WHENEVER the inter-county player v club player debate heats up I’m always reminded of a story told to me by a former Cork player a few years back.
His club had just finished up the season with a league final on a Saturday afternoon in the depths of winter after a long slog of a season and he was just heading home to relax when his phone buzzed with a message from the Cork senior group: training starts tomorrow morning. There was just something striking about the reality of the neverending element to the GAA calendar now for the elite players.
He told it as an example of the difficulty of keeping fresh mentally under those circumstances.
Of course, the vast opposite is the case of the typical club player who spends most the best part of the year waiting for action. This is where we are right now with the club/inter-county dilemma and if we now won’t get the alleged apocalypse of the club playing without inter-county players after this week’s vote, we haven’t really addressed the main issue here either.
Main takeaways from the big vote?
There was progress of sorts. A more defined season in some ways at least with three guaranteed championship games for every club (more for almost everyone) in a group format.
An agreement on regrading to tighten up on the quality levels across the competitions is plus. And there’s a general sense of a conversation started at least and a county board that’s at last willing to look a little differently for solutions.
There’s something of a missed chance left hanging though, the club player still spends an extraordinary amount of time from mid-April to whenever the county goes out of championship without meaningful games. Seriously it’s tough to imagine a worse games-to-training ratio in any sport, in summer months club GAA players must log around 10 group sessions for every league/championship game.
And there was at least a recognition from everyone that this ought to be the beginnings rather than the end of evolution here to get more for the club players and the club scene in general.
This has player development implications.
There’s a growing trend in premier league soccer for young English players to move abroad to get more chances of games at a vital stage for them to be playing, someone like Jadon Sancho who understood that sitting on a bench at their age is just not the way to improve.
Think of the learnings from even just one season of playing every single week in a top league, maybe 30/40 games, compared to playing reserves/U23 football with Man City.
Now ponder a really decent club footballer or hurler here in Cork who might be just out of U20 grade and is ready for the next step but gets blitzed with pre-season training and matches in February and March and then months of going through the motions of training without proper matches.
It’s just incredibly difficult in the current environment for players and teams to develop and there’s still work to be done in finding a balance here and creating an optimum structure for this to happen.
Change will come but it’ll come in small details perhaps.
Now we just need to play championship 2019 as the senior football championship sort of stumbles into movement this weekend.
If there’s almost a transitional element to the championship itself, that might be in keeping with the general feeling out there in the county as well as a whole batch of clubs try and find a position for themselves in the grand scheme of things.
It’s hard to know for example how the Barrs react to winning a county title, whether it pushes them onto another level of mentality in the tight games especially or if the combination of losing a manager, that defeat to Dr Crokes in Munster, drift of focus from players involved with more outside teams sap that intensity below what they need to win enough matches.
Nemo are a little in between teams at the moment and if we always do know how they’ll react to something like last year’s disaster v Castlehaven (clue: they come back and win titles), they’re certainly not at the peak of this current group’s development where you’d expect them to automatically roll over any of the top six teams in the county.
Castlehaven would love a summer where the two Hurleys are firing together and it would definitely give every defence something to think about if Brian and Michael Hurley clicked into a duo with potential for unlimited goals and points.
Carbery Rangers haven’t been far away from the business end of championship for a good few years and always have a chance if they can steal another year or two from John Hayes especially.
Teams like Douglas, Clon and Valley Rovers haven’t managed to properly merge upcoming talent into serious championship runs but there’s potential for momentum in each.
There are five or six clubs who’ll be looking over their shoulders and wondering if they can do enough to be in the 12 who’ll make up that top senior grade, so that ought to add a competitive element to any club with aspirations for the next five years.
It’ll be interesting to see any changes to the style of football, if for instance teams respond to the Barrs as a strong-running ball-carrying side by clogging spaces against them, or if the trend of high-scoring games continues.
Another remarkably open county final last year finished 3-14 to 2-14.
There are some young players who could light up championship in the right circumstances but it’s a pity that any form from this and next weekend fades into the background again.
Cork football hasn’t gotten the best of press this last while and there’s a definite sense that the half-life of the club scene hasn’t been helping the inter-county struggles.
The championship needs a spark and the process to give it that has at least begun with the talks of the last week and the plans of the last few months that will be clicking into action.
For now 2019 acts as a bridging to where we want to go and it’ll give a good idea of the road ahead.