John McEntee: Calendar nightmare creates conflict of interest before April pressure

Young players like Derry and Queen's defender Niall Keenan find themselves with no shortage of conflict of interest at this time of the year Picture by Declan Roughan

A FEW short weeks ago I was pining for the return of football matches to regain that weekly structure we all crave and which entertains us from one week to the next.

I liken repetition of attending Gaelic games to the stability work brings to our lives. Structure and routine makes the world go round. Absence of work for short periods is energising, however, lethargy can become your best friend during prolonged periods of leave.

Football is no different. So let’s say you were off work for a period due to stress. Time away from the stressors may be all that is required and some space to put problems into perspective or indeed to sort them out.

I’m reminded of the cartoon picture where a guy is lying on his belly banging the floor with his fist saying, ‘tell me again how lucky I am to be working here...I keep forgetting’.

The expectation is that one returns to the workplace enthused and embraces their job role with the vigour expected of any employee.

Roll on a few weeks and the stresses within the GAA calendar are already coming to the fore. Insert the above scenario into the world of sport and replace the word ‘work’ with ‘football’ and the statement generally holds true.

For example, last season the fixtures scheduling was utter chaos, contributing to endless stress among players trying to serve many masters, managers vying for the same guys, competitions overlapping with key dates hot on the heels of each other, county boards pandering to their managers, clubs being shafted.... need I go on?

It can be said with a breath of cynicism that nothing has changed for the good from last year.

Part one of the 2019 season starts in earnest this Saturday with Mayo at home to Roscommon, Down at home to Laois and Waterford at home to Wicklow in the Allianz Leagues.

Many of these same players are tied into playing in the Sigerson Cup, a competition that commenced on January 18 and ends on February 20, or the Trench Cup, which commenced on January 22 and ends on February 16.

The Ulster universities typically perform well in these competitions so it is conceivable that their players will be involved, at least, up to the semi-final stage, thus compromising their involvement in the first three games of the Allianz League.

Moreover, should you decide to play for your county, you run the risk of not being fit to compete in the Sigerson Cup rounds.

It is known that many players are awarded grants to play with their university, however, in the changing times it is reported many more are opting not to accept them, citing they want to be in control of which team they play with as the reason for their rebuff.

Whether these decisions are autonomous or the product of conversations with other people of influence is immaterial. The key issue is that such a conflict is allowed to be present year on year.

The impact of this conflict may have ramifications for all teams in each division, such as Tyrone who may be forced to travel to Kerry and Roscommon and play Mayo at home minus six or more of their players.

Similarly, Monaghan play host to Dublin and Galway and then travel to Roscommon in their first three matches with many noticeable absentees.

In the minds of many Tyrone and Monaghan supporters, three early losses can put them into an ugly relegation battle and bring more unwanted pressure ahead of the Championship.

By mid-February the stress levels will be reaching fever pitch, but unlike the world of work, neither manager nor player can afford to take a period of leave to address their issues. Why is that?

Well, simply put, the end of the Allianz League coincides with the commencement of the club calendar. Yes, the month of April where county players are apparently released to play for their clubs while also participating in savage training schedules and stealthy county team training holidays.

This is surely the ugliest boil in the GAA calendar that ought to be lanced.

Right across the country, a common theme emerged in the month of April where county players physically broke down from the stresses and strains of heavy training loads and playing club matches.

The Club Players Association (CPA) have been vocal on the challenges the month of April brings, however, their bite has no teeth in this discussion point as the county player is not their membership base.

I’ve waited 12 months on the GPA to object to this scheduling on grounds of player welfare; I’m still waiting.

I know a guy who, after a game last summer, got dressed, shook hands with his manager on his way out of the changing rooms, drove to the airport, boarded a plane to the States and who is unlikely to return home again to play ball.

We all have our own ways of dealing with stress but it would be an easier existence if it wasn’t there at all. Participation in GAA at all senior levels is fast becoming an occupational hazard and may yet create some unnecessary absences.

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