, national schools, secondary schools? We have to recognise there is very good work going on in certain areas, certain clubs, certain schools. Can we replicate that across the board, that is what we need to do. Get as many of our young people out there playing first of all and then playing at the proper level. That is where we are talking about starting.
“Fixtures and our games programme is so important. The amount of matches our kids are getting is not enough. They are not meaningful. Everyone is saying it to us and we know it ourselves. Training for months and months and for an odd match. You train and you play. I wanted to play a match every day, never mind every week.”
He speaks with great passion about playing and training, pointing out that when he was in secondary school in Garbally College in Ballinasloe, he did something every day between hurling, football, rugby, basketball, handball, athletics. “I trained every day for six years and came out a powerful athlete as a result of that.”
“We need to ignite that interest right across the county. Get our kids out playing games and we have to look at what we are basing our whole coaching system on. Are the development squads working? Are they the best? Just because they are a nationwide solution, are they the best thing for Offaly? We have to think outside the box. We are a different county and we have to do what is right for Offaly. It is easy for the big county to pick out an odd lad here and there. We have to bring a lot more lads forward. Taking two or three or four out of a club at 13 or 14, development squads were initially designed for about nine sessions a year including matches. Now some of them have taken over from the clubs where they are training two or three times a week, playing matches and holding up championships. That is not what they are designed for, it is very narrow in terms of the amount of players playing. We have to have a huge look at all those areas.”
He wants to regenerate the sub committees with new blood. “That is what I can bring to the table, 20, 30, 40 people who in time will get on these sub committees and drive this development plan. We need a much broader base. That has been an issue with the County Board, there is too few people trying to do all the work.”
Why are those new people not there working at the moment?
“I think there is a huge apathy out there. I think a lot of people have given up in ways. That is why when you meet the people in the clubs putting in the work, you have so much admiration for them. They have so much passion. I think there has been a general slide. Whether people feel they are not wanted or had been involved or didn't think they could make a difference. I am looking at people all over Offaly who have so much to offer and they are not involved. I can't answer the question about why they are not involved. Why was I not involved before now? I think we all have to put our hands up here and say why did we leave it so long to have this debate and this challenge?
“This is not personal against any of those people who have put in massive hours and time for Offaly GAA. To me, it is so obvious that there is change needed. To give every one in Offaly a gee up, whether in clubs and coaching. We have always had a massively passionate Offaly GAA following. All you have to do is look at the crowds at matches. If there is any bit of success. . . If you look at the U-20 hurling win over Dublin last year, we had 6,000 people on a Wednesday evening at the Wexford game in O'Connor Park. Look at the crowds at some of our junior and intermediate county finals.
“There is huge interest out there. A lot of people have gone home, folded the tent and sort of given up on where we are at. They are accepting the position we are in. Now I can't do that, it was never in my make up. It was never in the teams I played in to accept that. I know we don't have the population of other counties. I think money wise we do well, we fight well above our weight and I know from O'Connor Park and Faithful Fields that when you go with a good project, get out to the people and meet them, I don't see money being an object. We need far more people in Offaly involved at club and County Board level and to enjoy what they are doing.”
Michael Duignan has expressed strong criticism of the County Board up and down the years but was always willing to get involved in different roles when asked, particularly important fundraising ones.
“I would like to think my criticism was always constructive. There is a very human side to things as you said in your article last week. We are all Offaly GAA people and the people who are there deserve respect in this process. All of our meetings and everything we have said have been hugely respectful of the people who are there. I am an Offaly man and if I believe in a project I will get involved. There were critics of O'Connor Park at that time but I will always try and separate facilities and performance and operations. There is maybe too much of a focus on operations, that we are doing things pretty well and looking after our players well which we are and we should be doing but what about how we are getting on in the field? You have to marry the whole thing into one, to me it was a no brainer.”
He spoke about the way the Faithful Fields fundraising committee worked, the drive of fellow Banagher man, Kieran Keenaghan, the need to provide the facility debt free, getting other people involved, meeting weekly, getting updates, everyone doing their individual jobs – and he feels this should be replicated on all committees. “If we work away in a structured way, it will not strangle anyone. It is doable.”
He was surprised at the pace of Offaly's decline after his county retirement, pointing out that it was difficult to see it at the time as they reached Leinster senior hurling and football finals in 2004 and 2006. “A lot of things change in the GAA as it always does. There was also change in the social scene, the Celtic Tiger, teachers and what was expected. The roles of schools and not being paid for after hours stuff changed. Changes were happening and managing that change was a difficulty. It slid on from there and all of a sudden we were getting hammered, thirty points or whatever. We had a couple of terrible days in football and hurling.”
For Michael Duignan last year was a turning point. He was dismayed to hear that people were happy at beating Sligo to stay up in Division 3 while the hurling relegation to the Christy Ring Cup sickened him. “To look at the fixtures next year and see we are playing Sligo and Wicklow, it was really like someone stabbed me in the heart to see that we had sunk that far. It was probably a catalyst for me to say, we have talked about this for long enough, we really have to go and try and do something about this. It is not going to fix itself. It needs a lot of people working together but I would be ambitious that this thing can be straightened out relatively quickly. I am not talking about winning All-Irelands at this stage but I am not ruling out the fact that we could win All-Irelands again. What I am saying is our neighbours and teams we have traditionally beaten are moving on and they are beating us now in hurling and football. Really at this stage, do we believe we can beat anyone at any level? The Liam McCarthy Cup, the Sam Maguire Cup, deep down do our players believe. We have to give them that opportunity to believe again.”
The big issues
He has observed Offaly's ruthless dismissal of managers over the years but doesn't want to comment on most cases as he doesn't know the ins and outs. He was on the selection committee that appointed Joe Dooley as hurling manager and felt that was well handled as candidates had to answer a comprehensive questionnaire.
“I can't comment on the other ones. The one I did comment on last year was Kevin Martin. I have no problem saying I felt Kevin Martin (replaced as senior hurling manager in mid season this year) should have been left in the job. I know it was a struggle for everyone but I think they were in it together. Usually when you are in something together and you are down, you will find a way to dig it out. We don't know if he would have but to be fair, he was a man who had given a lot to Offaly. He was given the job and he should have been let see it out. We would have been no worse off than now. Then it caused other problems. Joachim came in and there were issues with players. It snowballed and it probably did a lot more harm than good at the end of the day. You would like to see a bit of stability. It's like picking a player. When you pick a team for a match, you have to give them a chance and see how they get on. You have to be fairly sure you are picking the right person in the first place, whether that is for a senior job or a minor job or U-21. Maybe their hands were tied because a lot of people weren't putting themselves forward for these jobs for whatever reason. You see us going outside the county for a minor hurling manager. . .
“A lot of managers come in and feel they have to do an awful lot with these squads, work that should be done with the clubs and the schools. The minor hurling team is training three times a week already. I am not sure if that is right. Starting in January or February is plenty of time for a minor team. We need clubs, the underage set-up, schools right. We need measurement of players coming through the system. At 16 or 17 they should be at a level because of the system. They shouldn't be trying to catch up at minor.”
How can Offaly get up to the level of other counties?
“It is all about thousands and thousands of hours. The most important thing is you have to develop a love of the game. You develop that if you have it in the house. Then you get down to training and it is structured straight away. You are into a system, there is enjoyment and the basic skills are developed. It is also about keeping up the fitness levels that you should be at. It is about balancing all that.
“We have to manage dual issues. Whatever challenges Offaly has as a county, it is not what the rest of the country has, that is not relevant to us. It doesn't matter. A huge part is getting as many players as possible out playing first of all, giving them a meaningful games programme, instilling that love of the game in them and then we can start worrying about the level we are going to get to. It is not rocket science to me and it never will be. It is about being ambitious and seeing yourself operating at the top level. If you see yourself operating at B and C level, that is where you will always be. You have to see yourself and dream about winning.”
Michael Duignan is happy that Offaly have good senior football and hurling managers in place in John Maughan and Michael Fennelly. He greatly admires the way John Maughan has gone about his business, a big character with a big personality but almost “forgotten” as he works away in the background.
He likes Michael Fennelly, drawing comparisons between his club Ballyhale Shamrocks and Offaly teams of old, where families played such a pivotal role in success. He likes the backroom team with Johnny Kelly, who trained Borrisleigh to the Tipperary hurling title this year and Kilkenny's Michael Kavanagh. “It is a powerful management team for the level they are at and they have to be given a chance as well. The league will be competitive. Getting out of Division 2 is a priority and we have to hit the ground running. There are a lot of goodish young players to be developed so it is a balancing act for them. I look forward to working with and supporting both management teams if I am elected. I agree, they are two good appointments.”
Apart from the above mentioned subjects, he doesn't envisage making major changes. “We need to breath new life into it,” he said, speaking about the importance of Colm Cummins, Dervill Dolan and Brian Gavin to the ticket. “Colm is strategically very good and his experience is very important. I have chaired my minor club but a County Board is much more daunting. Colm's experience of people there is very important. It is really about getting our head down and stuck in. I am very passionate about finding out on the ground where we are, what support our clubs and schools need.”
He promised that if more coaches are needed, they will get more and won't put a burden on clubs for this. “We will look for support from Leinster and Central Council. We will get three, four, five more coaches if they are needed. Offaly is a very well respected county. Every where I go, people are looking for Offaly to come back. We are looking to buy into that support from Leinster Council, looking to raise the money through business and fundraising ourselves. That will be done and we will put those coaches on the ground. I think they are needed. More support is needed to the clubs and schools.”
He would like to see former Offaly players who are teaching elsewhere getting jobs in the county. He mentioned Sean Ryan, Brian Carroll and Willie Mulhall in this regard. “Brian Carroll is in Templemore now. Tipp are well able to look after themselves. I will make no apologies for saying, these are our national games and we need support in our schools. We really have to have frank discussions with our schools and board of managements about what is the place for GAA in our schools. Put it up there and drive thing thing on. It is clubs, schools, get more people involved and structures. Our own strategic plan that we are going to deliver.”
Are you daunted about the sheer scale of the work involved in being chairman?
“I am not daunted now, I am very excited about it. I am very excited about trying to bring the county in a new direction. I am well aware of the workload but we have fifteen people on the executive. They have to be given their head, they have to be allowed to do their jobs. I don't think it is the chairman's job to try and be involved in every decision. I have spoken to other chairman of other counties, a lot of other people. There is a lot of stuff we are going to implement if we get in in terms of fast tracking things. There is no point in trying to reinvent the wheel with counties who are working very well. It is all about people and a lot of people working. The positivity is important, there should be a lot more enjoyment. I see people working and you would say, Jesus, it is a drag. We need to be much more positive.”
Having met all 41 Offaly clubs in recent weeks, he is satisfied that he has made the right decision by seeking this position. “To see the level of interest and passion they have. . . People are crying out for leadership and a change of direction.
“They are willing to buy into where we want to go. We are putting ourselves forward in the best interest of Offaly and really it is up to the people to decide. This is the bottom line and I would appeal to the people of Offaly to give us a chance. Everybody is out there saying there is a change needed but there is not change needed unless it is for the better. We are very focused on where we are, where we want to go and how we are going to get there. I appeal to the delegates and the clubs and the people coming to Convention to make their decisions and support us if that is what they want to do.”
Hurling in Birr
Hurling games in Birr is a big issue for some people in the south of the county and Michael Duignan wants this one put to bed.
“What we have said across the county is very consistent. We have met Birr and we have met other people. We will form a committee and we will sit down with Birr and we will put this to bed for once and for all. It has to be put to bed and we have to accept all the different view points on this. To be fair to Birr, they are recognising there is fantastic facilities in Tullamore, they are not looking for all matches. You can see in recent weeks, there is more matches going to Birr, whether that is by design or because there is an election coming up.
“There is going to be always a place for hurling in Birr. I would be saying to the people in the rest of Offaly who don't want all the hurling going back to Birr that all the hurling won't be going back to Birr but there will be hurling in Birr. If you look at the small clubs surrounding Birr, a lot have small populations and they need that breath of life. It does bring a bit of life into the area but at the same time we have to recognise that we have fantastic facilities in Tullamore. There is a balance there. To me it is something that needs to be put to bed, it has been hanging out there for too long.
I would be determined in the first few months that we will nail that and we agree on a way forward that will suit the county and everyone.”
Do you see senior hurling finals going back to Birr?
“In the last couple of years, semi-finals have been played there which is a step forward. This year for example, Birr were in the final and I would have chatted people. I would say St Rynagh's wouldn't have liked to have played the final in Birr this year whereas in our time, we did. I think it is maybe too early to talk about that, it is going to be part of an overall solution. Ten years ago, it would have been a massive issue. I am not so sure it is as big an issue now. There might be a case for one every number of years but you are not going to get a situation where every county final is back in Birr. “
He also pointed out that Birr is restricted to a capacity of 3,500 people at the moment, whereas hurling finals can attract 6,000 to 7,000 people. “If you are looking at a crowd of 7,000 people in Birr, it will have to be cleared by health and safety. It is all part of the solution. Birr are working on their facilities but their capacity is very limited.”
Parish underage amalgamations became a big issue this year with St Vincent's (Daingean parish), St Broughan's (Clonbullogue parish), Na Fianna (Killeigh parish) and St Manchan's Gaels (Boher parish and Tubber) reacting with concern to plans to force individual clubs to field in Go Games and not their parish teams.
They believed it was part of an effort to force them to end their amalgamations and some of the clubs felt it was fuelled partly by big town clubs such as Edenderry.
Michael Duignan insisted that he does not want to break up the amalgamations.
“We had very healthy and robust discussions with the clubs in the amalgamations on this and Colm would have spoken with them at length about it. My own view is it is not our role to break up any amalgamation in any club. All of these areas are very small areas in their own club. What I have said is that through our club audit, we want to find out how many kids are in all of these areas. How many are at U-8 level and how many will you have in 4/5 years time. We can marry the information in the club audit with the CSO figures and that will also form part of our planning for every club in the county going forward.
“Then you are sitting down on a regular basis and saying how many kids can we get out and how do we tie that into our games programme, how do we get as many as possible playing? In terms of breaking up amalgamations, absolutely not. What was coming out for certain very strongly is some are looking at how can we get playing senior together and getting more players playing at adult level. We have to see what is the appetite in the county, in our clubs for that and how can that be fitted into our games programme with fixtures. These are all things we have to look at but absolutely not breaking them up. A bit of scaremongering in that respect but that is unfounded. We won't be attempting to break up any amalgamation.
“It starts about getting as many kids as problem and getting games programme around that. If you have forty kids at under 12, how do we facilitate those? How many coaches have you to facilitate that and get as many of them playing. How are they being facilitated going into schools with matches and how are we going to bring that forward?
What is your response to criticism of the Tullamore meeting held by your club?
“It was purely innocent in terms of excluding anybody because it was just another meeting we had. We had two or three small meetings to gauge opinion and then there was a few more people asked into another meeting. I suppose one thing I would say is that first of all it would have been a very dangerous thing for us to do to have contacted forty one clubs in Offaly and we can't run an alternative County Board and that's why I was so passionate about what was said about asking Tommy to step down officially so really it was five or six people ringing a few people and then there was obviously people that weren't there because there was only fifty people at the meeting so there was thousands of people who weren't at the meeting. I think we have addressed that by going out to meet every club in Offaly and explaining that, now we've gone and invited the clubs to come in and bring in whoever they wanted. Some clubs brought seven and eight people, some brought five or six and then they are going out and talking about the thing so if it did upset anyone we apologise for it. I don't think there's any other way we could do it, like we had to start somewhere in terms of you know, where do you start or what do you do and how do you start?”
You got four people to challenge out of that meeting, could you have got more to go for more positions or were you happy that four was enough?
“I think that we have to be careful there to get the balance right in terms of the experience that's in there, I've been talking to between us all, myself and Dervill and Colm, a lot of the executive that's in there in terms of working with them and looking forward to working with them. We don't have all the answers. We have what we want to do but the day to day work still has to be carried out. What we would like to do is get people in to support these people and work together so we were happy at this junction. I think the three of us myself, Colm obviously vice-chairman, I think as a package, Dervill a chartered accountant in terms of the treasurer role and then I think Brian felt that Leinster Council would be important. That we would be looking for support from them. Brian being chairman of his own club as well as Colm being chairman of Edenderry and Dervill a trustee of Clara, I think it would bring at a lot of experience. I think Brian's contacts at Leinster Council level would be very important as well so I think we were quite strategic in terms of saying right these are the number of roles we think are critical at this stage and then get in and work with the other people and support them in their roles as well.”
People have expressed concern that Colm, Dervill and Brian won't run if you are beaten for chairman, what do you say to them?
“Firstly, if I win the chairman's role and the lads don't, I will stay on which I think is important obviously out of respect and I would be looking with working with the people appointed but I would also be looking at bringing those people in around then as part of our sub-committees.”
He explained why the others won't run if he loses. “Without my leadership and without the ability to bring these people forward (the new people to work on sub committees etc), the plans aren't going to go smoothly. In terms of Colm, he is going to be bogged down in the day to day role and he feels that it wouldn't be a good use of his time. That in order to exercise the complete change that we need, I need to be chairman and he needs to be vice-chairman and then Dervill's and Brian's roles are more support roles in the background but the two of us will be critical."
He spoke of the importance of Colm Cummins supporting him if he is elected chairman.
" I think overall he has a huge role in terms of that experience and the workings of the County Board but I really think he's a hugely impressive man and I think he has an awful lot to offer Offaly GAA and he feels that if I'm not successful as chairman, that he would find it very hard to implement what he wants to do."
What about the risk of you being elected chairman and the others losing their votes?
“Well yes it is possible but it's a democracy. James Murphy and Niall Gleeson are also nominated for vice chairman. Niall Gleeson will possibly withdraw from the vice-chairman and go for assistant secretary. James Murphy, if he is successful you know he has done a lot of great work for Offaly GAA so it's about getting in and working but I would be looking at straight away bringing in Colm and he's happy to come in as a chairman of a strategic group so I wouldn't see it as risky. It's a strategy that we have put forward that we hope will be successful but if it's not we will work with the the people that are successful and we will drive it on anyway."
Have you spoken to RTE and can you still work with RTE if you get elected?
"I haven't spoken to them. My contracts up and I don't know if they want me back either but if they do, look it's my job and it's part of my livelihood. I've obviously worked for myself for a long number of years now and I've had a number of different income streams and that would be one of the media I would work with but I wouldn't see it as a problem. I suppose it's unusual, I don't know if we've ever had a chairman of a County Board but we've had players and managers in media work. But if you go back to when I even started on the Sunday Game which was highly unusual. It was in 1996 and I played for another five years after that so I was in there as a player which is rare and I wouldn't see it because really I'm only giving my own personal views and I genuinely love doing.
“The only thing that was asked of me was if it was clashing with Offaly but RTE have always been very fair like that. I won't be missing an Offaly championship match to do a Sunday Game but your talking usually about eight shows a year now and that's really it and it's not that I'm away. I'm turning up in Croke Park for a Leinster final or Thurles for a Munster final on a Sunday afternoon, that's the extent of it so there's no reason I couldn't do it. I don't see it in any way impacting, I'm only giving my opinion on a hurling match, I'm not talking about the overall Offaly GAA in any respect.”
Tommy Byrne has insisted that he was asked to step down as chairman but this is something you reject?
“It was very clear to us that he wasn't asked to step down and we didn't have the remit in any capacity to ask a chairman of the County Board to step down. What we weren't sure of was what their position was because you hear different things about people maybe not running in it and not going forward and all that. Out of courtesy from our meeting in the Central Hotel there was people at that saying we should just go forward and drive on and go for the positions but I would have felt very strong that we should go out of respect for the position and chat and see what was their own intentions and the management's intentions so we met them and we told them that there was a strong appetite for change out there. That people were disappointed where we are and disillusioned in terms of where we are as a county and that we were looking to drive this thing on and then Tommy came back and said he was going to run. That was it, then we went on after that and as I said I think that was clarified at the County Board meeting so if Tommy is saying something different now he's contradicting himself because it's on the record that he explained that and we are very clear that we have our notes from the meeting and he was never asked to step down.
“I wouldn't ask him to step down, you couldn't ask him to step down actually. We were only exploring our options. We had made no decision at that stage, we were only going in to explore and maybe just to flesh it out and see and maybe get a little bit more understanding in terms of where the County Board were at. Tommy had done three years but every year it is up for discussion and he mightn't even have been running.
“He could well have said I am not going. We were exploring it. We were bringing what we feel is the feeling of the county really, after a lot of discussion with a lot of people that would have Offaly GAA, hurling and football close to their hears, and putting them on the table really. To formally let the County Board that this is out there and I think they know anyway. All you have to do is look at where we are, look at our results and performances.
“We want to focus everything we are doing in the future on the performance of Offaly teams while also making sure that our operations are properly maintained and run; that the goverance of our county is properly run. We will look at every aspect of Offaly GAA but the bottom line is we want to improve our performances on the field.”
The Michael Duignan story
How difficult of a journey has it been for you, from Edel getting sick to now getting engaged to Aishling?
“I have had a hugely varied life in the GAA, even though at times you get a bit disillusioned. I did a piece with you a couple of years ago where I said I was taking a year out, which I did. I played a lot of golf and enjoyed it. It did give me a new lease of life. It has been an incredible journey, both sporting wise and life. Life wise, you are dealt a hand and it is only when you look back on it, you realise it. Edel dying at 41 but when you look back on the ten years before that, she was sick and the kids were very small. I look back now, and Edel is always a massive part of our lives and always will be but I am proud of the way I have come out of it as a family.
“My involvement with Ballinamere/Durrow as chairman and as coach of minor teams and being involved with the U-20s last Sunday has just been brilliant. All of those players would have done so much for me, as much as I have been involved with them. I think the way we went about our business in a small club and to challenge bigger ones. . . And I suppose that is what I am trying to do now, put a lot of that to work. To see my sons being so central to that and more importantly, being nice in life is great. They are gone on now to third level and they carry themselves well.
“I suppose meeting Aisling (Fennin) was hugely important as well. You struggle a bit as well with the feelings about that, a little bit of guilt and all that sort of thing. Aisling has been very good for me and the lads. She comes from a big GAA family, she is a sister of Tadgh and her dad Michael has been hugely involved with Kildare and Leinster Council over the years. I think she has been a very guiding hand in all this. I put my family back together as well. We did have very low times but we have come through them and the GAA as usual has played a huge part.
“It has given me the drive back again, regardless how it goes. It is a thing we are going for. I am in my fifties now and I am happy that I have a good life. I went through a lot of other stuff in business but came through an awful lot of stuff, like a lot of other people.”
He now runs a project management business with Tadgh Sheedy, a former worker with the Flanagan group in Tullamore – they worked together on projects at that time with Michael doing the auctioneering, before that business went bust in the slump, although he still does some work in this area.
They recently completed a warehousing building in Dublin and are about to embark on another project in Tullamore. “When you are working for yourself, you have to reinvent yourself. I do auctioneering on the side as well as my media work. You do what you have to do. The big thing is dealing with people. I do see myself as a very good people's person and able to bring people together. On a day to day basis that has been very good for me, it has allowed me to keep my businesses going and myself going.”
In your book, you talked about off the field stuff that happened while Edel was sick and after she died, confrontations with people. It is all a long time in the past but it is probably something that is being talked about in dark corners rather than open spaces. Would you be concerned that some of that could taint people's opinion?
“I think I have changed and learned. There were a number of things and they were probably in highly pressurised situations over a number of years. They have been talked about and publicised but over many years now, I don't know if I have had a cross word with anyone. I had an incident at a hurling match last year with a referee and I got suspended. There were two sides to that but I choose to let the suspension lie at the time because I wasn't bothered. I had issues over one or two things that happened on the field that day and then there were words exchanged both ways that day. I was happy to let it lie. Look, these things shouldn't be happening either but sometimes it is part of life and passion.
“There are probably a couple of clubs out there that I would have fell out with a bit but I think they understand through this process as well from meeting them and talking to them that these things happen. I can't say if I was on the sideline with Offaly. . . You are going to be passionate. When you are trying to get from A to Z, you have to be passionate about what you are doing. There might be an odd cross word but I would say I am much more reasoned. I am getting older as well and life teaches you a lot of things. It is a long, long time since I would have had any sort of disagreement with anyone and long may that continue.”
If you are beaten, what happens Michael Duignan in the GAA in Offaly? Do you still put your shoulder to the wheel in different capacacities or is it curtains for you?
“I think I will be very disillusioned but I usually have the capacity to bounce back in terms of everything. I do think this is critical in terms of the future for Offaly. I certainly won't be putting my name forward for chairman or anything like that again, I will be honest about that. Will I still be involved in the GAA? Of course I will. Probably at this stage of my life, it will be club based and probably with my own club.
“I will be 52 in February and I don't see myself getting involved with intercounty stuff. I will be very happy with that. It is a democracy but I do think it is a huge opportunity to change the direction of Offaly GAA. I would be disillusioned from the point of view that an awful lot of people have been talking for a long time about the need for change and if we ended up going into Convention and not changing after everything that has gone on, obviously I will be very disappointed. I wouldn't be putting my name forward again.”