Dub Horan aims to be leader of all
Ex-Leinster chief sets out his case for presidency
One only native Dub has ever become GAA president. His name was Daniel McCarthy; that was almost a century ago. "Dublin people don't normally progress those corridors!" admits John Horan, who is hoping to become the second.
Tomorrow night we'll know if Horan's first shot at the presidency has hit the bullseye. Congress is taking place over two days in Croke Park but, while motions of championship-altering significance will be debated on Saturday, the Friday night focus will be on a very different vote.
Who will be elected Uachtarán-Tofa, to succeed Aogán Ó Fearghail 12 months hence? It's a bigger queue of candidates than the norm, with Horan joined by Kerry's Seán Walsh, Galway's Frank Burke, Longford's Martin Skelly and Clare's Robert Frost.
All five have been chairperson/president of their province - Horan's three-year Leinster term ended last month. But whereas his four rivals have all served as chairmen of their own counties, the Dubliner has never been involved at county board level.
And yet he's a heavyweight contender for the top job now. Sceptics might wonder has he risen without trace; but then they probably don't know he has followed a very different path to the presidential cusp.
So who, exactly, is John Horan?
His club is Na Fianna; always was. He attended secondary school in St Vincent's, Glasnevin and has spent his entire working career there, including the last eight years as principal.
His own football career didn't extend beyond junior but he started coaching during his HDip year - his first U11 team in Na Fianna included a young Dessie Farrell.
Once ensconced in St Vincent's, Horan busied himself coaching. He also became immersed in schools GAA administration, in Dublin and Leinster, while serving three years on Central Council as the second level schools representative.
He served as a Dublin minor football selector under Paddy Canning in 1997, '98 and again in 2001, when a team including Bryan Cullen and Paul Griffin reached the All-Ireland final, losing a replay to Tyrone.
He then managed the Dublin minors in '05. Subsequent events would underline the quality of this group: Diarmuid Connolly, Paddy Andrews, Jonny Cooper, Philly McMahon, Darren Daly, Kevin Nolan, Tomás Brady, Joey Boland, Johnny McCaffrey … "a star-studded squad," their manager recalls.
But also one that included eight dual players. "We were due to play Laois and the hurlers beat Kilkenny in the semi-final just beforehand. We postponed the football semi-final to allow them have a free run, to try and win a Leinster title," he explains.
"It wouldn't have been the normal decision of a manager … but we felt, in fairness to the young lads and hurling and Dublin, it was a great chance because they were fancied to beat Wexford (which they did, ending a 22-year famine). Then we went out the following week against Laois and we were caught a bit flat. We certainly didn't perform. But look, I don't think it did any of their careers any harm."
Connolly wasn't part of the hurling squad but Horan can still recall him turning up for football training, hurl and sliotar in hand. "But that was Diarmuid, everybody knows he's a highly talented hurler." And football? "Without a doubt, the most talented fella I ever was involved with".
Eventually, administration took hold of Horan's GAA life. He spent six years as the Leinster Council's coaching and games development chairman. He was pipped by Skelly for the Leinster vice-chairmanship in 2008 but won the same election three years later, guaranteeing his elevation to the chair in 2014.
Now comes his shot at the GAA administrator's 'All-Ireland'. McCarthy was the only Dub to have held such high office, from 1921 to '24. Seán Ryan (1928-32) and Dr JJ Stuart (1958-61) represented the capital but hailed from Tipperary and Clare respectively.
The last true Blue to even run for the presidency was fellow Na Fianna man Jimmy Grey, 24 years ago.
Horan dismisses the notion of a 'culchie-only' domain, merely stating: "Dublin just don't get people in those positions, unfortunately. That's the way it is. I've kind of come from a very unusual route to get here but, look, I'm not in this with no hope. If you talk to anyone, I'm in with a good shout. If I thought I was in with no hope, I'd be gone to the hills very quickly."
He hopes his Leinster record will showcase a commitment to help not just the strong but the weak. The East Leinster Project - a coaching initiative in Louth, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow that seeks to emulate what has worked in the capital - has been launched. An individual club (or group of clubs in more rural areas) will take on a full-time coach, part-funded by Leinster Council. Cross-county competitions at U13 and U15 have also been organised for a six-week window (starting late last month, incorporating 160 clubs and 310 teams) with the aim of providing more quality matches.
Such steps may help "over time" to bridge the chasm, in football, between Dublin and the rest of Leinster. But while Horan agrees with everyone else that the "ongoing issue of fixtures" is one of the crunch issues facing the next president, he is just as animated about the weaker football counties.
Last year's ill-conceived SFC 'B' proposal may have died an indifferent death, but Horan strongly advocates a more attractive second-tier alternative, culminating in a final curtain-raiser before the senior All-Ireland.
There is no point wasting energy trying to dismantle the provincial structure "when it won't happen", he reasons - so don't.
"But still do something for the Division Three and Four teams, that their season doesn't end up on an ongoing basis in failure by a hammering in their own provincial championship and then another hammering in the qualifiers. Because you can see what it's doing. It's actually driving players away ... the weaker are even getting weaker because of this."
JOHN HORAN ON ...
EQUALISATION: “Definitely there are needs for the other counties outside of Dublin to get extra support, and the only way I honestly believe that we’re going to be able to do that - and not to be fighting among ourselves - is that extra income streams that come into the GAA should be used to create an equalisation situation.
“Let’s be honest, Dublin have the potential to generate more income that some of the smaller, weaker counties. But rather than be taking money off Dublin to resolve the issue, there are new income streams through commercial work coming on line that should be used.”
LEINSTER SFC: “They (Dublin) are not being stretched in Leinster. Like, I mean, I don’t think anyone in Meath, in Kildare, would deny that their performances in recent times have been well below what they’d expect as their normal standard.
“In that context, the onus is very much on Meath and Kildare to close the gap. You can’t ask Dublin to pull back or lessen in any way.”
GALWAY CRUX: “In my three years in Leinster, I have given Galway officers three opportunities – they met the officers in Leinster, the management committee and the full council – to put their argument and to be as persuasive as they could.
“And the counties in Leinster just weren’t buying into it because they felt that Galway coming in at minor and U21 would be damaging to their development.”
PRO FUTURE?: “I think the reality has dawned on everybody we don’t have the capacity to have a professional organisation. GAA
funding in a year is €55m. Professionalism within the GAA is a complete and utter non-starter … it should never happen, but it will never happen because it just doesn’t have the capacity.”