Long empty road ahead for all GAA club players now out of the championship

Long empty road ahead for all GAA club players now out of the championship

An empty main stand at Co-Op Superstores Cork Premier Intermediate Hurling Championship game at Páirc Uí Chaoimh last weekend when Castlelyons knocked out Inniscarra. Picture: Larry Cummins

WHEN TG4’s Mícheál Ó Domhnaill interviewed Dessie Hutchinson after last Sunday’s Waterford county hurling final, O’Domhnall asked Hutchinson if Ballygunner were still harbouring regret over their Munster club final defeat to Borris-Ileigh last November.

“Definitely,” he said. “It hit us hard, and we said that we’d never let that happen us again. At the start of the year we had a meeting and that was our sole focus, to get back to a Munster final, and to go on and win it.” 

This Ballygunner generation have made a habit of turning causes into crusades. This machine was constructed from the broken parts of the one which crashed and burned late on against Passage in the 2013 county final. 

Hard calls were made afterwards regarding the management but seven successive titles later fully justified that new direction.

Ballygunner's Dessie Hutchinson and Callum O'Neill of Passage. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo
Ballygunner's Dessie Hutchinson and Callum O'Neill of Passage. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Even before their latest period of dominance, Ballygunner’s ambitions have always stretched far beyond Waterford. No other club has contested as many Munster club finals as Ballygunner (11) but, of their nine defeats, last year’s one-point loss to Borris-Ileigh was one of their most devasting. 

The disappointment looked to have added more poison to Ballygunner’s bite this year but not having a Munster club campaign has left the Waterford champions with an itch they cannot scratch.

After the game on Sunday, their manager Darragh O’Sullivan remained keen that the situation could be revisited. “There may be something at a later point when they get inter-county out of the way,” he said. 

“Look, hopefully the GAA might come to something. They’ve a lot to deal with at the moment and I don’t think putting something else on their table at this point in time would make any sense. Maybe early next year they would be able to play something from a provincial perspective.” 

That is unlikely to happen but, apart from their county players, what do Ballygunner do next?

In one sense, most clubs are in the same boat, particularly those which have already exited their club championships. True, they may have been playing championship in good weather and on excellent surfaces – something they have rarely done in July and August. 

But a void is much harder to fill in the autumn and winter than it is during the summer months.

In an Irish Examiner podcast this week, former Waterford manager Derek McGrath made a smart suggestion on how to keep club players involved during the inter-county season.

“I don't see also why you can't have interlinking between county and club in terms of the organisation of championships,” said McGrath. “I know it’s been tried before, but Munster leagues where you have a Limerick team, a Cork team, a Waterford team. And link in with the weekends of those round-robin games.” 

McGrath was thinking more in the long term, where clubs still preparing early during a proposed split season, could get some added preparatory work against clubs from other counties during the round-robin provincial senior hurling championships.

That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon though. Any interlinking would be difficult to pull off too in 2020, especially with the restrictions still in place around dressin grooms and travel to matches. But there are still huge benefits - especially in terms of mental and physical health - to keeping players active during such an uncertain time.

Clubs don’t necessarily have to return to training in big groups, or begin a pre-season in the autumn. But the concept of keeping players busy in late autumn would be more about giving players a focus they might not otherwise have at that time of the year.

Players want to play games but, if that outlet is no longer there, other sports will provide it. That may have already always been the case for many club players during the winter, where they would line out for the local soccer team. But that was never really a popular option for GAA players during the autumn. 

Some counties may have had leagues to finish or localised competitions to run but, most club players were still locked into a GAA mindset while there was some life still left in the season.

The season has had a totally different rhythm and beat this year but the biggest angle to this debate now is momentum. For the first time that anyone can remember, clubs have generated a rolling stone of sustained impetus and forceful energy around their championships.

Because everyone is working off the same starting points – having all their players around, being able to consistently train and prepare together – most club championships have never been as keenly contested. 

With the exception of Ballygunner’s rout of Passage last Sunday, many of the games shown by TG4 and RTÉ have provided brilliant and dramatic entertainment.

Anytime a club is knocked out of the championship, most people in the community feel low for a while, especially if they go deep into the championship. Yet county semi-finals or finals are normally played in late autumn and, before long, minds soon turn to the New Year. However, the new season seems longer away than ever now, especially when nobody knows what that season may look like.

Collective gym or yoga sessions indoors, even in small groups, won’t be possible this winter for club players still keen to train together. Challenge games won’t be easy to organise. 

In theory anyway, clubs will be reluctant to travel to play a challenge game in another county, especially when they can’t have a shower afterwards.

But within reason, and within the proper guidelines, clubs could still try to keep the momentum – and the feelgood factor of the 2020 club championships – going with some smart and intelligent planning for the coming months.

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