Calendar reform won't impact on club league football insists Ó Fearghail
GAA President Aogan Ó Fearghail is adamant that the reform of the fixtures calendar next year will not negatively impact upon the participation of inter-county players in club league games.
The GAA’s new-look schedule for 2018 includes a much tighter timeframe for the All-Ireland championships, as well as the month of April being cleared with the intention of allowing club games to have a defined window.
While the changes will free up weekends for club activity, the vast majority of them will be at the tail end of the season, at what is traditionally championship time.
And while in some counties the introduction of a ‘club only’ month in April will increase the number of club games for which inter-county players are available, the condensed inter-county championship will cut into their availability in other counties.
In Tyrone, for example, Mickey Harte’s squad are currently made available for a minimum of two-thirds of their club league games in any given season.
But with more championship games at inter-county level and shorter gaps between them, the likelihood is that figure will be reduced next year.
“They won’t impact negatively. How will they? We had 16 weekends to play club league football last year, we’ll have 26 next year,” said Ó Fearghail.
“What are they going to be doing on those weekends where there’s more inter-county games? We’re going to have more inter-county games on a tighter timeframe.
“The simple maths, you’re going to have more free spaces, so they have more place, not less. There’s no argument there, it’s a fact.”
While clearing was widely welcomed, some – including the Club Players’ Association – felt that the change did not go far enough without the introduction of specific punishments for counties that breach the proviso.
The Cavan native, whose term will come to a close early next year, said that county boards need to take charge and pull managers into line.
“As Ulster Council president I was on the record and I say it again: counties need to take control. We took control at Management and Central Council level.
“Most people agreed and some don’t but we took control and forged a path of change. I believe the counties need to do the same. The county chair and board are in charge.
“Most of our counties – and we researched this – are well run and most of our fixtures and clubs are well run but some are not. That’s the reality.
“We’ve now made the changes: you can’t have challenge games at weekends; we had a 13-day rule which was being abused right, left and centre, so we changed the rule to 10.
“We’ve made the changes and the freedom is now there for clubs to take the initiative and ensure that they follow the direction laid out. If this doesn’t happen it’s up to the clubs to take action.
“I’d always be concerned at the role of outside groups. Democracy should hold sway but in the past it got diverted by groups outside the decision-making process and by that I mean that Central Council should always be in charge and county boards the same. I don’t care who it is but people outside that room should not be making decisions for our clubs.”
Asked if he was confident county boards could be trusted to uphold the spirit of the changes, Ó Fearghail replied: “They have to. What would be the reason for a county board to say, ‘we’ll not play club games’?
“I can’t see how they’d get away with that. Democracy means that it’s up to every county to run their structure. I think you’ll find that there’ll be more games and that clubs will be playing far more frequently and that the vast majority will be finished in July and the remainder by August.
“I know from experience that the replay caused significant headaches for fixture planners. We had a lot of replays in provincial matches in Ulster.
“When you have a preliminary round as they do in Ulster and it ends in a draw – which it did three years out of 10 in the period we looked at – it causes havoc all over an entire province.
“That’s been eliminated. We can’t make utopia. When you come here and meet the clubs they don’t have that issue because you play with one club and one team and that’s it. In Adelaide we met with the amateur league and they just play with their amateur team. They don’t play with a school or county.
“It’s the same in the States with the volunteer level of American football – you play with one team. You take these young lads here with Ireland. They play with college, with club and county.
“There is no other model and we have to celebrate that but it brings challenges that are unique and we have tidied up the whole fixture programme.
“I wouldn’t say it’s utopia or that it’s perfect. Things will be tweaked and issues will arise but the main thrust will emerge next year and people will be pleased with it.”