GAA Football

GAA needs to have more balance between clubs and counties

Armagh hosted St Mary's in Crossmaglen in the McKenna Cup in mid-December last year, pulling young players like Jarlath Og Burns in different directions.
Picture Bill Smyth

TODAY – and tonight – sums up what the GAA has become. Its progress and its problems.

First up, this afternoon, the Fixtures Calendar Review Taskforce will unveil its report and recommendations today. Perhaps fittingly, that will take place in the GAA Museum at Croke Park.

Then tonight there’ll be the McKenna Cup launch. Not just in Belfast, not only in Stranmillis, but at Riddel Hall. Now a conference centre as part of Queen’s University, that was established as a university hall of residence for women by a pair of wealthy sisters of Unitarian belief.

Do your own Googling to find out about that, but it’s another indication of how the GAA has expanded its reach over the past century – but mostly in this one.

And that’s what the Fixtures Calendar Review Taskforce has been grappling with.

McKenna Cup games used to be fitted in as and when, whenever it suited both counties. Sometimes in the spring, sometimes into the summer.

As was the case last year, though, the McKenna Cup will begin before the end of December, although there’s no appetite for pre-Christmas games this time around, after two such in 2018. That’s partly due to the absence of the three university sides from the competition, a consequence of the earlier scheduling of the Sigerson Cup.

Oh, the Higher Education Championship draws are this morning too...

The GAA calendar is in flux, to put it politely.

Antrim hurlers in action at the end of November. Away to Meath. Nuts.

The Royals, and most other Leinster counties, in football action this coming weekend. Crazy.

Well, yes and no.

Just over 20 years ago, I was in Crossmaglen covering a match – not a club game, but a National Football League encounter between Armagh and Galway.

On December 12.

A week earlier Tyrone had hosted Roscommon in Dungannon.

Both of those were round three matches, although most of the last series of pre-Christmas games had been played by the end of November.

That was the way it was.

Much has changed since then.

Those National League games in October and November, sometimes into December, weren’t taken too seriously.

Indeed the League was a whole was largely dismissed. Championship was all.

The League matters much more now. Indeed, the 2020 National Football League might be taken more seriously by certain counties than ever before, with those at risk of dropping out of Division Two or failing to get promotion from Division Three facing the prospect of playing in a Tier Two Championship.

Probably the biggest alteration was ending the knockout nature of the Championship from 2001 onwards.

The formation of the Gaelic Players’ Association in 1999 was a factor in that, but there had been talk of the need for such change for decades, with half the counties training for months to play just one Championship match.

The groundswell of opinion eventually grew until there came that massive upheaval, altering the landscape.

Championship was no longer knockout, no longer ‘do or die’ (barring a draw and a replay). There was now a ‘second chance saloon’ accessed through ‘the back door’.

Still, for most counties that only meant only one or two more Championship matches (although there had already been a round robin format among the weaker counties in Leinster football in 2000).

Keeping players away from their clubs for 13 days before an inter-county Championship match could be accommodated when there weren’t many such games.

Now, though, the inter-county game has grown to monstrous proportions, overshadowing the club scene, taking up more and more of its space.

The big problem has been a change in mind-set, the idea that ‘club’ and ‘county’ are distinct, to the extent that some are now even advocating separate seasons.

While that would carve out clear space for the clubs, it would also mean no top level GAA to attract attention for most of September, October, November, December, January, and April.

The screens, sports pages, and websites wouldn’t be filled by club action (although it would get some attention, obviously) but more so by soccer and rugby and other sports. For half the year.

Yet perhaps that’s the way it will have to go, given the widespread lack of sense, the unwillingness to compromise by many.

‘Club April’ is a joke. Sure, club championship games are played in some counties, but in others, particularly those with an early start in their provincial championship, ‘county players’ are off limits to their clubs, making the whole concept largely meaningless.

The better players are pulled in different directions, by club, county, and place of education.

It was bad enough when training began to supersede playing, but now ‘pre-season assessments’ – whatever the flip they are - are deemed more important than matches.

The lunatic upshot of such attitudes is that certain players could have games all year round, in each of the 12 months. A youngish footballer from a big Dublin club, say, or a hurler in his early 20s with a leading Kilkenny side.

Whatever your opinion on it, it’s a fact that the GAA has become increasingly serious, quasi-professional at the top level.

The McKenna Cup matters because it’s ‘key’ preparation for the increasingly important League.

The ever-growing intensity and seriousness of the GAA cannot be undone, although hopefully financial limitations will at least constrain the arms race of training harder and longer, then harder and longer again, with more and more well-paid support staff surrounding managers.

Numerically, inter-county players aren’t even the tail but the tip of the tail.

Yet in terms of importance, at least as regards spectators, television viewers, and sponsors and advertisers, they are the cute face of the puppy in the shop window.

Too many club players, though, are treated like something at the end of the tail away from the tip…

In a sensible world players could feature for their club and their county on consecutive weekends, or certainly play for both in most months of the year.

There would be no matches in the cold and dark of December and January (Remember ‘closed months’?!)

Training would never take precedence over playing.

Sadly, that’s not the world we live in any more.

The GAA has to find a way back to having a better balance between club and county.

They’re not separate entities, far from it, they’re inter-related, inter-dependent. For now…

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GAA Football