Denis Hurley: GAA split-season format is still drawing the crowds

Lamenting counties being "out in May" is disingenuous as clubs must be given their chance to take centre stage later this year
Denis Hurley: GAA split-season format is still drawing the crowds

Shane Kingston of Cork is tackled by Tipperary's Ronan Maher and Séamus Kennedy in last Sunday week's Munster SHC game at FBD Semple Stadium. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

WE'RE at the end of May and it brings a blessed relief, in one sense at least.

It is one of my favourite months, ushered in with the playing of Bring Flowers of the Rarest on RTÉ Radio 1 immediately after the news at midnight on May 1, and the sense of growth all around is a sign that summer is on the way. Why, then, is it a good thing that it’s nearly over?

Primarily because we won’t have to listen to GAA pundits lamenting the fact that X number of counties are out of the championship “and it’s still only May”.

This viewpoint might have had some merit under the old schedule when the All-Ireland finals were played in September – Cork hurlers were dumped out by Limerick on May 26, 1996, for instance – but in the current split-season format, it’s a complete red herring.

When the inter-county season is set to end in mid-to-late July, it’s only natural that a knockout-based competition would have early casualties. That happens to be in May and early by the ‘old’ standards is immaterial. 

In 2020, no county was knocked out before mid-October but that was hardly a cause for celebration, was it?

The loudest voices are, of course, those of the television analysts who are paid handsomely to give their views. To paraphrase Mrs Merton asking Debbie McGee what attracted her to the millionaire Paul Daniels, why on earth is it in their interests to want a longer inter-county season?

DUAL PLAYERS

Pat Spillane had the idea that the inter-county hurling season would take place from January-June and the football from July-December, with club football for the first half of the year and club hurling the second part – all fine except for the existence of dual clubs with players on county panels. Dónal Óg Cusack called the imposition of the split-season ‘populist’, as if giving club players, the massive silent majority, clarity regarding fixture lists was something that could be reduced to playing politics rather than seeking to improve player welfare.

The Munster hurling final is a sell-out, despite the fact that it’s being played in early June rather than July and the attendances for the round-robin were on a par with 2018 and 2019. Sunday’s Ulster football final packed out St Tiernach’s Park in Clones, the May date not an impediment to people’s enjoyment.

We don’t know if the current format will be a success, but we feel that we should at least wait until the end of the season to begin to form any kind of opinion. 

It could well be the case that the All-Ireland finals are pushed back a few weeks into August and there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that. 

But to dismiss things just because counties that failed to win four (Munster) or five (Leinster) provincial hurling championship games are “out in May” is a knee-jerk reaction that benefits nobody.

David Moran of Kerry in action against Colm O'Callaghan of Cork during the Munster semi-final. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
David Moran of Kerry in action against Colm O'Callaghan of Cork during the Munster semi-final. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Cahair O’Kane of The Irish News outlined in a column last week how the football championship isn’t necessarily all that condensed. Kerry beat Cork on May 7, then they claimed the title again with victory over Limerick on Saturday. Jack O’Connor’s side now won’t be out again until June 25 or 26 in the All-Ireland quarter-finals. As it has always been, the arcane provincial championship format is far more of an impediment than anything else.

Next year’s football system, featuring a round-robin after the provinces are played off, will make things more equitable. The hurling championship does feel a bit front-loaded – from April 17 to May 22, there were 25 Liam MacCarthy Cup matches but, after this weekend’s Munster and Leinster finals, there will be just seven more and two of those against the Joe McDonagh Cup finalists. Maybe something can be done about that, nobody who fails to make the knockout stages after the round-robin can really complain about the campaign terminating prematurely.

Similarly, anybody involved with a club knows how awkward it used to be when they’d play a game in April or May and then be hanging around until the county team were knocked out before playing off matches at a rate of knots.

That fast schedule does still exist now, but with more certainty as to when they will take place. If that means a compacted inter-county season that still draws attendances, who is really losing out?

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