Unclogging the fixture list is the GAA's greatest challenge, especially in a vibrant dual county like Cork

Unclogging the fixture list is the GAA's greatest challenge, especially in a vibrant dual county like Cork
Shandrum's Conor Griffin gathers the ball from Midleton's Sam Quirke and Cathal Gunning. The Magpies' U21s are in the county final but the other side of the draw is held up. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

WHEN Páraic Duffy released his annual report as GAA director general in 2016, one of his core themes focused on a perennial issue Duffy tried to address – club fixtures and the increasing frustration of club players.

“Small is beautiful, they say, and so it is with our clubs,” wrote Duffy.

“Because the beauty of the club is the beauty of community.” The club has always been the GAA’s greatest strength, and growing, developing and celebrating community has always been at the core of the GAA’s identity.

And yet, repeatedly, that core continues to be most at threat. It almost sounds ludicrous and contradictory that the central plank of a massively successful sporting and cultural organisation remains in greatest danger of being eroded.

The GAA’s power has always come from its club communities but, while the games remain as popular as ever, some communities which are already struggling, struggle even more during lifeless summers, when the pitch is no longer their social hub.

It’s a recurring story, featuring the same basic elements, just in different counties; too many training sessions, months without a game followed by a mad rush to play off matches at the end of the season. And players just drifting away.

The GAA have consistently tried to alter a dysfunctional fixtures calendar but, despite all the tweaks made in recent years, reaching accommodation for club players is only getting more difficult. The GAA claim over 2,300 clubs, with more than 270,000 players and a registered membership that, unofficially, probably stretches to around 750,000.

And yet, the bulk of that population feel increasingly alienated from Croke Park, and disenfranchised by their own direct representatives.

The Club Players Association (CPA) represent many of that body but the CPA withdrew from the GAA’s Fixtures Calendar Review Task Force last week, just days before the body is due to deliver its recommendations to GAA hierarchy for a revamped calendar.

The CPA said that they could not “in good conscience put our names to such a compromised document.”

They also claimed the task force was a “Trojan horse designed to give cover to GAA authorities to ratify the status quo while having the appearance of consultation and thoughtful deliberation.”

The CPA felt the taskforce needed to adopt fixture-making principles from the outset, something which wasn’t done until earlier this month. However, the CPA really felt that the priority of the taskforce was rubber-stamping the new football championship, including the Tier Two format, and retention of the Super 8s.

At the start of the process, the CPA put forward two concrete fixture plans, which they felt were not entertained by the taskforce. It hoped that at least one of those plans would be adopted into the final report. Yet when they asked for a vote on November 6th to measure support, they were refused.

The CPA had long felt unwelcomed by the GAA. That was obvious from the outset when the official recognition motion was withdrawn before being defeated at Congress 2017.

The CPA felt repeatedly ignored by previous GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail. Yet successive presidents, and particularly Duffy, have tried to address this issue, and the same barriers have stood in the way of change – the GAA’s innate conservatism and self-interest.

The CPA don’t have the power to really influence that kind of change. They claimed to have put forward two concrete fixtures plans but the only way the fixtures schedule will ever be sorted is if county boards are held more to account.

A lot of counties run decent championships and leagues with acceptable start and finish dates. So why can’t every county?

The difficulty is that every county is operating on different scales with different systems of competition. Every other solution that has been tried has been inadequate. However, the fault doesn’t just lie with county boards because clubs everywhere are governed by self-interest.

Clubs have to take on county boards, but many are reluctant to do so because they’re protecting their own patch. Club players need to play a part in altering that process but most players have no interest in club or board politics or policy. Many players don’t even attend their AGM.

Club players need to play a more active role in changing mindsets at county board level but they are selective too in how much change they really want.

Despite the condensing of the inter-county calendar, which has freed up the summer months for a huge number of counties, many clubs don’t really want to play club championship matches in high summer, because a large number of their student players head off travelling abroad.

“Our association is fast becoming an organisation who no longer prioritises the association as a community- based Gaelic Games and culture organisation with the club and the club player at its core,” read the CPA statement. “Unfortunately, there is a clear and growing disconnect between the leadership of the GAA and their grassroots members.”

The GAA may claim otherwise. The taskforce may reveal something different. But it will have to be ultra-radical to alter the current reality for clubs. Because more and more players are deciding that they do not all belong with their clubs and their teammates.

And within their communities.

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