Club and county calendars remain the biggest problem in the GAA
I met Kevin McStay for a sit-down interview in the Armagh City Hotel before the Irish News Ulster Allstars bash last Thursday night.
McStay was guest speaker. Situated in a quiet spot in the hotel lobby area, the Mayo man was great company for over an hour.
Apart from hitting a linesman with the ball down in Hyde Park in the summer, McStay strikes you as an easy-going sort of fella.
He talked about his three years with Roscommon, why Dublin’s dominance won’t last forever and his high expectations for Tyrone over the next couple of years.
Any journalist who has been in post-match press huddles with the outgoing Roscommon boss would be quick to acknowledge McStay’s affable, candid nature.
The only time he became really vexed in our interview last week was over some media outlets reporting player power had forced him out of the Roscommon post.
McStay’s version was slightly less controversial. Life, he said, had caught up with some of the Roscommon players.
He explained: “Four or five of the best lads I’ve ever worked with contacted me and said: ‘Look, I’ve just finished college… ‘I’ve just started a new job’… ‘I’ve been doing a 200-mile round trip out of Dublin three times a week for the last three years as a senior player’ (three-quarters of our team are in Dublin, Galway and Limerick)…
“Guys wanted to see America, Dubai and Australia… I can’t argue with that. This is where life gets in the way of football. One or two lads retired, which is the usual flow of it…
“A lot of these guys were our best players and are hugely committed to Roscommon. They were simple to manage, never gave us any trouble.”
There are roughly 64,000 people living in Roscommon.
Winning a Connacht title, as they did in 2017, is probably as good as it gets for counties like Roscommon.
The new Super 8s – the All-Ireland quarter-final round robin format – further bolsters the prospect of the best teams reaching the semi-finals and final and diminishes the chances of a Roscommon or a Tipperary gate-crashing into the last four.
Roscommon suffered three defeats out of three in the inaugural Super 8s. It appears the players who decided to put their inter-county careers on hold in Roscommon have taken a pragmatic approach.
There comes a point in a player’s career where something has to give.
The GAA/GPA commissioned the Economic and Social Research Institute to carry out an in-depth study into the effects of playing inter-county Gaelic Games.
The report runs to 296 pages.
The study articulates many GAA people’s suspicions: playing at inter-county level has become something of a Darwinian pursuit, that there is an imbalance between a player’s career and their sporting endeavours.
And it explains how many of the respondents (taken from the 2016 season) compromise on their sleep and link this to accumulating injuries. The study also expresses concerns around players’ mental well-being.
“Players, the study reads, “aged 18 to 21 had particularly high levels of overall Gaelic game time commitment during 2016 because the majority played with four or more teams.
“While changes were made to the club and inter-county minor and U21 grades in 2017/2018 to address the issue of over-activity among this group, the effectiveness of these reforms may be hampered as no modifications have been made to the Higher Education (HE) competition structures.
“If such changes are not feasible, then consideration needs to be given by college and county management teams to collaborating.”
When such a weighty study suggests collaboration between managers you realise that its findings won’t change anything, particularly when the vast majority of the 1,037 respondents enjoy playing at elite level.
What didn’t get a lot of airing was the fact that many inter-county managers are well versed in player welfare.
When St Mary’s won the Sigerson Cup last year Mickey Harte had to hold the likes of Kieran McGeary, Conor Meyler, Conall McCann and Cathal McShane back from returning to Tyrone’s training too early.
“We're always very liberal with our players if they've been working hard and doing things we wouldn't put pressure on them,” said Harte.
“They've got to enjoy this [Sigerson] victory because it's a well-earned victory.
On Meyler’s excellent contribution, Harte said: “It's a matter of watching that he doesn't over-tax himself because this has been a hectic few months for him and we need to make sure we don't over-load him just now.”
There are countless examples of inter-county managers helping players to continue to play at the highest level for as long as possible.
Charlie Vernon, now living out in Magherafelt, had agreed with Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney to do some of his sessions at home rather than commuting to Armagh.
Lenny Harbinson of Antrim has preached to his players the importance of their professional careers and tries to work around certain circumstances.
That said, the ERSI study is an invaluable, instructive piece of work and points to the time commitments placed on players and how their employment or studies suffer as a consequence.
But the problem is the GAA calendar and players – not just inter-county players – being pulled in different directions at certain times of the year.
The starting point should be separating the club and county seasons, improving the training session to games ratio - and ditching the subsidiary competitions.
In that case, a lot of the warnings contained in the ERSI would be rendered redundant - and counties like Roscommon might be able to retain their players if the inter-county season was shortened significantly.
Commissioning reports, issuing inter-county training bans and persisting with club-only months all prove the GAA hasn’t really grasped the nettle yet.