GAA Football

Kicking Out: Time for players to stand up in fixtures debate?

The only group with the power left to make a difference to the growing distance between players and their clubs is the inter-county players themselves. Picture by Seamus Loughran

“When you’re playing with the county, you're selfish and you think that the ‘club can wait’. Then I finished up with Tyrone and I had two years with the club before injury ended my days playing. We had been relegated and were favourites for the intermediate championship, but we had no idea when we were going to be out in Championship - if Tyrone lost on Sunday it would be in two weeks, if they won, God only knew. The playing population in the GAA is probably divided up 95 per cent club players and five per cent county players, but the system is stacked entirely in favour of the county players. That’s wrong and it has to change.”
Philip Jordan, February 2017

"The problem is inter-county managers have so much power and in a lot of the cases have a very strong view on fixtures and when they want their county players. If you’re an inter-county player you’re going to be judged on the success of your team and you want them all during the summer and you don’t want them going back to clubs and picking up knocks or things. That’s the way it seems to be going and I don’t see it changing anytime soon."
Colm Cooper, November 2016

“There’s a bit more selfishness coming into the set-ups from the management side who continually want their players, but players still want to play for their clubs. I’ve seen it and I’ve had lads coming to me [as Cork coach] begging to play for their clubs in league games. It’s all very fine being involved in these set-ups, but players want to play games.”
Diarmuid O’Sullivan, April 2019

BEYOND the obvious, what do the three quotes above all have in common?

It’s that they were words spoken by men who had considerable profile when they were playing inter-county GAA, but said after they had retired.

Now, by no means is that to take a stick to those three.

You could pick a similar quote from any one of a hundred former players.

Those were just the first three I stumbled upon.

And only for voices like theirs, whose playing days give them a ladder to get above the noise, the issue would get practically no hearing at all.

But ultimately, once they stop being a player, they’re just like everyone else.

It’s one thing to say and another thing to do.

Once you leave the jersey back into the kitbag for the last time and step out the door, you become powerless.

This column has continually sought answers to the issues around club fixtures.

The impact that Croke Park, county boards, county managers, the CPA, the GPA, club players all can have.

But what about county players?

Is it about time that they took a harder look in the mirror?

While players are in the inter-county bubble, they are never fully aware of what it is like for their clubs.

From November until April in any normal year, they don’t train or play with the club.

Then they’re released to play a handful of games. In some counties, they’re quietly told to limit that.

Then players disappear back to the county setup for another two, three, four months and return with their bodies exhausted.

Naturally, there is often limited appetite for getting battered around the place in club championship.

Primarily, it isn’t their fault. Nor is it their wish.

I do genuinely believe that players want to play for their clubs.

If the county season was chopped to six months in total, ending in June, players would be happier.

The opportunity doesn’t exist, and the situation is accepted.

This pandemic has created a unique situation in which nobody is going to get what they want.

Clubs would like the rest of the year to themselves. County teams would like more preparation time.

The reported situation in Wexford, where their county board is rumoured to be preparing to run off the club hurling championship before August 23, over just 21 days, is scandalous.

Really, you’d like to the think their county hurlers would have not only sympathy, but a sense of solidarity with the rest of the club players.

But let’s be real. Wexford should have beaten Tipperary in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final. Had them beaten and tossed it away. They feel they are on the cusp of a rare All-Ireland.

Why would any of them want to rock the boat, when there is nothing but personal risk and almost certainly no gain?

If a player took a stand on his own, they’d either be told to come in or get out. They don’t get to choose the terms.

Individuals can’t make it happen alone, but as a group, their powers multiply.

We are standing in front of a defining few months for the club game.

In a statement released today, the Club Players’ Association has called the shortening of club championships within the 11-week window “sacrilege”.

It is the perfect description.

The inter-county game has nibbled at the edges of the club game for decades, eating its way into a week here, a weekend there, a training camp or two, until there’s nothing left.

Club championship has always been sacred ground, though. The one time when clubs don’t have to dance to somebody else’s tune.

That too is now threatened.

And once the genie leaves the bottle, it will not be put back in. If club championships are breached once, they’ll be on the table forevermore.

Many club schedules have been cut to fit, doing a huge disservice to the vast majority of the playing population.

That’s not a 2020 problem. That has been happening for years.

The GAA has no inclination to fix the problem.

County managers have no interest in fixing it.

Past players have a voice but their powers are diminished.

Club players make up 98 per cent of the playing population but have neither voice nor power.

That only leaves one group of men.

Inter-county players hold a far greater power than they realise.

‘Be the change you want to see in the world’.

It will take bravery and selflessness, to realise that there is more at stake than one’s self.

But if players really want to play for their clubs as they say they do, if they want the inter-county season shortened, then they are the people who can make it happen.

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