Sport

John McEntee: Club-only April has been an unqualified failure

The powers-that-be at Croke Park must carry the can for the failed concept of a club-only month

OFTEN I think people forget the importance of so-called county players to clubs and to clubs' chances of success.

I say ‘so-called' not to be disparaging as I know only too well the levels of commitment and time these guys put into representing their respective counties and the honour that brings.

It is simply to express my view that the term in itself sets them apart from their fellow club players in a way that makes them special.

I've said this before, these guys are clubmen first; a Ballinderry Shamrock player, a Bellaghy Wolfe Tone's man, a Crossmaglen Ranger.

Players become great footballers because of coaching facilitated by their local club or through the schools they attended.

It is bred into them to represent their club with honour and to better themselves by representing their parish at county level. Nowadays, county football is

all-consuming. In many instances, particularly within the weaker counties, players take what amounts to an eight-year sabbatical from club duties.

They are rarely seen on the training ground and, with the exception of the likes of Dublin, Kerry or Monaghan, they may be fortunate to play between three and five league games in a 14-18 game competition.

However, not unlike religion whereby your parents instil into you their faith which is often lost until old age, illness or misfortune visits us, county players return to their clubs at the twilight of their career.

Overnight, perspectives change and forgotten loyalties are reborn as if a hypnotic trance has been repelled.

For some, this change of heart is too late as their best years are usually clearly behind them. For others it is an opportunity for redemption.

You see, local folk are passionately loyal with eerily long memories. This makes them fickle.

My old friend John Martin,

Lord have mercy on his soul, was Crossmaglen Rangers' greatest critic and greatest supporter. When I visited him he'd have ridiculed every player if they were poor and he'd point out all the things you did wrong if you were brilliant.

Many times he could be heard saying ‘sure his father did the same thing'. But dare someone from Lurgan or a neighbouring club say one foul word against any Cross player and he would eat them without salt.

I wonder what John would have thought about how April panned out as ‘the clubs' month' as it comes to a close?

To plagiarise Lucy Montgomery's line, it seems ‘like a slap in the face when you expected a kiss'. Our hierarchy have lived up to another unfilled promise of player access for clubs.

Many clubs countrywide who did not organise championship fixtures were given access to all their players on three, maybe four, occasions across five weekends or 30 days.

Fewer still had greater access of five to six occasions including training and league fixtures.

It is hardly worth differentiating, but it is necessary as county managers will quickly go on the defensive when worst case figures are presented to them.

So was April a success? Categorically, no.

It was an insincere exercise. It was an attempt to keep the clubs and the CPA at bay.

Someone in Croke Park thought it would be a good idea to dedicate April to clubs, but in the small print they authorised each county to implement the policy as they thought best.

In other words, to implement the policy as the county manager thought best.

So county players continued to train with their county teams, training camps were convened, challenge matches were organised.

The time was used to cram in some heavy fitness sessions to get players up to speed for the May provincial championship fixtures.

Did any manager give a second thought to the clubs? Sure that's not their concern and I can understand that thinking from their perspective.

We hear scaremongering about players getting injured playing for their clubs and being put at risk of missing out on a Championship place. Is it the clubs' fault if players pull a hamstring playing football after being dogged for four consecutive nights at county training?

I don't think it is the counties' fault either. I am laying the blame squarely at the door of Croke Park.

The reality is these county players are special, although they are also human. They try to keep both masters happy and, in doing so, they are the ones who suffer.

As a club manager I will not place a player at risk of serious harm. If they say they are not fit to play then I will not force them to play. The club may lose as a result and their team-mates may be frustrated, but until Croke Park implement policies with player welfare at its core rather than appeasement, someone will lose out.

That someone is the club.

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