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Joe Kernan: New GAA chief must instil unity

There are few more demanding roles in Irish sport than that of GAA President. In most organisations and institutions, the president is normally a figure-head, a person not usually deemed to be actively involved in the day-to-day running of the particular body which he heads up.

New GAA chief must instil unitySmart guy: Tyrone’s Stephen O’Neill, among others, could be a great help to new GAA president Liam O’Neill

This most certainly does not apply to the holder of the top office in the GAA.

So when Liam O’Neill was installed as the successor to Christy Cooney at the weekend, he knew well in advance that the most hectic three years of his life lie ahead of him.

His packed itinerary will embrace many thousands of miles, countless meetings, a litany of functions, overseeing the implementation of a raft of initiatives and attending games in all codes at different levels.

The Laois man is taking his leave of teaching “with considerable regret” but not because he fears what lies ahead but because he obviously loves his chosen profession.

Nonetheless such is his commitment to the GAA — he has held several top high-profile posts including that of Leinster Council chairman — that he is positively relishing the heavy physical, personal and administrative demands that the presidency will place upon him.

And while I certainly have no wish to add to what is doubtless an already heavy burden, there is one area within the Association which I would like Liam to address as a matter of some urgency.

That is the nurturing of a greater rapport between managers, players, referees and officials.

To this end, I would exhort Liam, who is known to be a visionary, to establish a forum whereby two representatives from each of these groupings could come together, maybe on a regular basis, to debate ongoing issues and perhaps thereby spare the self-inflicted embarrassment which it has suffered in recent times.

One of the problems as I see it is that all four groups tend to be autonomous and while this is understandable to some extent given their contrasting inputs into the sport, nonetheless there is a marked need for uniformity when it comes to the playing of and officiating at our games.

For too long now an ‘us and them’ scenario has pertained between players and referees in particular.

There are a lot of highly-intelligent, articulate individuals who I feel would be happy to be part of such a forum.

In Ulster we have wonderful ambassadors in Sean Cavanagh, Stephen O’Neill, Darren Hughes and Danny Hughes on the playing side while Joe McQuillan took charge of last year’s All-Ireland final and Martin Higgins is also a very capable referee.

Mickey Harte is the longest-serving Ulster manager who could make a valuable input alongside one of his colleagues.

Leinster are not short on players with fixed views and in this respect Bernard Brogan, Stephen Bray, John Doyle and Paddy Keenan could have their say while Alan Dillon, Padraig Joyce and Conor Mortimer are among players who could bring the Connacht viewpoint to the table.

Munster trio Paul Kerrigan, Colm Cooper and David Tubridy are well capable of contributing to what I feel would be a meaningful discussion that could greatly help the actual presentation of our high-profile games.

Let’s be honest, the image of the GAA has suffered because of poor calls, never more so perhaps than in the 2010 Leinster football final when Joe Sheridan’s ‘thrown’ goal for Meath against Louth was allowed to stand by referee Martin Sludden.

That was very much a case of human error but the GAA authorities should have stepped in and ordered a replay, thus taking the matter out of the hands of the counties and the Leinster Council.

Given the level of competition that the GAA is going to face from other high-profile sports this summer, it simply cannot afford to press the self-destruct button.

Can you imagine glorious individual performances in the Olympics and perhaps the Republic of Ireland surprising us all in the European Soccer Championships and this glowing narrative placed alongside negative GAA coverage?

That would be particularly harmful to our Association which is currently confronted by major problems which are, in essence, the side-effects of the current economic recession.

It is well-known that conning referees by diving, ‘sledging’, disputing the issue of yellow or red cards, verbally abusing linesmen and umpires and inciting fans are the type of offences which are rife in gaelic football in particular just now.

That’s why I feel that a meeting of minds could help cultivate a greater degree of understanding and sympathy for the other person’s role in the overall context of the sport.

I have no doubt that Liam O’Neill has already inherited a heavy workload and will certainly find that his spare time will be at a premium.

I don’t expect him to give my plea priority but I would hope that he might take it on board if at all possible before the championship gets under way. In the meantime, I wish him well in his new role.

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