IF THE entire concept of ‘club month’ April has been greeted sceptically since its arrival into the GAA calendar, well at least now we’ll get to see it in reality.
Club championships kick off this weekend and if the overall idea of time set aside for clubs to train and play games seems worthwhile, something doesn’t feel quite right. The bright evenings for training are barely a few weeks old.
Management are only searching for shapes and players are only looking for form and there’s nothing in the structure of the current championship that even begins to address the problems.
There are a few stories at play here. There’s a definite elite top level that’s sort of developed in this era here in Cork.
Nemo have been in the last five semi-finals in a row. Carbery Rangers have been in seven of the eight semi-finals this decade. Castlehaven were in four from five semi-finals before Brian Hurley’s career-changing and club-changing injury a couple of years back and Ballincollig were there the years Haven weren’t.
There’s tended to be an opening for one outsider to make a move (generally they’ve been one-offs, maybe a divisional side like Avondhu or Duhallow) but it’s been a reasonably closed shop for anyone looking to make a breakthrough.
Look at the teams out this weekend. Skibb and Bishopstown have been in semi-finals in this decade without really threatening to win titles or compete year on year. Mallow and Kiskeam are only up from intermediate and Valleys are still learning as they go at senior, though they are a team who’re making improvements, have reached two quarter-finals and who do possess the capability of taking out one of the big guns at some stage.
Douglas have been stuck at a particular place for a while and St Nick’s and Aghada haven’t been able to make a meaningful mark on championship for some time either. Throw in say Dohenys, Carrigaline, Ilen Rovers who are all out next weekend and that’s a lot of teams with very differing ambitions on what makes a successful championship campaign compared to the targets of the clubs who’d be wanting to win the thing.
There are questions on what kind of purpose is served for a club togging out for first-round championship in early April, maybe playing again sometime in mid-summer, basically without any real sense of achievable goals beyond survival or prolonging the year and without the conditions to grow a team together. The reason the intercounty national leagues are so wonderfully entertaining (and why the coming hurling championship has so much excitement generated) is a batch of six or seven proper games against similar ability teams in a short space of time that allows a group of players to improve and blend together and where you can pick out teams and individuals who are genuinely better after a league campaign that they were at the start.
It’s not easy to find many examples of that from the local championships in recent times, where the lack or inconsistency of meaningful games has impacted. A lot of the clubs at the lower end are in damage limitation against the bigger teams which hardly makes for expressive styles of football that might allow players to flourish.
Ask any club player when they felt sharpest and in the best form of their career and they’ll say it was in the middle of a run of meaningful regular games, where they were playing in the pursuit of some reward (a championship at senior or intermediate or junior, a league, promotion, avoiding relegation) but too many club players in Cork never get to find that rhythm or only get it maybe once every three or four years which is hardly enough to sustain any momentum.
Imagine for example a senior championship cut in half with the top eight clubs all playing each other over the course of a campaign with no mismatches and real relegation, a second tier with the next eight all playing for a realistic championship, for promotion and getting real games against teams on a similar level. The league you say? Half of it is played in February/ March and the rest is played with half-interested teams barely fulfilling fixtures.
Divisions are hardly functioning at optimum setting. Avondhu, Beara, Carbery, Seandún and Muskerry were all out of championship before the end of March after playing a game or two and possibly training a couple of times and it’s hard to make any case that someone is benefitting or likely to improve the standard based on these conditions.
Last autumn I spoke to several club coaches and it was striking how many of them volunteered the sorting out of divisions as a priority, sorting out the divisions by the way in the sense of getting rid of them completely off the football scene. One manager who actually played with and won with a divisional side explained the difference between the sort of developments possible with a club side against the general lack of that possibility for progress with a division.
All managers spoke extensively on the negatives and the fixtures issues caused by divisions and there can be genuine dislike there as well. Clubs don’t particularly want divisions competing and divisions feel they’re being treated poorly; it’s not working either way.
After all that we start another year wondering who can stop Nemo Rangers, where a lot of club coaches around Cork may have been feeling gloomy after the Dr Crokes and Slaughtneil performances but were heartened just a little by the thought of a post-Corofin vulnerability.
Nemo have new management but will have the same players and excellence and mentality and it will be of interest both to see how they try and step up another notch with plenty potential for that and how opposition try to attack any perceived weaknesses. The Barrs should be better for the experience of last year and the intercounty exposure for a batch of their players.
Carbery Rangers will go again. Anyone else in the chasing pack really needs to have all their best players fit and hitting top form to generate enough quality to put together three or four wins in a row.
The suspicion is that the usual suspects will make up the final four again come September. The pity is that it’s tough to generate enthusiasm or interest for that on the first weekend in April.