Club-only month of April creating "toxic undercurrent" in Antrim: Terence McNaughton
ANTRIM joint hurling manager Terence McNaughton says a “toxic undercurrent” has developed between club and county over the GAA’s decision to ring-fence the month of April for clubs only.
The Antrim hurlers have only a modest amount of training sessions to prepare for their Championship opener against Meath on May 5.
Should the GAA retain their club-only fixtures policy for April over the coming years it will, McNaughton claims, put clubs and county teams on an unnecessary collision course.
McNaughton has revealed that many of his current panel are being pulled in two directions because of a “crazy and disastrous” national fixtures programme that he believes should be “binned”.
“The Antrim management team are made up of four clubmen,” said McNaughton. “We will always be four clubmen and I do understand club managers but we didn’t create this situation.
“There is a toxic undercurrent now where you’re asking players to choose between club and county, and that’s wrong at every level.
“The whole situation is wrong. Croke Park gave the month of April over to the clubs and decided to start the Championship at the beginning of May. Did anyone in the room not ask the question: ‘So when does the county team train?’”
He added: “A lot of our current panel are getting the chance to play at a higher level than they ever would with their clubs. You can’t deny anybody who has ambition.
“There is nothing wrong with playing for your county – everybody should want to play for their county. Anybody that loves the game of hurling should want to play at the highest level they possibly can and if we create an environment where our players are not encouraged to do that, that has to be wrong. And that can be a disaster for any county.”
After narrowly losing a Division 1B relegation play-off with Laois, the Antrim hurlers were released to their clubs for the first couple of weeks in April.
With a mere 16 days to their Joe McDonagh Cup showdown with Meath in Navan, the Antrim hurlers are back training twice a week.
“From this week on we’d want the players flat out now. They can’t expect us to meet in the carpark before we go out and hurl. The whole thing is crazy.
“Some clubs don’t care about the county and are knocking at the players and giving us jibes. All we’re trying to do is a job for our county. We are not anti-club. We understand the club player should be playing…
“I played for 18 years with the county and over 20 with my club and I’d like to think I served both well.
“I also think it’s wrong that we [Antrim hurlers] will be going for six or seven weeks [in the Joe McDonagh Cup] and the clubs have no hurling. You need to keep people hurling.
“It’s up to club people to get our county representative to say that we can’t accept this because we’re put in the awkward position where we’re trying to prepare a county team as best we can and we feel we’re going against the clubs.”
The current club versus county tensions are probably being mirrored in other counties but it hasn’t been of the county manager or club manager’s making.
McNaughton says the current fixtures programme needs a radical overhaul and doesn’t believe it would take a lot of creative thinking to remedy the various issues.
“A hurler plays roughly 20 games in a year. We have 12 months in the year. Surely it can’t be that hard. We can put people on the moon, you can start your car by pressing a button; why can we not sort our fixtures out?
“I think the GAA should take all the fixtures, throw them in the bin and start again. We used to play a few League matches before Christmas and a few after Christmas and there wasn’t a wile lot wrong with that.
“Take Cuala: they won the All-Ireland Club and two weeks later they’re out playing in the Dublin Championship again.
“The GAA needs to start again on this. They need to give the clubs a fair shout and the counties a fair shout.
“Everybody loves playing quality games but to place players in a position where they’re not being supported to play for their county and they’re being told not to go to their county team is wrong.
“The one thing the county will do for every player is make them a better player. I’ve never seen anybody that it didn’t make them a better player.”
The Joe McDonagh Cup is in its first year but the quick turnaround for the competing counties has cast a slight shadow over the first round of games.
“We need every player we have. We can’t afford to lose players because Antrim hurling is picking from a small base,” said McNaughton, who expects Neil McManus to recover from concussion to play against the Royals.
Ironically, McNaughton says Antrim have never been on a more solid administrative footing and praised the good work that goes on behind the scenes.
Financially speaking, the county board has turned the fortunes of Antrim around and there is serious fundraising drives under way.
“Antrim has really good people in the county working behind the scenes – people like Tony Shivers and others – who are raising money and there’s good PR work being done too. We’re a lot better now than we have been.”
Antrim face Meath (May 5, Navan), Carlow (May 12 Corrigan Park), Laois (May 19, Cushendall), Westmeath (June 2, Mullingar) and Kerry (June 9, Dunloy) with the McDonagh Cup final scheduled for July 1 at Croke Park, a curtain-raiser to the Leinster hurling final.
Both finalists go into the All-Ireland Qualifiers - to face the two third-placed teams in the Munster and Leinster round robin - and will be one game away from an All-Ireland SHC quarter-final berth.
“The Joe McDonagh competition is a great competition,” McNaughton said.
“We could lose every game in it or we could win every game in it, and there are great incentives in it as well. It’s where we probably belong. Every team will be competitive in it.
Although Antrim suffered relegation from Division 1B last month, McNaughton said there were plenty of positives coming out of their League campaign.
“I know you’re judged on results but we would be positive about our year to date. Bar the Limerick game, we were competitive in every game. That gave the players confidence is something to build on.”