WHEN Nemo Rangers kicked a score in the first minute last Friday night, at home to Carbery Rangers in the Kelleher Shield, it marked the beginning of another year of competitive club football here in Cork.
Nemo’s 2019 championship ended on January 4 and their 2020 season began on January 31 and the most remarkable thing about the sharp turnaround of seasons might be that it’s an improvement, all told.
It’s been common for Nemo to be playing All-Ireland finals around Kelleher Shield games, or only a few weeks before the first round of championship, and it wasn’t unheard of to be playing the previous year’s Kelleher Shield final in the early weeks of January.
That kind of wacky calendar has been put to bed now and if the launch this week of the programme of club games for the year went sort of under the radar (and let’s be honest, scrolling through a sprawling list of games and dates doesn’t make for the most exciting document), it still feels like an important step in this Cork GAA plan. Last Sunday morning, as the cars from St Finbarr’s trickled into Ahamilla, for throw-in with Clonakilty, it might all have felt a little early in the year to be getting carried away, but it meant something.
The ’Barr’s had players coming back from injury. Clon’ had some new blood to run out. They’re drawn in the same championship group later in the summer and the striking thing about this early release of plans is that the game is already fixed for a particular weekend in early September.
It’s very, very imperfect, by the way, but that’s more or less a given in the circumstances, unless there’s a dramatic change in the inter-county calendar or unless championship gets replaced by a league competition. If there’s an element of never being happy with either too many games or not enough, it’s still always been hard to ignore the savage demands on the top-level players at this time of year. This isn’t a new thing.
I recall being at a UCC-Cork senior challenge game in Ballygarvan, a good few years back, and overhearing one UCC player outline his schedule of games and training with club/college/county U21, and seniors, for the coming 10 days, and there was a fair bit of concern from the Cork management.
So someone like Fionn Herlihy, who, in the space of a week or so played in a John Kerins Cup final for the Cork U20s, an U21 championship game with Dohenys, a UCC freshers game against DCU, plus whatever training, and who will fall into the club set-up shortly, might need minding.
Or Conor Corbett, playing with his school, Clyda U21s, and the Cork U20s, also in the past month.
Mark Cronin’s already had a fairly hectic month, with UCC in Sigerson and Nemo in the All-Ireland semi-final, and also scoring six points in that U20 final against Kildare, and there he was togging out with Nemo, in the Kelleher Shield, last Friday night, against Carbery Rangers. And as is his class, he kicked five points.
Players want to play and matches are exactly what’s needed for development and improvement and it feels wrong to be nitpicking at more games, sometimes, but there’s still an uneven feel to this kind of range, with such a variation of preparations and demands and perhaps not enough space for anything else. This isn’t necessarily the fault of managements of the various teams, who all have their priorities.
From the club side of things, there are real potential positives, though. Let’s take a club in the top divisions of the football league, who are guaranteed five league games from here to the end of March, a championship game in April, five more league games between May and mid-July, and then a definite slot for one championship group match in August and one in September.
Of the main gripes about the club player, an attempt has been made to rectify many of them. A lack of regular games? A football player is covered fairly well to mid-summer, once the leagues are taken seriously.
A dual player from one of the more successful clubs, let’s say a Newcestown or Valley Rovers, is going to have a hectic six months.
The issue with not knowing your run of games, from month to month or week to week, has been fixed as well as possible in a county like Cork, so effective planning of training loads is possible for management and life planning is possible for players. Meaningful games might depend partly on the clubs here and on how they use the leagues, and partly on where clubs stand on the question of whether having county players constitutes a success or not.
Last weekend, as Clonakilty togged out for their game, Liam O’Donovan, Tom Clancy, and Sean White were up in Leitrim with Cork. Clon managed to get by.
Bantry really struggled without Ruairí Deane against Bishopstown. Club managers have been used to limited or no access to county players and the argument about the space giving more games to other players is extremely valid.
There is an impact, though, on the quality within training and just the overall atmosphere in a club, when you take out one or two of the main men for long stretches of time and this club/county pull will be ongoing, in the day-to-day details. But a structure of games was promised at club level.
The leagues have been given a definite schedule. The championship has been streamlined and if the importance of playing through summer can only be part recognised, while the inter-county season has hold — a championship starting in early April and ending in late October is still far too drawn-out — efforts are there to ensure competitive games, through those summer nights when players want to be out on pitches.
Let’s see what comes of these developments.