KEVIN O’Donovan has been on the executive of Cork County Board for just over seven years now, going from coaching officer (2014-17) to vice-chairman (2018-19) to secretary/CEO (December 2019-date).
It has been a time of upheaval on a number of fronts and there is no doubt that further challenges await when GAA action resumes later this year, at a date unknown. Right now, the downtime is being used efficiently and productively, but that doesn’t mean that O’Donovan, the board and the rest of the staff are leading a life of leisure.
“No, because we have Páirc Uí Chaoimh and there’s a heavy workload there,” he says.
“Then, I suppose our teams are still all actually preparing, albeit on Zoom or individually.
“Our staff are still all working, putting plans in place, and we’ve plans for the coaching staff on the ground.is up and running, we’re making plans for 2022 with the stadium and we’ve the planning application in for the stadium.
“I don’t know how we thought we’d survive without games but staff-wise, we’re flat out. Maybe some of the stuff we’re dealing with is more long-term, as well – it doesn’t feel it at times but we’re looking at coaching models and coaching structures. That’s all stuff that you sacrifice when you’re knee-deep in games, so it’s no harm to get a bit of perspective on that.
“Then there’s Rebels’ Bounty, which has filled that gap for clubs, who would have had zero activity otherwise.”
Rebels’ Bounty, the successor to the long-running Cork GAA Clubs’ Draw, came in for criticism before it even had a chance to get off the ground as some clubs decried the targets needed to reach. However, it has proven to be a huge success, with many clubs now enjoying the benefits of being able to keep all takings over and above the targets.
“We’ve been here before,” O’Donovan says, “with the county championships and various other issues over the last number of years.
"It doesn’t stop it being a good idea, but it takes a while for it to gestate if you want it to be a success. That’s the way I see this.
“Go back to the county championships – we received similar criticisms on all sorts of issues, but if the idea is good, it will survive, and it’s no harm for it to be tested, too. What’s wrong with scrutiny, what’s wrong with criticism?
“Is it just going to make it stronger in the end? That’s my idea on this – it’s whether you can hold your nerve when the heat is on is the question.
“Look how tight the executive was with the county championship proposals two years ago and with Rebels’ Bounty. That’s what you need, that’s leadership, and you try to bring the people with you.”
Is it frustrating that patience can’t be preached beforehand and that opposition has to be overcome at the start?
“We all get frustrated,” he says, but I think it’s the best way of road-testing ideas.
“All ideas get shaped a little bit as you go, and the opposition to Rebels’ Bounty forced us to communicate with the clubs on a case-by-case basis.
“We’ve a support committee that has drilled down deep into a significant number of clubs and I would say that the executive has learned more about the clubs of Cork in the last six weeks than in my time on the board.
“We’ve been blown away by what some clubs have done over the last couple of months, with their organisational skills. Once the penny dropped – ‘If we pass our quota, then this is a game-changer,’ – they just grabbed it.
“Once they pass that target, it isn’t our draw anymore – it’s a club fundraiser, cost-free. As a member of Kilmeen-Kilbree, I got the text saying the target had been passed and everything else would go to the club. The minute that text went out, the sales rocketed.
“That was always our intention, but we found it hard to communicate that.”
There are other issues to attend to. Cork football manager Ronan McCarthy is appealing a suspension relating to the breaking of the training ban – the suspension is a personal one and, in any case, O’Donovan cannot comment while the appeal is ongoing.
There was the Sports Direct sponsorship deal (see here) and, as ever, the stadium remains a large consideration, with the current situation denying the board a sizeable income stream. There are some silver linings, however.
“What [the Covid-19 pandemic] has done is that it has allowed us to take stock,” O’Donovan says.
“In commercial terms, look what it does to your meetings and events and to concerts. Look what it did to matchday rental or our arrangements with sponsors or naming rights – everything parked because of Covid.
“With all that said, I see more progress in the last three months with the stadium. A load of snags sorted, a load of big issues in terms of finance and management of the facility itself, the planning application in terms of improving the entrance and access. Would all of that have happened if we had games on? Probably, but maybe taking three or four times as long.
“I feel that we’re using the time productively. There were a whole load of issues on the desk with the stadium and we’ve cleared them. There’s a massive clean of the building that’s ongoing – I think when people come back, they’ll be surprised, it’ll look freshened up a bit.
“Then, we’re putting in place big plans for 2022, hopefully scheduling out for a post-Covid world.”
It’s a world that can seem elusive, but, while the GAA have yet to be in a position where clarity can be given as to the return of inter-county or club activity, O’Donovan isn’t panicking.
“You look at the inter-county programme going back and it’s worrying, but we know that we have a 12-week county championship programme. We know that the dual clubs need more weekends, last year we slotted in one free weekend and we need to have a couple of those scattered around.
“We also have to finish last year’s championships, the junior will have to finish rapid-fire once we get a window as the divisions can’t grade this year until we finish last year.
“All in all, we need 14 weeks, we could do with 15, to be honest. That’s kind of my touchstone, so every time I hear a date move, I look at that window. Of course, it’s a concern, but I’d be very slow to give up the format.
“Last year, it was the one shining light – even with no supporters, the return of competitive games, the streaming, we cottoned on to something there.
“That’s the way I’d look at it – I don’t watch the news every night panicking, I don’t spend every day asking people what they think will happen next. I’ve become placid on some of that because we’ll return when it’s safe to do so and we’ll adjust.
“I’d like to think that we’ll keep that window but if not, we’ll come up with another plan. I don’t want to be government-bashing, saying, ‘Let us back tomorrow.’ I’d rather leave that to the experts and we’ll find windows and we’ll adjust accordingly.”
In his earlier days on the executive, O’Donovan ruffled some feathers with radical ideas such as circulating a 25-point plan for the improvement of Cork GAA. Is he still the same person, or have some renegade tendencies been tempered?
“I hope there’s no difference, I’m sure a lot of people would say that I’ve taken the soup and I’m worse than anyone!” he laughs.
“My view on that is, let’s look at the issues of the last couple of years. We took drastic efforts to rectify the pitch, look at, bringing in people who were never involved before; look at the county championships, look at Rebels’ Bounty, look at the plans for the county leagues – I’d still hope there’s a renegade in there somewhere, or someone open to new ideas, but you’ve got to do it through the system.
“You’ve got to build support and get CCC approval, executive approval, county committee approval.
“I’m certain that there are people who’d say I’ve changed since I’ve gone inside but I’m only looking at the issues, rather than it being some broader narrative about me going over to the dark side. It’s not like that in real life.”