WHEN the GAA decided in 2019 to switch the All-Ireland club finals from St Patrick’s Day to the middle of January, nobody at the time could have foreseen just how fortunate the association were to have made that decision when they did.
Not everyone was fully behind the switch but, if the GAA had stuck with the traditional March 17th date, there could otherwise have been two vacant spots in the All-Ireland club roll of honour history books.
There was no provincial or All-Ireland club championships in 2020-21 but it’s possible there wouldn’t have been any champions last year either if the finals weren’t played when they were, in mid-January.
If those finals had remained a permanent fixture on St Patrick’s Day, the GAA would have been faced with a logistical nightmare of trying to fit them in during such a condensed club and inter-county calendar in 2020.
In such a scenario, the games would probably have had to be played in mid-July, before the local club championships began, which wouldn’t have been ideal with clubs only having returned to collective training in late June.
The only other option would have been to scrap the finals because waiting until after the 2020 local club championships would have been too long, and almost pointless by then; Corofin (2020 All-Ireland football champions and Borris-Ileigh 2020 hurling finalists) exited the Galway football and Tipperary hurling championships respectively before the county finals.
One of the key concerns for the GAA now though, is trying to make sure that that there won’t be two empty spaces in that All-Ireland club roll of honour.
Some of the difficulties from last year have still spilled over into 2021, with no real clarity as to when some of those outstanding county championships may yet be played; the Cork Premier Senior, Senior A, Premier Intermediate, and Intermediate A county football finals, as well as the Intermediate A and Lower Intermediate hurling finals, initially penciled in for early March, now won’t be played until late June, or early July, at the earliest.
If Cork progress to the latter stages of the 2021 All-Ireland hurling and football championships, a number of those postponed finals will have to be pushed back further again.
Nobody knows what might happen next but, already, the ground is clearly shifting.
The National leagues are expected to start in late March, with the inter-county championships also being pushed back, with the All-Ireland finals expecting to move from July to August.
That delay will undoubtedly impact on club activities, which is why the GAA look set to move the concluding stages of the All-Ireland club championships into early 2022.
Trying to stick to a defined schedule for the provincial and All-Ireland club championships could have otherwise turned into a logistical dilemma. Nobody wants to see county champions having to speed through a provincial club championship just to get the competition played.
Trying to cram in fixtures can also lead to horrendous outcomes and PR disasters.
Corofin were still Connacht and All-Ireland champions in 1998 when they were dragged into a mess completely out of their control.
After Galway’s lengthy All-Ireland club campaign that season, combined with the involvement of Michael Donnellan in the International Rules series, and a major row in which Donnellan’s club Dunmore McHales were removed from the championship and later reinstated, the Galway county board had twice appealed for more time to run off their county championship following a number of delays.
The Connacht Council ruled that Galway could get more flexibility but their champions would have to agree to play away to Ballina Stephenites in the Connacht club championship, extending to any replays needed to find a result.
When the sides finished level at the end of normal-time on a Saturday, Corofin had to travel 70 miles back to Ballina a day later, where they were beaten by a Stephenites side that went on to reach the All-Ireland final.
The Connacht Council subsequently defended their actions by stating that, in trying to find a solution to a major problem, they had involved everybody in their decision, including Corofin, who were made aware of the situation before their county final.
Yet it was still a desperate way to treat the reigning All-Ireland champions.
Having penalties and a winner-on-the-day guards against such a situation now but county champions still need to be given the time they deserve when the calendar closes in around them.
In 2019, Naomh Conaill were forced to play an Ulster club championship match against Cavan champions Castlerahan just four days after playing a second replay of the Donegal county final against Gaoth Dobhair.
It could have actually been worse for Naomh Conaill. They won the third game with a disputed point to avert another period of extra-time.
But there was no guarantee that the game was going to be concluded that night because both teams would have had to agree to penalties and Naomh Conaill refused to do so. A third replay had been provisionally scheduled for the Saturday, 24 hours before the Ulster quarter-final.
Penalty shoot-outs are a merciless way to decide big championship games but at least they protect against a multitude of replays, which can hold any championship in a headlock.
The new rules of having a winner-on-the-day would grant a lot of wiggle-room in a potentially claustrophobic county, provincial and All-Ireland club championships towards the end of 2021.
In any case, nobody wants the threat of such a scenario. County champions deserve to celebrate county final wins in the moment.
And the GAA don’t want to run the risk of going another year without having All-Ireland club champions.