Liam: A Modern Millers Tale

by | Aug 9, 2018

Ireland’s Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) is undergoing increasing scrutiny for its nationalist trappings, flying the Irish ‘tricolor’ flag and playing/singing the national anthem before big games, legacies of its role in Irish nationalist cultural struggles.

Given the context of its formation, it was unsurprising that the GAA’s combative attitude to ‘foreign games’ was enshrined in its original rules. They have adapted over time. However, the recent furore over the ‘Liam Miller Tribute Match’ shows how ‘foreign’ a ‘game’ Association Football still is to some.

Republic of Ireland soccer international Miller died in February from pancreatic cancer, four days before his 37th birthday. He was one of Ireland’s 1998 European Under-16 Champions, alongside fellow future full internationals Andy Reid and John O’Shea. After four years at Celtic, he had a short spell at Manchester United in 2004, followed by stints in Scotland and Australia, winning 21 Ireland caps. He spent 2016 at his native Cork City in the League of Ireland. And Miller also played underage Gaelic Football and hurling for Cork’s Eire Og club.

The tribute match idea originated at March’s Cheltenham Festival, where Cork-born property developer Michael O’Flynn met legendary ex-Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, who took Miller to Manchester when his Celtic contract expired in July 2004. And while there are about three great ideas per pint of Guinness consumed at Cheltenham, this one survived sobriety and Ferguson promised a Man Yoo ‘legends’ team for the occasion.

O’Flynn approached Cork’s GAA’s about holding the game at Cork’s largest sports stadium, the GAA’s 45,000-capacity Pairc Ui Chaoimh (“the Pairc”). The board were ‘receptive’ but national GAA HQ said their rules did not allow the Pairc to stage non-GAA events. So, Turner’s Cross, Cork City’s 7,500-capacity ground, became the venue.

The match was announced on July 6th. Ferguson fell seriously ill (mercifully now recovering). So, the United ‘legends’ were to be managed by Miller’s fellow Corkman (and manager at Sunderland) Roy Keane, Ireland’s assistant-manager. They would play a Celtic/Ireland XI under Ireland’s (and Keane’s) boss Martin O’Neill, on September 25th, with a ‘gala’ black-tie dinner at Cork City Hall that evening. The events were to be a tribute to the popular Miller and a fundraiser for his young family and Cork’s Marymount Hospice, where Miller spent his final days.

At the event’s formal press launch on July 18th, Cork’s Lord Mayor, Councillor Mick Finn made O’Flynn’s GAA approach public for the first time. He expected match tickets to “fly out the door,” and the game would “no doubt” sell out “within a couple of minutes.” And he added: “One pity is that we didn’t have the use of a bigger venue in the city. Attempts were made to get Páirc Uí Chaoimh (but) it has to go before Congress.”

And while the Association “offered their premium facilities free of charge, unfortunately it was just too soon for it to be organised. They have approval for Croke Park (but) every other facility has to go before Congress which isn’t until next February.” O’Flynn stressed that Cork’s GAA “were receptive, but there is a rule” which meant nothing “could be done about it.” However, before the GAA’s stance could be filed under ‘one of those things,” match tickets sold out as Finn predicted. And, with the GAA’s decision already a ‘refusal’ in media headlines. people started saying plenty “about it.”

“Scandalous,” said Miller’s under-16 colleague Andy Reid. Damien Duff, Miller’s senior international colleague, lambasted: “the same old dinosaurs making the same old decisions.” And Ireland’s twitterati derided the GAA’s “terrible decision-making, as usual,” calling it, among MANY other things, “one of the great jaw-dropping insults to Irish sport.” Another commenter evoked an image: “I saw Liam Miller tog out for Eire Og, never saw Ed Sheeran tog out. Sheeran gets €2m per concert in the Pairc, yet we refuse our own!”

The GAA basically said ‘rules-is-rules.’ Especially rule 5.1: “Grounds controlled by Association units shall not be…permitted to be used for Field Games other than those sanctioned by Central Council.” Its July 20th statement confirmed Finn and O’Flynn’s press-launch comments. It was “prohibited in rule from hosting (such) games.” Cork’s GAA had “no discretion.” Only “Annual Congress can alter this.” And, new to the debate, “legal advice…around funding received towards” the Páirc’s redevelopment suggested their decision was “compliant with the terms and conditions laid down in September 2016.”

That day, though, the Irish Examiner newspaper’s Joe Leogue reported what was “laid down in September 2016.” An 11-page European Commission ruling, that a €30m Government redevelopment grant in 2014 was not illegal state aid, said the Pairc “will be open to users on a non-discriminatory and transparent basis.” Cork’s GAA “will rent out the facilities to third parties to organise sporting and other commercial events” and “If the terms of the grant are not complied with, this could result in the claw-back of aid.”

Leogue also quoted Tim O’Connor, a barrister “with a special interest in sport and the law,” who struggled to “see how a blanket refusal to comply with these terms and making no effort to comply with them two years after clearance on these terms, can be justified.” O’Connor also told RTE on July 21st that GAA rule 1.4, ‘The Association shall actively…assist in promoting a community spirit,’ could over-ride rule 5.1, if the GAA were seriously looking for “ways around” their legal obstacles.

Giving the issue its widest potential audience yet, RTE’s ‘Sunday Game’ highlights show, the loose equivalent of ‘Match of the Day,’ allocated key airtime on its 23nd July show. Cork-resident pundit Tomas O Se said: “It’s a no-brainer” three times in 110 words. “People see concerts (and) American football matches going into pitches. Yet an event like this which won’t impact on any GAA activity is stopped.” And the GAA’s PR didn’t help “at all, at all,” a phrase I’d only heard in cod Irish accents, but which was appropriately emphatic here.

GAA rules reminded controversialist fellow-pundit Joe Brolly, a barrister, of “Father Ted’s great line about Catholicism, ‘it’s terribly vague and nobody really knows what it means.’” But, he noted, referring to the GAA in the first-person, that “our property” could be used “as long as it doesn’t conflict with the objectives and the aims of the association. All we have to do is characterise this for what it is, a charity event.” He also referenced the above-mentioned “agreement with central government” which “includes use for charitable purposes.”

He concluded: “The GAA family in Cork deeply want this. Everybody wants this. And, apart from anything else, the GAA must be seen as a friend. We’re leaders in the community, that’s how we position ourselves. We should give this our blessing. It’s exactly the sort of thing the GAA should be promoting.” Brolly thus united a nation…which promptly fainted.

The next day, the Association announced that their President John Horgan, Director-General Tom Ryan and “representatives of the Cork Committee” would “seek” to “discuss the game with “the (match) organising committee.” This led to considerable jumping-of-guns. One wag (me) tweeted “People Power 1 GAA 0.” And the GAA’s supposedly-shift was widely welcomed. But organising committee chair O’Flynn cautioned that “I haven’t heard from them up to this moment. Some people think a meeting is pending. It isn’t.” Yet the pressure on the GAA was mounting.

Ex-Cork football manager Billy Morgan noted, correctly, that ” If Ireland had got the Rugby World Cup it was going to go ahead down there.” Veteran RTE broadcaster Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh waxed typically lyrically: “Years ago there was a book with a question. Who is my neighbour? And the answer was everybody, even those who differ from me in any way. It’s a spirit that should decide this. A spirit in the hearts of people.” Mind you, he also noted that using the Pairc “would boost the fundraising.” Pragmatic poet, our Micheal.

The Gaelic Players Association said “the decision doesn’t align with our values as sportspeople.” Cork County Council called unanimously on the GAA to allow the match into the Pairc. And on July 25th, after leading politicians joined the newly-populist cause, Ireland’s Sports Minister, Shane Ross, “encouraged” the GAA and the match organisers “to come to an early settlement.” Translation: Get it played at the Pairc.

The GAA met the match committee on July 26th. And a decision which six days earlier couldn’t be made for six months was suddenly imminent. The GAA’s Management Committee recommended that a special General Council meeting on July 28th approve the Pairc’s use. Because, RTE’s Eoin Ryan reported, the Council, which runs the GAA between Congresses, could, after all, “over-ride the relevant rule” and “sanction use of GAA facilities, from time-to-time, for field sports and other purposes it considers not to be in conflict with (Its) aims and objectives.”

The Central Council did so, but only after what Horan called “a long and robust debate.” He did not reveal what was ‘debated’ but added that “in the end the conclusive decision was that we would open Páirc Uí Chaoimh,” and revealed that “there will be a GAA element” to the event, “for discussion between the organising committee and Cork county committee.”

Horan defended the GAA robustly. But his arguments seemed flawed and tinged with arrogance. “I don’t think anyone can say Tuesday to Saturday was a long time,” he told RTE, although the problem was their initial stance that any decision would take six months. He denied they had “lost touch” with their members but undermined that point by doubting that “we need to learn any lessons from any of this,” lazily blaming “social media” for turning “the whole thing into a frenzy.”

And he stressed: “this is not opening the doors; no-one gets permission to open any GAA property to any outside sporting body or other bodies without coming to us,” unless or until people proposed rule-changes to Congress, possibly the acid test of the GAA’s “touch.”

However, for Miller’s family, the GAA’s volte-face was a happy ending. O’Flynn said they were “overwhelmed by the public support and delighted with the decision.” And he added: “We need 30,000-plus to justify what we are doing, but I have no doubt that Cork people (will) come out and pay tribute to a great Cork sportsman.”

Finn, meanwhile, still part-defended the GAA, calling some criticism “rooted in ignorance,” and adding, as if anyone needed reminding, that “it has its rules.” However, the GAA hid behind those rules from the moment O’Flynn approached them until the formal press launch. And no-one at the Association with sufficient authority, during those weeks/months, seemed to think the match was: “exactly the sort of thing the GAA should be promoting.”

It was “easy for experts to castigate the GAA,” Finn sniffed. He was right. But mainly because the GAA deserved it.