AFTER the Cork hurlers won their epic All-Ireland semi-final with Waterford in 2006, Brian Corcoran took manager, John Allen, aside in the dressing room.
Corcoran explained that there was a month to get things right for a potential three-in-a-row and the club games fixed for the following weekend would have to be called off. Allen was unsure, but Corcoran spoke to the players and Donal Óg Cusack called a vote. All the players agreed that they needed a clean run at the All-Ireland final: The clubs could wait. By the following day, Allen was pleading the case for the games to go, for the good of Cork hurling.
The club games weren’t played; there were no quarter-finals until the last week of September. Cork lost the final and some players admitted they’d had too long a lead-in. Corcoran and Cusack played the senior county final against each other that October. Everybody thought they were doing the right thing and everybody was in some form.
If there’s a tendency to simplify the club-county conundrum as some kind of battle for the soul of GAA, this is just one of hundreds of examples that show it’s too nuanced and complex for that. It’s possible to want to do the best by clubs and make the county team as good as it can be, but, and here’s the killer, it’s very difficult to achieve.
The populist call has been for club action to take priority this year, that it’s the time for some reckoning on the inter-county scene, amid some nostalgic ideal of knockout club championships and the glory days. There’s the opposite idea, blamed on Davy Fitz, of playing club championship as a kind of two- or three-week blitz to allow the county team more time and priority.
In the middle, any thoughts of trying to cram a season of games into an already bursting calendar have quickly evaporated into logistical issues. Especially in Cork, where an inter-county player is going to face a fairly hectic schedule of games from August onwards, and where an inter-county player who also plays dual might want to cancel any outside plans.
Clubs need games: More than one, but maybe not four in three weeks. County teams need collective time together, but it’ll be like an international team gathering before a Fifa World Cup, trying to freshen up players after an intense end of season.
This isn’t an easy fix and Anthony Daly, a pure GAA man, explained the difference in focus and analysis between the club and county games. It’s grand to wonder at the point of all this inter-county preparation and make suggestions about not needing weeks or months to be ready, but then there’s someone picking apart the lack of a puck-out strategy on The Sunday Game, or calling out some poor full-back line for getting the runaround in the papers on Monday morning — that’s the reality of the inter-county expectation of consistent excellence now.
Another reality? The GAA needs the inter-county scene for finances, for the sponsorship and TV money that filters down to the county boards and clubs.
Another reality? The inter-county is important in winning hearts and minds. It might be a wonderful thought that the club is where it all begins, but for an awful lot of children, their first real love of the game will come from watching Munster finals and wanting to wear the county jersey.
Ronan McCarthy has said that it’d be unfair on clubs to get only one knockout game after a summer of waiting and a year of being promised more games. It’s hardly the right timing for a statement for the future with a grand gesture on the club/county scene, and even if there’s a sense that something new is needed for them to work together, it’s almost impossible to meet club and county needs when both are competing for the same time.
A new and separate calendar might come into conversations again.
For now, compromise will have to do, along with the understanding that everybody — players, clubs, inter-county managers — is looking for the same basic needs to be met: Everyone wants games. Everyone wants the best chance to win.
We’re still worlds away from providing everyone with that.