WHEN a fairly experimental Cork football group stepped onto the field in Waterford last weekend it was more than the inter-county management team who were watching with interest on how the year might take shape.
There were a batch of club managers at home were wondering just how this might impact their ideas.
Cork had a lot of representations from around the county – Skibb, Dohenys, Douglas, Newcestown, Bishopstown, Douglas, Clonakilty, St Finbarr’s, Carbery Rangers, Ballincollig, Bantry, Castlehaven, Mallow, Fermoy, Clyda, all had people involved – and it’s hardly a stretch with the ways things are gone to think having a player or two involved with Cork could be the sort of little detail that’s the difference in a season.
Cork players will be taken away now until, well, until they’re not needed anymore (apart from club month April of course, which seems such a bizarre argument to be suggested as a massive positive, something clubs ought to be genuinely thrilled with apparently, like clubs can somehow fit an entire schedule of games, training and championships into the four weeks) and the whole thing is basically becoming separate to the point where decisions probably have to be taken on where exactly all this is going.
Ask club managers about regular fixtures and they’ll laugh at the concept.
Ask about access to county players and it’s a trickier but just as frustrating issue.
Any Cork footballer this year has already been training with the county group more than the club in pre-season.
They’ve had these two weeks of McGrath Cup.
The national league starts last weekend of January and runs seven weekends of the next nine.
The clubs have April but again, seriously, what exactly will the clubs do with these four weeks of potential benefit, even assuming they get that?
Then, Cork will have training camps laid out for May, play first weekend June and again a few weekends later.
The hurlers have even more distractions, with league from January through March, then four games in five weeks at least to work out the Munster championships from May to mid-June or end-June depending on success.
The physical and mental questions being asked of players this spring/ summer are going to be incredibly draining and basically only doable by elite, semi-professional athletes – good luck to say an inter-county hurler or coach who’s expected to have a job through that intense period of game/ preparation/ recovery/ analysis.
That’s just up to Munster exits.
Imagine if Cork football reaches the last eight – thoroughly needed for some feelgood in the county and the clubs and the players by the way - but it’d shut down the club scene for another month or more.
One club manager recently told me of the realities of having intercounty players, where at one stage towards the end of the season he’d not had his two intercounty players on the field at the same time in any one game.
On the most simple level that’s probably playing most of the games for the year without at least one of his two best players.
That’s positional balance completely destroyed as the inter-county players will generally be central to the function of the team but then when they’re out, those places are held by someone else which interrupts the whole dynamic and natural development of the team.
Training lacks the bite and professional attitude of having the two players involved.
Take say O’Donovan Rossa trying to develop a kick out strategy through the Kelleher Shield which might help them take the ball from defence; the absence of Ryan Price from training and games makes this more or less impossible to work on.
Or maybe Castlehaven who are already short a bit on depth and who are trying to build another bunch but get really limited time working on their most effective attacking plan as its key members (Mark Collins and Michael Hurley) are away with Cork.
These are hardly new complaints but they’re hardening into the normal culture now, where the intercounty squads have the profile and the power and the interest in a county and really the club scene has gone a bit flat.
Kelleher Shield games don’t pull a crowd at any time of year but especially not if nobody knows who’ll be playing.
Supporters pick and choose championship games, especially the early non-knockout ones.
Clubs are back training since late last year but could be sitting on their hands until well into next August before things get interesting in any form and every single club manager and coach I’ve spoken with over the last five years has explained the impossibility of building any kind of form or improvements in a group in the current set-up.
It’s hard to see a turn in this and it’s tough to think of any comparisons here in any other sport (AIL rugby perhaps but there are differences), where there’s been such a separation of focus and priorities in basically the one association.
Club and inter-county activities aren’t quite actively working against each other (well, they are at times) but there’s certainly no common purpose right now and it may be that we’re missing a trick here.
Even if we’re putting intercounty success at the top of the list of what’s wanted in the county right now, then it might be that broadening the base could be a more worthwhile exercise than creating the elite/ club division.
A strong club scene of competitive games at senior level lifts the standard throughout the county.
Club players improve with more regular games against better teams.
Players from the age of say, twenty to twenty-three or twenty-four can develop again rather than the situation where they stagnate, disimprove or are actually lost to the game.
It’d take some calls and some changes but it’s getting to that stage surely.