IT MAY have taken a global health crisis and the complete cessation of sport, but perhaps the GAA has come up with a feasible solution to its perennial fixtures problem.
Since the GAA announced its decision to run off the club season from July until October 11, prior the resumption of inter-county action, county boards around the country have been frantically trying to put some sort of viable championship structure in place. Appeasing all stakeholders is no easy task.
While the window is unquestionably tight, it nonetheless offers a novel opportunity to complete a club season, from start to finish, without inter-county disruption.
When the ‘club month’ for April was introduced two years ago as part of the GAA’s master fixture plan, it aimed to alleviate the plight of the country’s club players, a sizeable cohort that has been cast into darkness in recent years by the allure of inter-county game. In accordance with the doctrine of most inter-county managers, no man can serve two masters and one’s loyalty must be undivided.
While ‘club month’ was pitched as a resolution to the chaotic calendar, in practice, the initiative offered little more than lip-service to the GAA’s core populace, further dividing the fragmented club season and failing to resolve the months of inactivity at a local level.
Last year, for example, Fermoy stunned Castlehaven in the opening round of the SFC in early April. However, any momentum that they may have gained from that seismic victory had all but dissipated by the time they took to the field to play the Ilen Rovers in the next round at the end of August, 147 days later. Similarly, Sarsfields, in the SHC, played their first championship match on April 19. Their second came 134 days later, August 31.
These are but two examples, as each year, club players at every level of the game are forced to satiate themselves on relatively unimportant league games throughout the summer months, held hostage to the fortunes of their inter-county peers. While the format of the club championships in Cork was altered last year to allow for extra games, the modifications did little to address the problems.
The inaugural staging of the new-fangled senior and intermediate championships should have commenced in April. Encompassing a round-robin format, it still necessitates club players to undergo pre-season training throughout the miserable early months of the year in order to prime themselves for a solitary championship game. By the time the second round of championship games comes around in August, most clubs would in all likelihood have been in training for the best part of six months.
The inter-county season in its current guise, comprising preseason competitions, leagues and championships, almost exclusively occupies two-thirds of the calendar year. The Cork hurlers and footballers began their 2020 seasons at the back-end of 2019, with respective victories over Kerry either side of Christmas. Their ultimate goal, before all plans went out the window, was to still be involved eight months later, in Croke Park in mid-August.
The Cork hurlers began their campaign in the pre-season Munster Senior Hurling League, in order to prepare themselves for the actual league, which just so happened to contain four of their five Munster neighbours. All of which was in preparation for the Munster Championship, which of course, is in itself a league! Can anyone honestly contend that there isn’t fat to be trimmed somewhere along the line here?
Without delving too far into the debate on championship re-structuring, it is worth arguing that the All-Ireland finals, in both codes, could easily be played before the August Bank Holiday weekend. By scrapping the worthless preseason competitions and the superfluous league add-ons, the lead-up to championship could be condensed into just over two months.
This would allow for a complete moratorium on GAA action in January and act a definitive endpoint to the season. It would also permit third-level teams to avail of exclusive access to players for the month of February.
At the start of the year, GAA director Tom Ryan warned against the ever-increasing level of spending on inter-county teams as the 2019 total rose to almost €30 million. Last year, Cork’s team expenses rose to €107k (70% of which was absorbed by the senior teams), an alarming figure for an amateur organisation. Shortening the inter-county season from eight months to five would assuage a lot of the financial burden.
The club scene would also benefit greatly. If All-Ireland finals were fixed for the end of July, club championship fixtures could be firmly set in stone, running from August through to October, with provincial and national competitions concluding before Christmas. Under the new club championship formats, the winning team, in both hurling and football, has to play seven games, at a maximum. Three months would provide ample time, without inter-county interference, to run off these games, even making allowances for dual commitments.
Holidays, J1s, weddings and other life events could then be planned in advance. Essentially, like in soccer or rugby, club players would regain control of their own lives.
Club league games could wait until the clocks go back before being run off over four months in conjunction with the inter-county season. Sure, club teams would be shorn of their most valuable players throughout the league but is that really much different to the current situation?
A separated club and county season has been mooted many times before. As far back as 2017, a radical report entitled ‘Towards 2034 – the 150th anniversary of the GAA’, envisioning what the organisation might look like in 2034 and proposed that the two seasons should be distinctly scheduled ‘in order to enhance the playing experience of club players’. The doyen of hurling, Brian Cody has also advocated segregation of club and county, as has Joe Brolly on countless occasions.
If nothing else, the Covid cloud may have bestowed frustrated club players with a silver lining, by forcing the hand of the GAA. Yet recent reports of the Cork senior hurlers meeting with county board officials to express their dissatisfaction with the proposed county championship format has demonstrated that the tail will not be deterred from its efforts to wag the dog.
Whatever happens this year, concessions will have to be made on both sides. Next year will be far more telling.