Club and county will benefit from letting the players play
FOR MOST of us, this week will pass by with little or no significance.
The Christmas hangover has well and truly kicked in and the dread of returning to work and rejoining reality again can’t be shaken off.
But for a few groups of people, this week will be greeted with as much excitement as Christmas week itself.
The groups I speak of are the die-hard GAA supporters who have been starved of competitive county action since the summer and a host of fresh-faced newcomers hoping to make their mark in their county colours.
In every club and county across the country we have endless amounts of supporters who plot and plan their weekends away and holidays around the travels of their beloved teams.
Every supporter starts off the year in a positive frame of mind, dreaming the dream – convinced this will be the year they’ll make the breakthrough or this is the year they’ll recapture the glory days of the past. For the newcomers on county squads, this is also an exciting time.
The ultimate for any GAA player is to represent their county and over the next four weeks everyone will get an opportunity to make a lasting impression on their management. Some will stand out immediately but for the majority transition takes time.
One downside to the increased coverage of our games and the explosion of social media is that unlike years ago, should a newcomer not shoot the lights out over the next few weeks, they are highly likely to be branded with the “a good club footballer, but not fit for county standard” label.
This is extremely unfair; it takes time to adjust to life on a county panel. The demands of training, weight of expectation and pressures that come with joining the elite can be enough to make even the best underage players go into their shell.
No matter how confident you are at underage or club level, even the most strong-minded individuals will have a nervous bit of self-doubt when making the step up.
The likes of Sean Cavanagh, Colm Cooper and Michael Murphy are exceptions to the rule.
It’s worth noting that some of the greatest players in recent times have had bided their time on county squads, learning their trade for up to three years or more before finally making the breakthrough to championship football – namely Kieran McGeeney and Bernard Brogan.
Had these men attempted to make the breakthrough in 2016 and not initially shown the ability we now know they possess would they have been cut loose? It’s quite possible.
Thankfully their respective managers and the players themselves showed enough faith and belief to continue the journey. Both their teams and individual records now speak for themselves.
One way I feel its possible to help get newcomers enough gametime while adjusting to life as county footballers is allowing them more access to club league games throughout the inter-county season.
In my own case, I joined the county panel in 2004 but I managed to start only one National League game that season; other than that I was unable to gain any further gametime. The only football I played for my club that summer was a few championship games.
I felt at the time that even though I was in good shape and training regularly I was not “match fit”. It took a run of games in the Armagh and Ulster club championships to eventually get me back to the level of performance I had produced the year previous for my club.
No matter how many A versus B in-house games you play in, they rarely replicated the real thing. In the lead-up to big games, the B team can often be asked to adopt the tactics of their next opponents. While this can prove beneficial for the A team it often restricts the ability of the B team to express themselves fully, therefore leaving it even harder to play yourself in to the reckoning to start.
Most inter-county squads are now operating with 30 to 35 players to facilitate in-house games and allow for injuries. With a maximum of only 21 players being allowed to play on any given day it leaves almost a full team of players without significant football on a weekly basis.
With the correct foresight and planning from county boards and their senior team managers, I feel they can arrange club league games around the inter-county calendar to allow for Friday night club league fixtures.
I would like to see county managers select their team for League/Championship games plus three subs each Thursday night. These players will be exempt from club action on that particular weekend.
All remaining panel members could then be released to play for their clubs on the Friday night to allow them gain match sharpness and build confidence.
This in turn can benefit the county team as players will then be up to speed should they be needed on the Sunday for a substitute appearance.
All inter-county players are prepared to a professional standard these days, they are more than capable of turning up fresh and ready to play their part should they be require on the Sunday for their county.
There are negatives. One club may have three county panellists starting; they could be playing a club with three county panellists not starting. This can lead to pressure from club managers to have their three starters also play for their club.
Injuries can be picked up but that’s what squads are for – one man’s loss can lead to another man’s gain. As players, all you want to do is play. The longer you go without football, the further away the dream of making the breakthrough can go. But it will take a buy-in from all parties.
If both sets of management teams agree to this arrangement before the season starts they cannot then change their mind as the feel the need mid-season. It is unfair to pressurise players into choosing, as they will never want to let anyone down. With the right planning it is possible to help ease the lopsided games-to-training ratio that currently exists.