Christy O'Connor: Croke Park must show more leadership on key club issues

'There is a disconnect now between counties and Croke Park, especially within the split season model'
Christy O'Connor: Croke Park must show more leadership on key club issues

Bride Rover's Adam Walsh is hooked by Fr O'Neill's Mark O'Keeffe with Daniel Harington waiting during the Co-Op Superstores SAHC semi-final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

BEFORE GAA Congress in February 2021, Galway hurling committee chairman Paul Bellew expressed strong opposition to the motion proposing a cap of 16 teams in adult county championships.

The motion drawn up by the fixture calendar review task force to limit the number of teams in an adult county senior and Intermediate championship to 16 was subsequently passed, which meant that counties with more than 16 teams in those competitions were given until 2023 to reduce their numbers accordingly.

The task force’s rationale for the motion was to allow for efficient and timely completion of county championships, but Bellew questioned why Croke Park were removing power from clubs and county boards to organise their own competitions.

When the motion was passed, Galway clearly had a job on their hands because there is currently 24 teams in the senior hurling championship. That effectively meant that eight teams would have to be demoted to Intermediate over the following two years.

“Personally, I would be in favour of a reduced number of teams in the Galway SHC, but under no circumstances should that power be taken away from the clubs or the county,” said Bellew. “A county should have control of its own championships.” 

Galway felt that the motion removed all flexibility for a county that may need to react if they have financial issues. Bellew also said that if a county has to meet provincial club deadlines, and they didn’t, their clubs couldn’t play in the provincial or All-Ireland series. Yet it was easy for Galway to state that case when their county hurling champions don’t have to play a provincial championship and advance straight to an All-Ireland semi-final.

Reducing their senior hurling championship from 24 to 16 teams would reduce the number of games in that competition by close to 20, which would have serious financial implications around gate receipt income.

The current format in Galway though is far too lenient and forgiving. The reality is that too many of the 24 clubs are only making up the numbers.

The Galway Intermediate championship on the other hand is far more competitive but club delegates backed a revised format for next year in an effort to retain their senior status. Rather than compete at the Intermediate grade, teams will now enter a standalone ‘Senior B’ competition in 2023, where the only prize, outside of a newly introduced cup, will be promotion to Senior A.

In that context, a team that finds themselves in Senior B next year, but still qualifies for the knockout stages this year as the third team in Senior B, could actually win the senior championship and the All-Ireland club title, and not be able to defend their titles next year.

Galway clearly resent the centralised decision-making through Croke Park and the fact that counties have no input into much of that process. Galway clearly found a way around it – even if it’s only sticking plaster stuff – but their case underlines a lot of the disconnect that now exists between counties and Croke Park, especially within the split season model.

Galway’s attitude shows how many county boards still operate as independent fiefdoms, while Croke Park aim to reduce that potential by streamlining everything through a more centralised process.

Croke Park’s policy is sound in theory but the split season model still requires counties to be far more imaginative around club fixtures.

Castlemartyr's Joe Stack and Castlelyon's Leo Sexton tussle for possession. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Castlemartyr's Joe Stack and Castlelyon's Leo Sexton tussle for possession. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

In so many ways, the split season has removed a multitude of headaches, particularly the tension between clubs and the county team during the early part of the season, especially during the old ‘April club month’.

Croke Park’s position had always been clear on that issue over the years: running club championships and balancing them with the demands of the inter-county game was the responsibility of each county board. If clubs weren’t happy, the onus was on them to take it up with the county executive.

In a perverse way, the split season has turned the tables around, in that county boards now often have more of an issue with Croke Park, than clubs do with county boards.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. There will always be tension with clubs and county boards but Croke Park also needs to show more leadership around certain matters regarding policy.

Lots of people are angry that the GAA have postponed their proposals on the underage grades, which were supposed to be matters for Special Congress in October, with the matter now being pushed back to Congress in February.

The GAA have given counties three options for underage grades for club competitions but the whole matter is still up in the air. The GAA strongly recommends staying at U17 for inter-county level but that still doesn’t provide enough clarity on such a contentious issue.

 Patrick McCarthy kicks a point for Ballincollig against Douglas in the Rebel Óg U15 Football Championship final at Mardyke on Saturday. Picture: Larry Cummins
Patrick McCarthy kicks a point for Ballincollig against Douglas in the Rebel Óg U15 Football Championship final at Mardyke on Saturday. Picture: Larry Cummins

That lack of leadership was again evident at the weekend when Central Council voted on a proposal by the Central Competitions Control Committee to disband the football league finals.

The move by the CCCC came from the new All-Ireland senior football championship format, which requires extra match days. Yet the knock-on scheduling effect on the league wasn’t mentioned when counties voted for the CCCC’s green option for the championship at Congress in February.

Who made those decisions? Why wasn’t there clearer communication around the reasons? The anger around the whole matter clearly impacted on the GAA voting to retain the league finals.

Croke Park needs to start showing more leadership than they are.

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