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Garvaghey dream is paying off for Tyrone


By Declan Bogue

On a dark night, you couldn't fail to see the enticing lights if you are on the A5, making your way to any destination along the main route from Derry to Dublin.

In so many ways, the idea of dreaming, designing, funding and building the Tyrone GAA Centre in remote Garvaghey should have stalled at the dream. But the people involved have always been courageous dreamers.

When we call, Club Tyrone's Mark Conway, and Eunan Lindsay of the Tyrone County Board are here to welcome us to the £6.7 million project. Over acres of land - Garvaghey translates into 'Rough Field' - it incorporates five sand carpet grass pitches and a 3G pitch, a smaller 3G pitch with a skills wall, all fully floodlit.

There are 10 dressing rooms, four exclusively for females. They have a 200-seater auditorium where they host occasional events that might raise a few eyebrows, such as the visit from the Friends of the Somme group who gave a talk about those from Tyrone that went off to fight in the First World War.

Or even the hosting of 'Midsummer Night's Dream', complete with extra-thick Tyrone accents, hosted on the summer solstice a few years back.

There are extensive catering services and all the bells and whistles you might expect of a top-class professional sports team facility. Only it's all there for what is still an amateur sport.

Simply put, places like Garvaghey, and Derry's training facility in Owenbeg, have no right to exist. They exist on the delicate eco-system of finance in the GAA. The old model, as Conway says, "You put in, you don't take out", simply has to apply.

Over 600 people, companies and clubs contribute on an ongoing basis to this place. Some funding has come their way from Government bodies such as the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and the Lottery Fund, but in five years since the project was launched in 2009, they have raised £1.8 million of their own money.

How did they get here? Conway provides the context.

"Tyrone run a tight ship. Always did," he begins.

"Before there was a stand in Omagh and Garvaghey, Tyrone at county level was never into development. We had nothing. Didn't own pitches, nothing.

"So we never had to borrow. Other counties got into debt for the revenue stuff - which is the road to no town."

The concept of 'Club Tyrone' - a fundraising body for the Tyrone County Board - began in 2001. A forerunner to the group began in 1995, with the aim of raising £500,000 for the GAA in Tyrone by the time of the Millennium.

"We were to get 200 people that would give us £500 a year," recalls Conway. "The figure was plucked out of the air, there was no science behind it."

It took a little longer, but when they were wrapping up the Millennium Initiative, a few people suggested that they might continue their work. So the name 'Club Tyrone' was born and launched at the Glenavon Hotel in Cookstown on July 4, 2001.

The aim was simple. Ask people for money that would be used for the preparation and promotion of Gaelic games in Tyrone.

Ask Conway how difficult it was to get buy-in from the general public or businesses, or how much of a pain in the ass it is to ask people for money, and he cuts you short.

"One of the most important words in the GAA is a six letter one; 'c-h-o-i-c-e'," he states.

"All this old tosh about the demands being placed on people and burdens and all of that. Anybody who sees this stuff of no importance, they would be away doing something else.

"If anybody thinks that the likes of me and Eunan are putting in a bit of effort on a volunteer basis, that's nonsense. And if it is a burden for somebody, be it an administrator, a player or a spectator or whatever else, go and pick something else. Don't make your life a misery!"

He adds: "But the reason I think Tyrone's successful financially is that we have loads of people in Tyrone that believe in this stuff and put their hand in their pocket. It's as simple as that."

There are many uncomfortable conversations to be had about money and the role of it in the GAA. Multi-million sponsorship deals and free cars and the like mean that occasionally the lines are blurred.

From time to time you get the occasional flare-up, such as the player discontent in Tyrone about being asked to pay £15 towards the cost of foam rollers and the like, a situation that was quickly extinguished.

But the truth is that players unhappy at making a once-off payment would do well to realise that the magnificent facilities they train in will always require financial upkeep.

Eunan Lindsay, who is the PRO of the county board, readily admits that Garvaghey will never wash it's face in a financial sense.

"We know that this is never going to pay for itself. I think it's a case that what it is used for is enough," he states.

"The county board makes a contribution to it, but at the same time we have the backing of Club Tyrone. We have the backing of the patrons who helped put this thing up. Like everything else, if the money needs to be found, it will be found."

Even since it has been built, the requirements of inter-county footballers and hurlers have moved on.

They have plans now to add a purpose-built strength and conditioning suite to the premises.

There is a mile-long path that cuts through the heather around the site that is a favourite for local walkers and runners. A children's play park has also been added.

Annually, it costs in the region of £170,000 to run. The rates bill alone is £20,000.

That figure never came as a surprise. Before a sod was cut they crunched the figures over and over again.

A former Tyrone ladies footballer, Cathy Gallagher, ran the Queen's PEC, before working in DCU and Trinity sports complexes. She put together a sports development plan for Garvaghey and worked out the likely usage, the staffing levels and so on.

The final figure she arrived at was £175,000 per annum.

For Lindsay, the finance committee, headed up by treasurer Ray McKeown, deserve the utmost praise.

"(They) are extremely diligent. There is the old saying about watching the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves," he says.

"To be fair, some of the discussions we have about money would seem trivial. But at the same time, saving £5,000 a year soon adds up when your outgoings are over £1.3 million a year."

Occasionally, when Tyrone have visitors coming for league matches in Omagh from Cork or Kerry, the gates of Garvaghey are flung open for opposing fans to come and have a look around, grab a cup of tea and some refreshments.

And people at these events will turn to Conway and ask, 'why do you bother with all of this hassle?'

And he replies: "My answer always is, 'we are the lucky ones that can do it'. It might sound crazy but we believe it. Who else has a place like this? Who had the planning to put a thing like this in place? We are the lucky ones.

"A lot of people still think we are crazy.

"Maybe we are. We enjoy that craziness though."

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