Ryan McCluskey calls for reform to help club and county football
LIKE so many others, the current state of the Championship frustrates Fermanagh defender Ryan McCluskey.
It goaded him to the point where he put forward his own proposal for its reformation on Twitter a few months back. It, like the many proposals put before Croke Park this year, went unheeded.
“My insight was to try and condense the season and have a proper break for all players,” he said.
“It was focusing on a shift of attitude as well, to bring more importance to club games. You copy the soccer structure, where it’s maybe a case of linking the club league to the inter-county league. The players who are playing well for their clubs maybe get the chance to be called up every two weeks and play for their county.
“The season will be condensed and it gives that importance back to the club player where, if you do perform in the club games, you have a chance of getting into the county squad.
“At the end of the season, it’s maybe a case of picking your best squad for the Championship, a bit like the international tournaments. You’d have a squad announcement and I definitely think it would generate interest and club games would benefit and be better attended as well. I’d be strongly for that.”
A definable, extended winter break and a condensed inter-county season could also have far-reaching benefits, McCluskey believes: “There is a lot of commitment. You could nearly say that it is a professional training year when you’re involved. Players enjoy that as well and I certainly do," he said.
“But the players now, through the GPA, have voiced their concerns for a considerable length of time. It’s about time somebody at HQ listened in terms of the fixture issues and that crisis.
“There has to be an extended break, not just for inter-county senior players, but across the board. Some of the minor and U21 lads are being pulled from pillar to post. They have university football, clubs, counties, maybe U21s and seniors, so I do feel for those lads.
“It doesn’t help when you get that little bit older because, by then, there’s a lot of miles then on the clock, so to speak. If the GAA took a smarter approach and condense the season, I think the games would be better attended. They’re well attended at the moment, but I think they could be better. The games would be more meaningful as well if it was restructured. I know it’s a burning issue that nobody has found the cure for yet. They have to sit down with the players and address it because it’s something that’s badly needed.”
Fermanagh were enjoying their best season since reaching the All-Ireland semi-final in 2004, but McCluskey was finding it a stretch. His young daughter Eva-Rose suffered a broken tibia and fibula during the summer. Trying to manage that with his fiancée Donna while fitting in the demands of inter-county football was not easy.
The long winter was welcomed: “It was a tough few months, so it was nice to get a complete rest and concentrate a bit on family life.
“It was nice to have that bit of a break and a social life.”
Similar stories happen all over the country, every year. Life happens. The general public just don’t often see it. When the Erne men were beaten by Dublin to end the season in August, the club championship began. McCluskey’s was brief, with Enniskillen Gaels losing their intermediate quarter-final to Kinawley.
Others, most notably Derrygonnelly, were going in to November. And Fermanagh’s paucity of options meant that almost all of last year’s squad were back in harness by the time the McKenna Cup started in the first week of January.
It’s a long year that allows very little time for club football and even less for rest: “A lot of players didn’t finish until maybe a week before Christmas and you’re back within a short space of time," McCluskey said.
“Most of the lads were back in full training by the middle of January at the latest. It’s a credit that they’ve kept themselves in shape and continued to push on. It’s hard to balance when lads have been going for so long. Our club football pretty much completely stopped because of our progress in the Championship last year."
McCluskey, who will be 35 in June, was one of a handful of notable absentees for most of a hugely creditable league campaign for Fermanagh. He played their final two games, against Galway and Tyrone, from both of which they took draws that kept them in Division Two ahead of Armagh.
It leaves the former Irish League midfielder ready for what could be his last Championship in county colours: “Lads were thrown back into club football straight away after it and some of them - especially the Derrygonnelly lads - were going up until a few weeks before Christmas.
“I’d taken a bit of a break and, unfortunately, it wasn’t the same for some of those lads. They were back in to McKenna Cup football. The shortage of players and the number of boys at university, we really couldn’t have done anything else.
“Those lads had to play or we mightn’t have had teams in the McKenna Cup. It was tough. There were a couple of games we possibly suffered for that but, over the past couple of months, we’ve got back into the swing of things.”