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John McEntee: County managers still call the shots in 'Club April'

Armagh were forced to play Clare at a neutral venue in their Division Two campaign this year as punishment for breaking a training ban in April of last year. It will be interesting to see how the powers-that-be apply the rules this season Picture by Bill Smyth

NO matter how hard I try, it is impossible to ignore the plight of clubs during the month of April – the month Central Council decreed their best players would be made available to their own clubs.

With every rule there is an interpretation and then there is an alternative interpretation.

The interpretation is that clubs have full access to their players during this month; the alternative interpretation is that their players are available for all matches in April.

At this stage of the year most clubs can live with either scenario and, indeed, have become accustomed to this arrangement.

‘So what’s the issue?’ I hear you ask.

Well, the issue is that we now have some county managers who persist in discouraging their players taking part in club activity by scheduling heavy training workloads in the 24 hours prior to this club activity, which renders them unable to participate.

On other occasions they say to their players directly, or via a reading between the lines approach that, should they play for their clubs, they risk their place on the team. This verbal diarrhoea is so toxic it can indoctrinate young men. It is farcical and it is true. I’ve written about these tactics previously but it often falls on deaf ears.

Many inter-county managers appear to adopt different approaches which see players playing a more active role with their clubs and therefore engender more support from within their club base.

Each to their own, I guess.

In the 2018 season, a number of teams were involved in training camps during April, which was a clear breach of rules.

The higher profile teams remind me of TS Eliot’s Macavity, the mystery cat who can “defy the law” as they appeared to avoid punishment, citing all sorts of spurious but seemingly acceptable reasons.

Armagh’s honesty, while laudable, earned them a sanction.

In hindsight you could say this sanction will turn out being a reward as they lost home advantage but were granted a competitive League game against Clare at Pairc Esler, Newry which may well prove to be ideal preparation for their upcoming Championship match at the same venue.

Twelve months on and it seems inter-county managers have learned from that experience as they adopt the Frankie Boyle approach to management: to seek forgiveness rather than permission.

Yes, as hard as it is to believe, some county teams have arranged continental training camps this month, thereby blatantly ignoring the notion of club April.

People say GAA president John Horan is no-one’s fool and that his values are based around the club, so it will be interesting to see what actions he takes to address flagrant breaches which impact so greatly on club activity.

What might the reasons be for arranging training camps in April? It may be to cram extra fitness or tactics sessions into an already busy schedule, or perhaps to further the team-building agenda, but I don’t buy these excuses.

The primary reason appears to be to disrupt club activity and prevent players getting exposure to another manager’s ways of playing or methodology.

It is about control. Players are controllable when they are with you.

The message is constant, the training load is measurable, and the mind is engaged. They are programmed.

With scarcely six weeks to go to the biggest game of the year these managers do not want anyone tampering with their main assets. The decision is calculated and it pays off.

Clubs can ill-afford to field with their key players absent. This statement is as true for division four clubs as it is for the top clubs.

Take Crossmaglen seniors as an example. The Rangers are formidable opposition with a full team; remove their four county men and factor in some notable retirees and they become ordinary.

Last Sunday, while the four county stars were eligible to play, only Paul Hughes was fit to tog out. It seems that Oisin O’Neill continues on the rehab path while his younger brother Rian and James Morgan withdrew prior to the game.

The most notable absentee from both Cross’s first two league games was Jamie Clarke.

Unfortunately for followers of the Rangers, Jamie has decided to withdraw from club activity again this year.

This is a huge blow to the club’s chances of retaining the Gerry Fegan Cup but if you were to review his club activity over the past seven years, this announcement comes as no surprise.

He played no club football in the 2016 or 2018 seasons, two league games and 30 minutes championship in 2017 and previously in 2015 and no club football in 2013. It was 2014 that he was last able to commit fully to the club.

While this picture makes for depressing reading, Jamie is not a lone wolf in the inter-county scene.

As recently as last year there were at least two inter-county players who opted not to play for their club but instead they journeyed to London on Saturdays to play matches and return home on the following day, slightly worse for wear but with fatter wallets.

That’s even more shocking than a Frankie Boyle one-liner.

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