Sport

Enda McGinley: Priorities must be right for the health of the fixtures

Club April is drawing to a close and it's important to question its benefit or otherwise to the association

As April draws to a close and clubs enjoy their last game before going into a summer hibernation it seems a good time to review the success and effectiveness of ‘club April'.

The initiative was part of the fixtures overhaul that came out of last year's Congress and was part of the suite of changes that included the Super 8s in the

inter-county football Championship.

It was the GAA's considered response to the fixtures crisis, which had reached a critical point at that time with the creation of the Club Players' Association and much discourse related to the imbalance between the club and county games.

It is obviously challenging to interpret the full merits, benefits and difficulties of the changes to the fixture calendar when every county essentially acts as its own island.

Around Ulster, most counties have reverted to straight

knock-out championships and sensibly do not attempt to play these in April.

Elsewhere in the country, club championships have been in full swing.

Up here, most counties simply get several rounds of their league played off. The issue, as last year's club championships demonstrated, is that teams which showed strong

early-season form struggled to carry this through the interrupted season and produce the championship form their

early-season results suggested was possible.

Understandably, clubs are taking a much more cautious approach to this year's early-season games.

The actual level of games we have seen this April is still high quality, but this is more a testament to the widespread rising of teams' baseline conditioning and skill levels than any particular early-season push in team preparation.

As club managers wrestle with the challenge of preparing for a completely split season, it shouldn't be a surprise if these initial club games become glorified challenge matches.

If this type of approach is prevalent then one really must question the actual point of ‘club April.

Given, an average club might have 14-18 competitive games in a season, a batch of games played early in the year before an extended break and three-four months before the proper stuff starts in August and September hardly represents a significant step forward for the club game.

If anything, it is a demeaning,

half-baked platitude.

Going back to the press releases at the time of the fixture changes, it appeared the proposals were not the radical overhaul that the Director General at the time, Pauric Duffy, felt was required.

Instead, they were the pragmatic moves that could be negotiated through the often conservative GAA Congress which would get the ball rolling towards the changes it was clear Duffy felt was truly necessary.

In this way, the fixtures crisis is not dissimilar to the issues with our health service.

Within health it has been made clear from multitudes of research papers that the best of modern health care requires highly-trained specialist staff, cutting-edge equipment and modern facilities and thus tends to be offered by fewer and more specialised centres.

In the North we have the remnants of our old health system based on small local hospitals and an imbalanced geographical positioning of our major hospitals.

Money has been spent on report after report, which all recognise the same issue.

If starting from a blank page, the structure, in terms of the number of hospitals and their location, would be very different but politician after politician has baulked at the idea of being the person to make the major moves of shutting down hospitals and moving services.

The health service feels like it belongs to us and we tend to let our own local priorities take precedent over the longer term vision of an ideal system.

It would take hugely impressive leadership and collective will to ever change it.

And so to the fixtures issue.

Again, like healthcare, the problems are easier to identify than to solve.

The issues I've raised are evident for many, but the solution is harder to come to without some potentially significant changes to key foundations of our games.

The first discussion that must take place is about what the priorities are and where sacrifices can be made.

By priorities, I mean, for example: Should the county game have primacy over the club game? Should both have access to the summer season? What length of county season can provide the game with the vital interest and media coverage levels to keep it competitive against other sports? What level of protection do county teams need from club games for county team preparation? What competition structures can be lost?

Some simply argue we need to cull the county game and put the majority of our weight towards the club scene, yet this ignores how a successful, high profile and glamourous inter-county level within the GAA positively impacts every level of the association.

Far from just driving revenue, it inspires young players to play the sport, creates occasions to bring whole counties together and often serves to give an entire country a sense of identity and something to be genuinely proud of.

It facilitates all involved with the game in that greatest of aims – to be the best you can be.

Given this value, it is right that it is given a degree of priority during the key months in the calendar.

Its competitions, however, cannot be afforded additional layers just for the sake of tradition.

The provincial Championships have importance and historical value, yet in a straight shoot-out between them and club, the club game is more important.

Going back to the health system analogy, if you were starting with a blank sheet of paper to create county-level competitions you would never end up with the ‘Dr McKenna Cup-National League-provincial Championship-All-Ireland Qualifiers-Super 8s-All Ireland Championship' dog's dinner of a structure currently in place.

Considering this ridiculous structure of the county game, the plea bargain deal of a club month in April and a club championship hemmed in at the other end of the summer becomes hard to accept.

The current fixtures calendar was only ever meant to be a trial period from which further development was to ensue.

At times it may feel like an unsolvable riddle.

Yet the average county team plays (even generously including the pre-season provincial cup competitions) approximately

14-18 competitive games in a season, while the average club has 16-18 games.

To fit such numbers into a calendar year is undoubtedly possible but only if we place the quality of both club and county competitions ahead of our local interests and historical attitudes.

Only then will the real, brave solutions begin to present themselves.

Until then we will keep coming up with a few sticking plasters to tide us over.

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