Danny Hughes: Kill off some competitions to sort calendar for players

With postponements putting the inter-county fixtures schedule under further pressure, there's an argument for cutting the Dr McKenna Cup off the calendar altogether Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
With postponements putting the inter-county fixtures schedule under further pressure, there's an argument for cutting the Dr McKenna Cup off the calendar altogether Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

While it may be a new year, you get the sense of déjà vu. As the weekend demonstrated, you cannot allow for our country’s weather.

Scheduling games at this time of year will inevitably be impacted by frost, snow and rain. Calling off games so late is inexcusable really, but such is the pressure being placed on county teams now by the provincial boards, this will most likely keep happening.

The fundamental reason a GAA calendar is almost impossible to agree upon is that there are simply too many competitions to cater for.

I think this was acknowledged within 100 days of the establishment of the Club Players Association [CPA] and a statement to that effect read:

“In launching the CPA we perhaps underestimated the scale of the problem and overestimated the ability of the GAA to get to grips with the real issues.”

I would hazard a guess that the same problems exist less than one year on.

When you look at the first 100 days of the season for the 20-year-old GAA player in Ulster, it’s worth considering.

Beginning with his own age group, you have the club U20 (U21 in some counties) championship to finish before Christmas.

Say, for instance, you are also picked on the inter-county U20 team, who are starting to train and prepare for the provincial championship. This team will require your time, energy and commitment.

Perhaps you are also lucky enough to be representing your county at senior inter-county level and, at this time of the year, the Dr McKenna Cup is your potential ‘shop window’ for securing a squad number later in the season, so commitment to the inter-county squad will be paramount.

You have probably secured a scholarship with one of the universities in Ireland and ensured that your fees and possibly rent are paid directly by the college. Participation in both the Ryan Cup and the Sigerson Cup is non-negotiable.

There is the inevitable ‘pressure’ and ‘pull’ between college and county managers on the individual.

Then there is the club, last and very much least.

The club pre-season will be starting in earnest late January, early February. And with the best intentions, the inter-county/ university representative will simply not have the time available to commit to a team at a different stage of training and preparation.

However, the talented elite will be expected to be available for all club league games.

(We have not in this case even considered the junior, intermediate and senior club championship participants who will exclusively still commit to their All-Ireland Club aspirations in the first 100 days of the year.)

Therefore, instead of the inter-county player becoming a true icon within their own parish and being visible to younger aspiring club players, the annual and early drain of the most talented individuals in our clubs at such a young age becomes a source of dread for the entire club and community.

When the inter-county representative returns to the club at the latter end of the club leagues and championships, in many cases they are mentally and physically exhausted, if not broken, from their season’s work.

When they eventually return from inter-county duty permanently, their best years will have been behind them and, perhaps creaking from injury, they will be a spent force, no longer fleet-footed and iconic within the community.

This may be the sad realism for some of our best players.

The calendar, however it is devised, redrawn and revised again will not put the club centre stage. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed.

The source of the GAA’s historical and annual wealth is from the inter-county game.

Commercial interests have created enough wealth to construct and pay for Croke Park and many of the stadia visible across the country.

It has allowed many clubs to construct and develop their own playing fields and community centres to a high standard.

What we need to adequately solve the fixtures ‘crisis’ as it is known, is fewer competitions.

Without sounding disrespectful to the Dr McKenna Cup, it no longer makes sense to run this competition off so early in the year.

Do we need to run the Ryan Cup?

I would also close the U20 inter-county squads to those who are representing and participating the senior county team.

Allowing for this will ensure that the dreaded ‘burn-out’ issue is not exacerbated at various levels by county managers themselves.

University students who are also representing their counties should be ‘banned’ from participating with the senior county team until after the Sigerson Cup competition is finished.

It is the only way to prevent the ‘pull’ from university and county team managers.

Club league games must be played with county players with the exception of 10 days prior to the provincial and All-Ireland Championships.

League games should continue even when inter-county players are ‘starred’ and, to ensure fairness, all counties should incorporate a play-off system in their league fixtures.

I can foresee that allowing April for clubs only at this stage will not work.

I think that the bringing forward of the All-Ireland finals to an earlier date is of minimal impact to the average club player. It is hard to see the logic in this move.

The ‘Super Eights’ are the real danger and will probably have the greatest negative impact on club fixtures for teams in the respective counties involved.

More county games will inevitably mean many club fixtures will be postponed or cancelled in competing counties.

The calendar is perhaps the single biggest issue currently and it may take one, two or three more attempts to get it right.

The important thing is that change occurs quickly and the GAA are not afraid to admit when it is not working early in this year’s experiment. Give it a year.

After that, though, the real tragedy would be to continue supporting a broken system.