GAA training returns for the elite but frustrating time for club players

Covid delays and a split-season format is going to make it difficult to find a balance for hurlers and footballers across the rest of 2021
GAA training returns for the elite but frustrating time for club players

Brian Whelahan of Offaly in action against Neil Ronan of Cork during the 1999 All-Ireland hurling semi-final at Croke Park. Picture: Aoife Rice/Sportsfile

WHEN the GAA club season was shut down last October and the inter-county season was wound down a couple of months later, no other county was impacted as much as Offaly were.

The 2020 senior hurling championship is just one of a number of competitions in both codes from last year still to be concluded. Furthermore, the 2020 minor footballers and hurlers are still waiting to play their Leinster finals, with no indication of when they’ll even be fixed. The situation is all the trickier again when many of those players will be U18 in 2021 and will be in demand from their clubs as adult players this season.

With the Offaly hurlers expected to reach the Christy Ring Cup final, due to be played on July 31, it’s unlikely that last year’s hurling final will be played before mid-August.

In a recent interview with Pat Nolan in the Irish Mirror, Brian Whelehan vented his frustration at how the inter-county schedule has impacted on the club scene.

“Trying to fit in last year’s county final and how those managers feel trying to keep their teams at a certain level with dates penciled in, and then they’re suddenly pushed back again, the whole uncertainty is just brutal,” said Whelehan.

“Turfed back down into the winter, into the muck and dirt. It’s just a kick in the teeth for everyone.” 

With the All-Ireland series to run into late August, Whelehan felt that the club season has been pushed too far back. Whelehan also wasn’t the only one who believes that parking the Leagues for 2021 and staging more robust championships to wind up in July would have been a more practical option to give the club season a bigger window in better weather.

"When you consider that there'll be no crowds at league games, it just doesn't seem worthwhile running that competition if that means pushing the club championship back to September,” said Ken Hogan, former Tipperary player and manager of St Rynagh’s, who reached the 2020 Offaly county final.

There will be no travel, no holidays as such this year so it's going to be a long summer waiting for the club player. 

"It's good that inter-county teams are finally back training on the 19th, but that's only 2 or 3% of our players.”

Whelehan and Hogan’s points are well made but the kernel of the issue is that the clubs’ hands are tied anyway until restrictions ease and they are allowed to return to collective training. That may happen in early May but there are no guarantees that it will.

The frustration is compounded for club players because the possible length of the wait to return to action. With the majority of club championships having been wrapped since last September, a significant number of club players in the country could be facing up to year without a minute of championship game-time.

Last week, former Mayo footballer Conor Mortimer, who is in his first season as Monasterevin senior football manager in Laois expressed his concerns of a drop-off at club level at the length of the current shutdown, and there being no return date in sight.

“There has to be times where you are thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?” Mortimer told The Backdoor GAA podcast. “Even if they had a date in June or July, just something to aim for, you can plan and schedule your whole year plan around that, as opposed to, ‘We’ll keep training two or three times a week’. You just can’t keep doing that when there is no date in sight.” 

Eddie Bourke of Cork and Conor Mortimer of Mayo in the 2000 All-Ireland minor football final. Picture: INPHO/Andrew Paton
Eddie Bourke of Cork and Conor Mortimer of Mayo in the 2000 All-Ireland minor football final. Picture: INPHO/Andrew Paton

Getting that return-to-train date first though, is the key to breaking that mindset because at least then club players can establish some picture in their minds of what the season may look like.

They will still be at the mercy of their county teams but, if they can return in May, a four-week training block would allow a manageable lead-in to a possible return to club league games without their county players in June. With a knockout football championship and a condensed hurling championship, the vast majority of counties will be able to begin their club championships by the end of July.

There are still challenges everywhere, especially with trying to fit in inter-county minor and U20 championships, never mind the outstanding 2020 inter-county minor and U20 championships, along with unfinished club championships from last year.

Strong dual counties will face severe fixture headaches. New, especially outside, club managers and coaches may find it difficult to get to know players they may have never met before. 

The whole situation is all the more complex again with club teams in the six counties already having returned to collective training. 

The provincial and All-Ireland club championships won’t be played until late 2021/early 2022 but a possible four-week (maybe longer) period of collective preparatory time now could yet be decisive against other clubs down the line.

The future, for now, is still unclear. Nothing is clear-cut anyway this year but introducing a split-season, which is effectively what is happening in 2021 – just at a later starting point – was always going to involve a significant culture change.

That will inevitably take time for county boards to adjust competition structures and timings. And it could take at least two years before counties can put an improved club programme in place to ensure greater certainty and clarity for club players everywhere.

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