Grainne McElwain: Tighter Championship schedule increases injury risks

Monaghan star Dessie Ward scored a match-winning 1-3 for Ballybay in the county decider. Pic Philip Walsh.
Monaghan star Dessie Ward was just one of the players they lost to hamstring injuries in the League Monaghan star Dessie Ward was just one of the players they lost to hamstring injuries in the League

THE Championship starts this weekend. It is hard to believe, as Championship time has always been associated with long evenings and warm weather. The clocks went forward last weekend so at least we have length to the day but the sun still evades us.

Childhood memories are made of going to venues, basking in the sunshine and watching your county play. However, pitches up and down the island are in a terrible state with the amount of rain we have had. At the moment, it feels more like the depths of winter.

Nothing is perfect and while I am a supporter of the split season as it gives amateur players the certainty of a fixtures calendar, I do accept it does not suit the majority of inter-county players.

Not every county team can give players time off for the pre-season competitions and National League. Teams like Dublin can, but their squad depth is at a very different level to that of counties like Monaghan or Leitrim, for example.

There is also a law of unintended consequences with the new season. By trying to regulate a more structured schedule for players, and by providing more games for them and for fans alike, the opposite has happened.

Fewer fans are engaged and attending games, while injuries have increased and there is a real danger that the best players from certain counties will not be available in time for the Championship.

The hope was that more games in a defined schedule would allow us to see the “superstars” from each county on a regular basis. More games also means a greater risk of injury and teams like Monaghan, Donegal, Roscommon and Galway have been affected by this.

A study conducted by Roe et al (2016) looking at Hamstring Injuries in Elite Gaelic Football over an eight-year period found that this injury had increased twofold per 1000 hours when comparisons were made between the 2008-2011 and 2012-2015 periods.

Hamstring strains are the most common ailment in elite Gaelic football, accounting for 20.8 per cent of injuries as well as 31.1 per cent of injury-related time loss. Players between the ages of 18 and 20, and over 30, were most impacted.

It was also noted that hamstring injury incidences are seven times greater in matches than in training. The study also found that recurrence of this injury was common and that it mostly happened without contact.

Another study by Dekkers et al (2021) found that lower limb injuries accounted for over 70 per cent of all injuries, with hamstring injuries ranging from 22 to 24 per cent of the total. Players over the age of 30 were at the greatest risk. It also found that Gaelic football athletes are 12 times more likely to get injured during matches compared to training.

I‘m not a medical doctor but we have seen this happening for ourselves during the League as players have pulled up in the course of games. In Monaghan’s last game against Mayo, Dessie Ward, Michéal Bannigan and Conor Leonard had to leave the pitch with hamstring injuries.

Everyone has an opinion on why this is happening but the research points to matches and the amount being played, rather than training workloads.

Monaghan's Michael Bannigan enjoys the evolution of the modern game despite the criticisms
Monaghan's Michael Bannigan enjoys the evolution of the modern game despite the criticisms Monaghan's Michael Bannigan enjoys the evolution of the modern game despite the criticisms

Monaghan face Cavan on Sunday in the Ulster SFC preliminary round, and it is fair to say the loss of Ward and Bannigan in particular will be keenly felt if they can’t play. It’s also very unfair to ask players coming back from injury to seamlessly fit in, but in counties like Monaghan, this will be the task.

It also asks the question of what duty of care the GAA and GPA have towards players. Should so many games be played in such a tightly packed schedule?

If players are at the core of the Association, how do we help them to ensure we see the best players playing at Championship time? Reducing games would help but going back to the way it traditionally was is not something most people want, and getting rid of competitions isn’t something county boards want to see either as they need the revenue.

Managing the amount of games players take part in is an option open to managers, but not every county has the luxury of being able to leave players out. Also, not every manager wants to do it.

I think we need to find more time, by adding a week or two to the overall schedule and allowing space for players to play and recover.

There was something wrong last week about having the provincial Championships press events on the same week as the League finals.

In terms of publicity and promoting the game, it sends out the wrong message. It is an amateur sport and players should be allowed to celebrate and savour their wins.

We need to make finding time a priority and allocate that extra week or two between the end of the League and start of Championship.

At the end of the day, the reason we all go to games is to see the best players perform.

Research has shown that injuries are more prominent on matchday than in training. It is a balancing act for managers, particularly in relation to those players who are returning from injury, and the hope for everyone involved is that they stay injury-free.

There is a strong possibility that those who are injured at the minute will not see much game-time in the Championship this year.

As fans, we certainly hope that is not the case. For the GAA, they need the best players performing to attract crowds and build interest.

The Championship is upon us and as we take out our flags and remain hopeful that we don’t have to wear thermals, the mantra ‘nothing beats being there’ echoes in our minds.

It’s the mantra all injured players are thinking of too.