Paul Fitzpatrick spoke to GAA Handball President Dessie Keegan as he faces into the first year of his three-year tenure as Uachtarán.
What made you decide to run for president?
I was in a car accident in December 2018 and this practically ended my career at the top level. After licking my wounds for a while and generally feeling sorry for myself I started to get back involved with handball. It was during this time that my father got sick and also the Clár Proposals had been released and many handball people, myself included, were getting involved in the debate around change etc.
So I saw first hand with Dad ultimately passing away that you know what, I can stand on the sidelines and give out and do nothing or I can get involved and try and made a difference as Dad would have always said to me down through the years to get involved and speak up, so that's what I did!
What are the key issues you hope to address?
Developing and delivering a Strategic Plan is job number one. Everything else will flow from this document. Within that document I hope we come up with new ideas around the Clár, reducing the number of All-Irelands on offer; however, increasing the number of tournaments for various grades. Officials’ burnout is a serious issue we have, and it is something that perhaps many players do not think of.
Obviously, I played the game for years and hand on heart I took for granted the work that is done behind the scenes as when you are playing you’re caught up in your training and preparing yourself for events etc.
What you do not see are officials who are dealing with issues morning, noon, and night all year around to try and ensure the players actually have events! It was often said to me that without the players then handball is dead... well believe me when I tell you as I am the other side now, without the officials, handball is dead! So, the moral of the story is we both need each other.
I'm not promising the sun, moon and stars, I think the best way to proceed is to tackle four to five issues (Clár, volunteer development etc) and do them at 100% rather than us trying to take on 15 things and only do it at 40%. Quality over quantity.
What impact will the new centre have on the game?
I think the stature of having a National Centre right beside Croke Park is so important. It shows the world first and foremost that we are also the GAA. The centre will remind key GAA staff that we have an amazing centre right beside you and it may just make life easier when we go to them with development plans etc. It creates an energy in the room.
Obviously on the other side of things for handball people, it will be our home. The courts are amazing, especially the 40x20 show court which just stops you in your tracks when you first walk in as you will just go ‘wow’! When [National Manager] John Kelly was giving me the tour, I wanted nothing more than to get into the alley and start hitting some balls around. So, for the players it will be incredible.
However, I think most importantly of all, I feel the new centre will just bring a positive buzz into handball people. We cannot hide away from the fact that there has been issues down through the years. These issues, sadly, have led to some long-term friendships ending over disputes to do with the old centre etc. This has really saddened me as through college etc I have been in the old centre for years and years and I've an excellent relationship with everyone.
In the end the new centre is built but there have been fallouts across the board, mistrusts and misconceptions have filtered through handball and the GAA. We need now to move on from that stuff. Everyone, and I mean everyone, felt that they were right at one point or another. Everyone did what they felt was right. We need to now shake hands and reach out to old comrades and remember one very important thing - we are all handballers!
How did you first get into the sport?
Two friends of mine, Declan and Barry Hough, twins, brought me up to the court. I gave up the game loads of times and for around three years I was a bad player to be honest!
What is your fondest memory in handball?
It has to 2009, winning the Senior Doubles with Joe [McCann]. To beat Paul and Michael was incredible. Very few players have ever done that so that was special. Winning the Worlds 19 & Under in Chicago also stands out as the talent in the field was intense to say the least!
Another special memory was winning the collegiate team event with DIT in America. Just seeing the sheer joy on Padraig Gaffney’s (who was the team manager) face when the last point was won is something I’ll never forget.
Where would you like the game to be in three years' time?
I would like to see people enjoying the game socially more. I just feel that perhaps things have gotten quite serious the last few years. It’s hard to put your finger on it but people just seem somewhat irritated etc. I can easily rhyme off fancy goals and objectives to you, but I would be a big believer that if you are not enjoying something then everything else will be a slog.
So, my attitude would be start enjoying things, then naturally good things will come from that. It is my role I feel to bring positivity and energy into the position and hopefully at all levels this rubs off then good things like more development officers, better events, more coaching, better facilities etc will flow.
What would represent a successful tenure for you?
Seeing professional development officers located in each province is crucial. More well-run tournaments for people to play in and finally, once and for all, having clearly defined seasons for codes!
The thorny issue of grades is always a hot topic in handball. Where do you stand on this?
I have made my position clear here to people that we need to cut back several grades at All-Ireland level. I mentioned earlier the difference in being a player as opposed to be an official now and this is where I know things now that I would never know as a player.
I am going to be very blunt here now as I've been told very directly by major funders and other key stakeholders (media) some of the following things:
• "If you live long enough, a person can win an All-Ireland handball medal"
• "Everyone gets an All-Ireland handball medal"
• "If I togged out at the Worlds and never played handball before I'd probably get some sort of medal"
There are some of the things I have heard from very important people that don't play handball, but we need them to develop our game. The perception is not good, being honest, and I need to work to change that. However obviously it is not as simple as ‘cut, cut, cut’ just to keep some happy.
As a President, and this is the same for most senior officials, you get to have a "helicopter" view of our sport. You can see all sides, all the issues etc. So, in my mind I am trying to balance the wishes of the players, officials, funders, media etc.
Most B players are telling me they want to play more tournaments and are not pushed about All-Irelands. Officials are telling me they are burnt out with all the fixtures all year around. Other stakeholders are using comments like above! So, something must be tried to try and create change that will bring the game forward. So, as I've spoken about, I've put together a strategic planning group with massive handball experience across all areas so I will see what they develop. However, at this moment I'd like to see the following:
- 60x30 to start earlier and finish earlier
- Wallball, to include a Wallball championship, to begin in September in line with schools as this is the future and we can maximise this if we engage more with the schools. During these few months (Sept-Nov) we would have Wallball tournaments, the nationals, the championship and then hosting a stop on the European one wall tour.
- If we have no Bs going to All-Irelands and not having say 45 A (so 40-50) then we need to offer more tournaments for these B players. So, in effect we could look to run three major 40x20 tournaments for people, three major 60x30 tournaments and of course the Wallball calendar above. So you’re saying to B players ‘okay, you won't have an All-Ireland anymore’ ; however, you will have three major tournaments where you’re playing people from different parts of the country and so on, thus bringing in a more social side of handball but freeing a lot of time on the Clár.
- I should also add that we need to come up with a system of how people can qualify for the A championship so say a ranking system that players can go up or down... something like what tennis uses.
- We need to consider having "Open" A championships in Masters grades. So, for example, if say there were 12 entries throughout Ireland in the Over 60s A singles but six are from Leinster, two from Munster, three from Connaught and one from Ulster ,then we should say ‘okay, let’s have an open draw so a person from Connaught might play a person from Leinster in the first round’.
- All these games could be held in HQ for example and make a day of it and these players are mixing with their peers from other provinces etc thus again this is developing a sense of community and enjoyment. You need to remember these fixtures would be easier done if we were not having to cater for the Bs on the same day.
- Hardball. I played it for years and we need to face up to some hard facts here. Hardball is tipping your hat to the past and rightly so. Players do not really train for it, they just play. So, to respect tradition and our past I would propose just running two events in Hardball - Minor and Open singles.
- I am saying to people over and over that we all need to compromise. All codes. Some may not be happy, some will and so on but if we do not make a move soon then we won't evolve, and then major problems will come.
We see sports all around us evolving all the time and for the better. Life has changed. We all know that coach who spent all day at the alley and brought the players everywhere. In my case that was John Gaffney. Well, those men and women are becoming a thing of the past. People go on more holidays now more than ever, unlike the past.
Younger people are less inclined to become officials as they see it as a mountain of work so we not bringing in new blood. The point being, life has changed, but handball has not really! So, we need to have a serious hard look at things and try new things to evolve and grow
Where do you see handball slotting in in terms of the wider GAA family?
I work in the education sector and Health and Wellbeing is massive now in schools. It is in the school curriculum now and schools are crying out for "sports than assist young people in their coordination"... that's handball!
So, the GAA see handball as that code that can be the GAA in the schools on a wider basis. We can really develop our game in this area (as mentioned earlier about moving Wallball to school time of the year). Other than that, what I would say here is let's not worry too much about slotting in anywhere. Let us get our own house in order and you will find everything else will take care of itself after that.
What can be done to assist clubs?
We need more professional staff calling to clubs and helping. Darragh and Pauric cover the whole country which is a massive workload! So, we need to make it more local and personal. So, a development officer in each province is something I want to see happening.
We all can be guilty of not engaging in various events developed by the office such as Club Forum, so people should do their best to attend these events as you will learn loads and meet other likeminded people that can help you. The event was a success but if new people keep coming then this will help.
Engaging with Club Iontach will help clubs as well as the best thing I think this will do is have clubs looking for help within their clubs. So, to develop this point further I think many of us down the years are guilty of not really asking people for help. That is an Irish thing but more so in handball! Some of the most successful clubs we have now in Ireland are the ones that have the parents of juveniles engaged doing stuff in the club.
I've always found when I asked people for help, they did help. Spread the workload on people. Say for example the position of club secretary. Someone might be scared of the workload that comes with this job. So why not split the load, so one person keeps an eye on emails, one on registrations etc?
This might be more appealing to people than taking on the whole load, and this applies to county level also... try sharing the load.
Another thing is we seem to always want handball only people in roles. Why? Sure, give a new person leeway and they will learn it as they go. So, ask that parent could they co-ordinate the coaches and juveniles. Ask the 19-year-old student to take care of the Facebook page or put them in charge of watching out for email correspondence. Get anyone you can involved as most people are just waiting to be asked.
What can be done to generate more revenue?
Increased numbers are key. Any sponsor will always ask how many people will see this etc. So again, therefore we need to tailor our one wall season to coincide with the school calendar so a huge volume of new people will be introduced to our sport. Now any handballer you talk to will always tell you "I got addicted early" so can you imagine if we start the young people in one wall in school...they then play various events in one wall thus getting "addicted" like we did? Then they filter to the 40x20 clubs thus boosting their numbers and so on to 60x30. That way we have a genuine chance of keeping our players. Our current system? Some young people are introduced to one wall in September and the first major event in one wall is in July the following year! We are losing a huge number of players quickly. So, we need to correct that for starters.
Media. We need to start getting handball out there. This comes back to getting someone in your club to start getting things on social media for a start. An example here is in our own club - Eunice Moran came in and all of a sudden, she got our Facebook page up and running properly, got notices out to the community and now things are getting picked up by radio etc.
At a national level we need to address this by linking into the GAA PR department more so they, for example, might give us more support (which is being worked on). GAA Handball has no-one employed directly just to manage PR. Let us think about that for a second. Not one staff member in our office is employed to deal with PR. Each of them takes it on outside of their contracts just to see it done and they are doing their best as don't forget, they actually still have to do what is in their contracts.
I have often made the comment that we expect John and the team to be PR experts, rules experts, sponsorship experts, development experts and so on! We are seriously understaffed, and the team are going above and beyond from everything I see.
Darragh, for example, is our national development officer. He was employed in that role several years ago. However, he also leads on Twitter, Facebook, senior ranking etc so as you can see Darragh and everyone are going way above what they were meant to be just doing. Can we all say the same in our day jobs?
Since we originally spoke, I’m sure some of your plans have been impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown.
How will Covid impact handball now going forward?
I think it is important to say at the start now that we are at the end of May. I’m not a medical expert, however I’d like to share with everyone what we are trying to work towards. As most people would know, the GAA have set up an expert group to develop a return to play document.
We gave that group an idea of how handball could return so the feedback from them was positive however they are going to give an overall guide to the GAA people soon and then GAA Handball will develop our own document that is specific to us. After all, we know our game better than anyone. When we have our document done, we will give this to that GAA Covid group and this will then be passed or not by their experts. Also, the government also have a return to sport working group so they will also assist us.
So, let me offer my own honest opinion – do I see handball being played in 2020? YES. I must stress however that this is my own personal opinion. I feel, if things stay positive and cases keep going down, that we could see a softball championship starting at the beginning of September. That would mean people getting back into the court to start training by the end of July. Why I’m thinking this is because if you look at the government guidelines, we see that boxing can restart around the first week in August give or take. So, we would be similar to boxing in lots of ways.
The reason I am suggesting softball first is because the court is very big and singles players don’t actually get that close to each other so maintaining a safe distance happens quite naturally in the big court.
Perhaps look up some YouTube footage of singles softball games and you will see that the players don’t get that close to each other. Then in terms of the gallery I would be saying one person comes with each player. Then a referee. That’s three people in the gallery and two inside the court. That’s a huge space for a handful of people so perhaps this is realistic. I’ve to stress at this point that we may have some very difficult choices to make on a possible return.
What I mean here is, and again this is my personal opinion (we will be guided by the experts), we may have to reduce the amount of grades on offer, shorter games, quicker season and perhaps a referees timeout every 15 minutes for a couple of minutes to observe HSE advice and so forth.
Everything is on the table and I’ve no problem in bringing practical solutions to Ard Comhairle for discussion and voting. Handball for the rest of 2020 will not be the same as usual, I think most people will know that’s a given.
I’d like to see a Wallball championship run after the softball as there won’t be a nationals setting for this year due to the restrictions so running a reduced grade championship could allow time for whatever softball players are in the 40x20 finals to prepare for their 40x20, plus also offering Wallball to the people who want that code. I feel that is only fair.
Then towards the very end of the year start playing off our singles 40x20 finals. This again could look different as we probably cannot have all of these played in Kingscourt so we may have to spread the grades out over a few weekends and so on. I would not have a problem in finishing some grades in early January if needs be as most 40x20 people are used to playing handball that time of year anyway.
To be honest I struggle to see how doubles can be played. I’m not ruling it out; however, I can see this as a problem as players do get very close to each other here. We will bring everything to the experts and let them guide us.
As I spoke about in our pre-Covid interview, developing a Strategic Plan was my number one goal for this year. That is on track however we have had to be creative in how this is being developed as we couldn’t have any face to face meetings with the Strategic group.
So a draft plan is almost ready for the handball strategic group to look at and feedback etc. We then are hoping that this is then sent out to members to feed into it and then it will be brought back to the Strategic group for final discussions.
I’m really excited about the people that are on this group, they all are handball people and come from all codes, across many grades both male and female, and they just love the game. When I spoke to each of them privately to ask would they join the group the passion they have for the game was second to none. Some really good ideas were even coming out in them chats so hopefully this comes across in the document.
I hate using this word, BUT we have a major problem coming. Due to Covid, the GAA’s funding is under serious pressure. No one knows yet how much the GAA stand to lose however its safe to say some of the ideas I had outline pre Covid could be difficult to implement anytime soon. John Kelly in fairness is working closely with the GAA on key strategic points to try and ensure that what we put into the document has a chance of happening over the next three years.
For example, pre-Covid, the GAA were very positive towards having more GAA Handball development officers, however the vast majority of GAA staff have taken a 55% salary cut so how do we turn around and ask for more development officers at the moment? However, over the three years it might be possible if a recovery went well and so on.
Other than the strategic plan which will cover a three-year period, I feel we just need to operate in the short term on the rest of handball matters. We are going to try and get our player back playing in a safe way and we also need to keep our officials safe as well. Ard Comhairle will make the decisions that ensures what is happening should be happening.
We take our lead from the experts as life is far more important than sport.