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Clon's Maurice Shanley goes high with Newcestown's Fionn Keane during the Cork SFC at Dunmanway last month. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Clon's Maurice Shanley goes high with Newcestown's Fionn Keane during the Cork SFC at Dunmanway last month. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
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Too many Cork GAA players are getting little in the way of meaningful championship action

HERE we go, part two. 

It seems to be basically every year now where the local football championships scuttle back into view after the summer break and the same questions crop up over and over. 

There may be some reason out there for starting championship in early April but nobody’s managed to find it yet and there’s something fairly remarkable, and not in a good way, about the fact we get to reference these extended breaks between matches every year as crazy when really they’ve become fairly normal now. Bishopstown beat Douglas on the first weekend of April and play Clon this Sunday. 

That’s a 22-week gap, filled with five league games (plus hurling of course which is another story, as they were out in the senior hurling championship last weekend and now have had barely a week to prepare for football). 

Skibb played April 14, play Nemo this weekend and again that’s 21 weeks, with say more than 40 group training sessions most likely, five league games and not a lot else to show for a lost summer.

If either of these teams lose this weekend, it’s a fairly difficult ask to locate any meaningful purpose or learnings to a campaign of more than eight months for two championship games. 

Repeat that schedule a few years in a row and you start to get the idea on why exactly it is that clubs and players might find it difficult to generate the kind of momentum and rhythm and form-lines that might lead to improving standards across football here in Cork.

There are consequences that we’ve seen in action. 

In much the same way that how the Premier League developed has hampered England (and Ireland) by offering fewer opportunities for players to simply play big games with elite clubs, Cork football has suffered for its club players just not getting to play enough high-intensity matches against top teams. 

Genuinely, every single person I’ve spoken to in the last five or six years involved in some form in club football in Cork has expressed dissatisfaction with its format and questioned its ability to provide the necessary amount and quality of games. 

John Hayes wrote a column back in 2012 pointing out its flaws, Paddy Kelly wrote almost the same thing this spring. 

Ballincollig's Paddy Kelly. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Ballincollig's Paddy Kelly. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Only recently we spoke to Donncha O’Connor who made an interesting point about clubs at various levels in Cork football in a kind of limbo with no ambition of winning a competition but no real danger of relegation and how that stale mentality filters into groups of players in an entire club who spend five or six years or more never really developing. 

How many clubs really attack a championship, say the senior football title, really believing they can win it? 

There are two strands here. 

One, history suggests it’s a fairly closed shop and that can’t really be good for fresh players and ideas and coaches and teams to emerge. 

Since 2000, Nemo and Castlehaven have shared 13 of 18 senior titles and only five other teams (including the Carbery division and UCC) have won one each. 

There’s no real sense that a young team would be able to progress through the grades and really have a crack at senior. 

Carbery Rangers were the only new club to emerge in the last 15 years and even their eventual senior win took years and years of near-misses and final and semi-final defeats to eventually make the breakthrough. Ballincollig won one but again had been knocking on the door of quarter-finals for several years.

Two, even if an ambitious club targeted it from way out, the format is stacked against them and clubs just don’t get enough games to make proper year-on-year progress. 

Imagine even a premier intermediate or lower senior club that knows it has a good batch of young fellas coming though, who’ve maybe won an U21 county or two, and sets itself an internal target of competing in a county final in the next three to five years. 

The club can’t be sure enough that their players will get to experience the edgy, competitive environment they need to grow into better players and become a better team. 

Limerick won the All-Ireland hurling this summer but there’s a real possibility that the new format allowed them turn into an All-Ireland winning group over the course of all their games against all the top sides and it’s actually probable that they wouldn’t have won an All-Ireland under an old layout. 

Look at how much Cork players like Darragh Fitzgibbon and Mark Coleman have evolved just from getting to experience five or six years game time in two seasons. 

Mark Coleman. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Mark Coleman. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Now imagine what could be achieved with a group of players from Skibb or Bishopstown or Douglas or Valley Rovers (we could name any club here really) who were given at least five or six guaranteed championship games every year against teams at an equal level - again, what’s anybody gaining from a lot of these horribly one-sided scorelines popping up in rounds one and three especially. 

The absolute priority for a club coach surely has to be that a group of players are better at the end of the year than at the start but that’s an awfully big ask when there’s no coherent run of games to build towards or you’re losing a bunch of players for the whole summer to abroad or disinterest.

Clubs will have their own thoughts on this – some have mentioned return to straight knockout championship at this time of year, some want league-type formats, others are more interested in getting the games out of the way than actively looking to improve overall standards. 

The new football committee has guys with experience of recent club championships for all its strengths and weaknesses. 

I recall being at an information gathering meeting with Conor Counihan a few years back where he very strongly emphasised the focus on building a strong competitive club scene. 

Agendas will have to take a backseat now and it’s just about possible that the reality that something must change has finally hit here in Cork. 

There are some decent looking games this weekend (Ross v Ballincollig looks a belter for starters) but they’re happening in isolation mostly. 

Here we go again.