As Nickey Brennan comes to the end of a Presidency that saw a level of unprecedented change in the GAA, he discusses his legacy with Fearghal Kerin.
Nickey Brennan, coming into the final months of his tenure at the head of Ireland’s largest sporting organisation, the GAA, has overseen a period of change, the likes of which a certain newly inaugurated head of state would be proud of at the end of his term in office.
Most notably in recent months has been the introduction of the law variations dealing with fouls which see players forced to be replaced for yellow card offences. Brennan is enthusiastic about the results of these thus far.
“So far, so good is probably the way I’d put it. The evidence is that there’s far more open play, significantly less fouling, and more scoring. I have to be fair and say that when we get to the National Leagues when there’s a bit more at stake and there’s a better test for the rules.”
A major criticism however, is that they have been enacted in both Gaelic football and hurling, while many feel that they were badly needed in football, they will prove to the detriment of the physical aspect of hurling.
“We’ve done a fair bit on the football side, and we’re assessing the hurling now. The general feedback is that it’s helping the more skilful players play, while lads are being trained to tackle and block moreso than they have been. The jury, I accept, is still out, but so far, so good is how we’re looking at it.”
As well as the adaptation of Rule 42 which saw Brennan welcome foreign sports to Croke Park for the first time, and the experimental variations in the games laws, this year sees a new format of Leinster Hurling Championship, heavyweights Antrim and Galway joining Offaly, Wexford and Dublin in what has been of late a vain attempt to challenge Kilkenny for provincial honours.
An All-Ireland winner with Kilkenny in his playing days, the changes have been introduced as much to add much needed to competition to the Cats unprecedented dominance of the province as to allow for the development of the ‘new’ counties.
His support was one of the driving factors behind the amendment to the system. Brennan sees this as a major marriage of convenience, with all counties benefiting.
“You also have the situation in Galway where they’re not involved in any championship and haven’t been for sometime”
“It would appear at the moment as if Kilkenny would be the dominant force for some time. On that basis, Leinster needed some class of a boost. On the other hand then, you had Antrim who were very exposed up in Ulster. They need better competition if they’re to improve. You also have the situation in Galway where they’re not involved in any championship and haven’t been for sometime.”
So what of Brian Cody’s side, there can be no doubt that their annexing the honours has led to a more predictable summer of hurling. Brennan, however, fails to subscribe to blaming the Cats.
“You can’t blame Kilkenny, and there’s no way you can bring in a handicap system or anything. The state of hurling at the moment is nothing to do with Kilkenny. In fact, it’s quite good in an overall context. [Kilkenny] is the dominant side at this time, there‘s no point in saying otherwise, but everything goes full circle. It’s up to the other sides to raise the bar to get to Kilkenny’s level. The one thing we do know is that Kilkenny will be very focused, very determined and very committed and will have players waiting in the wings to come in.”
“Whether the players have the appetite, whether the legs are still there because lads have miles on the clock, I don’t know. If it weren’t for Kilkenny you might have a fantastic competitive championship, but Kilkenny have put the work in and that’s the way it is.”
Beyond this, Brennan has refused to rule out further amendments to the structure of the existing championships. Often suggested by the media is the abolition of the provincial system with them to be replaced by a Champions League-like group stage, though Brennan remains coy on whether this is a possibility.
“I don’t see that at the moment, though you never say never in life. If there is going to be a change, I suppose the open draw is the next step. There is absolutely no reason why the hurling and football championships have to be the same. Football is very much a provincial championship and I see no prospect of that changing in the foreseeable future.”
Also new for 2009 was the embargo on county teams training before the New Year, and like the other innovations, Brennan was to the forefront of this. He speaks very enthusiastically and proudly of what has being achieved.
“We would be very, very adamant about the positives of this. During the recent All-Star trip to America, I spoke this with players, and they were absolutely delighted. People should understand that an inter-county break simply meant that teams could not gather collectively and train outdoors. There was nothing to stop them gathering in gyms and whatnot, and managers gave their players programmes. In fairness to the modern players, you don’t have the situation where players are coming back two stone overweight after Christmas.”
The players themselves have, almost to a man, been positive towards this break and Brennan is happy to reel off the reasons why. “Players were delighted on two counts, firstly they weren’t slogging about in the muck and dirt, and secondly they could take a mental break and get on with their own lives. What‘s more, I’d like to think that players who were carrying injuries had a couple of months to rest. There’s no point in going to a physiotherapist three or four nights a week when you‘re not resting.”
With his term as President drawing into its twilight then, how does Brennan see his time at the helm of the GAA?
“Everything comes to an end. I have given every ounce of energy I have to this for three years. That’s what you buy into when you take on this role. It’s all encompassing.”
“I’d like to think I’ve made quite a decent contribution to the GAA. I’m not particularly bothered whether people think I’ve done a good or bad job. I know what I’ve done, and I know the Association have benefited from it.”