PROPOSED SITE A general view of Lough Lannagh in Castlebar.
IT’S three years ago this month that plans for a €5 million Mayo GAA Training Centre at Lough Lannagh, Castlebar, in collaboration with Mayo County Council, were revealed.
In August 2018, the-then Mayo GAA chairman, Mike Connelly, said plans for a Mayo GAA training centre in the county town ‘have now become a reality’.
His unannounced presence at a recent Mayo GAA Board meeting, seeking to attempt to ask his successor as chairman, Liam Moffatt, about the current status of the project tells you how much has changed in three years.
Right now, it would appear that the same eagerness for the project does not exist in the corridors of power of Mayo GAA as it did in 2018.
Privately, some GAA sources will confirm that Mayo GAA are unlikely to be able to fund the project in the foreseeable future, due to the impact of Covid-19 on their finances and the elephant in the room — the €8.5 million debt still outstanding for the MacHale Park redevelopment.
But whether that means the Lough Lannagh project is dead in the water is another matter entirely.
Mayo GAA and Mayo County Council – who jointly announced the plans in 2018 – are currently in discussions about the project. They met in July and are due to meet again later this month, or early next month ahead of the next meeting of Mayo County Council on September 13, after county councillors requested an update on the project.
It may perhaps be telling that there have been changes at the top of both organisations since 2018. Connelly has been replaced by Moffatt as chairman of Mayo GAA while Kevin Kelly is the new Chief Executive at Mayo County Council, taking over from Peter Hynes.
Ultimately, the debate can be distilled into two related questions – is the Training Centre needed and, if so, is it affordable?
We spoke to numerous people involved in recent weeks, both on and, mainly, off the record.
There is broad, but not universal, agreement that the project is a worthy one.
There are, at some stages in the year, a shortage of playing pitches for training and games for Mayo’s county teams, at all grades in men’s and ladies football, hurling and camogie, as well as for clubs, both underage and adults.
A facility at Lough Lannagh would no doubt help to alleviate that. And there is the argument put forward by Cllr Cyril Burke at the July meeting of Castlebar Municipal District that if smaller counties like Offaly and Sligo have a Centre of Excellence, then Mayo should have one too.
HOWEVER, Connacht GAA Secretary John Prenty argues that two of the most successful counties in the GAA, Dublin and Kilkenny, do not have centres of excellence, instead relying on relationships with secondary schools in the case of Kilkenny and third level in Dublin’s case.
There is, he argues, a lot of untapped facilities in second-level schools in Mayo, often idle from April to September, that could be better utilised to address pitch shortages.
More fundamentally, he says that funding is the biggest issue in the GAA right now as it grapples with the financial implications of the pandemic.
“Covid has put a stop to everything in terms of infrastructural development across the GAA,” he told The Mayo News.
He added that he does not see grant aid for such projects from Croke Park being available ‘for the foreseeable future’.
Given that comment, a point put forward at a Mayo GAA meeting in March 2020, just before lockdown, becomes even more instructive.
Presenting a report on the Lough Lannagh project, Assistant Treasurer Michael Diskin said that no final decision would be made without the full support and ‘sign off’ of Mayo GAA clubs, the Connacht Council and Croke Park.
With the impacts of Covid curtailing Croke Park’s financial support of such projects – and that support did not appear to be too strong pre-Covid – it is hard to envisage Kevin Kelly standing up at the September meeting of Mayo County Council and revealing that Mayo GAA and the council have agreed to go ahead as planned with the Lough Lannagh project.
But what happens next is another question.
Sources in Mayo GAA say there is ‘support in principle’ for the project, but add that view in the upper echelons of the Board is that they cannot financially commit to it at present.
Private concerns have also been expressed about the quality of the land on the lakeside site.
There are hopes in Mayo GAA that Mayo County Council might decide to progress the project financially on their own and that Mayo GAA could be ‘anchor tenants’.
However, anyone familiar with the frequent discussions around insufficient budgets at council meetings will know such hopes are faint.
Might the purchase proceed with a view to reviewing the project in a more hospitable economic climate?
Does the project simply collapse? Or might another sporting organisation in the town or county see an opportunity to step in?
What is for sure is that the plans announced in 2018 for the first pitch at Lough Lannagh to be opened in 2021 won’t happen now.