Kicking Out: Derry throwing the first punches back for their clubs

Slaughtneil's Francis McEldowney celebrates with son Barry after the 2017 Derry SFC final. The moves by Derry CCC this week have been a dramatic step in redressing the club-county balance. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin.
Slaughtneil's Francis McEldowney celebrates with son Barry after the 2017 Derry SFC final. The moves by Derry CCC this week have been a dramatic step in redressing the club-county balance. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin.

PLAYING junior club football for most of your adult life has its distinct advantages, the most enjoyable of them being that you can be absolutely useless and still get to play.

Another is that the inter-county game rarely interferes with your playing schedule. In Derry, we haven’t had a starting inter-county player from a junior club since Terence O’Brien’s father Mickey in the 1980s.

The impact, therefore, is minimal. And for a lot of years, that’s how it’s felt. The junior league was always double-round and the championship’s had a back door or round-robin format for the last decade. In 2006, my first year of senior football, we must have played more than 30 games.

After winning promotion to intermediate for 2017, when you include the championship (in which we were beaten in our first game) and pre-season Ulster League, I played in 14 games from early February until mid-August.

Even with a poor attendance record at training (working Tuesday evenings, the commute, ate too much dinner, sore heel, tired, etc) it must still have been in the region of six training sessions for every game played.

You can relate just about every problem the GAA has back to the fixtures calendar but this one is at the very heart of the most vociferous and passionate of complaints. There are just not enough games.

In that respect especially, the last 20 years have been like a prolonged series of assaults by the inter-county game on clubs.

The club game has been beaten so repeatedly and so hard that it barely has the will to go on surviving. Its nose is broken, its eye swollen and its face beaten to a pulp.

But last week, Derry finally threw one of the first punches back.

Stephen Barker has only been head of the county’s CCC for a couple of years but already he’s overseen the radical restructure of club hurling fixtures in Derry.

Last year, with club players not getting anywhere near enough games because of the involvement of so many in the Christy Ring Cup, CCC introduced a second league.

The main league would be played with county players involved and would count towards seeding for that year’s championship draw. The secondary league would go ahead without county players but in a dual county where hurling struggles to compete for bodies, it offered a leg-up to the small ball game, and proved a hugely popular move.

What they’ve now done is apply the same principle to club football.

Instead of looking at the national calendar, removing the weekends that inter-county football is due to be played and working from there, Barker and the rest of CCC have gone down a novel route.

Every county has the same testing parameters to work between but instead of beating their heads off a brick wall, Derry have flipped the pancake.

This year, clubs in the county will have their county panellists available for each and every one of their 15 league games, as well as whatever championship games they get.

And while the senior league is set to be cut to 12 teams next year, the number of games won’t necessarily be cut, with avenues such as a split league at the end of the first 11 games being explored.

Trying to find ways to play club football with county players involved during the months of May, June and early July is like trying to find a way to put an apple through a letterbox. It just ain’t happening.

You can wail and gnash teeth about the infringement of the inter-county game on the clubs but all that ever comes of that is more conflict, most of which can never really be solved.

Derry will revamp their old district competitions, dividing them into groups of eight and giving every club seven guaranteed games during those summer months, with the potential for silverware.

The standard complaint, of course, is that those games will be meaningless and uncompetitive. Why must they be? They’ll only be that if clubs decide to treat them as such.

One thing you can’t do as a club is be given games, decide to put out a weakened team and then complain about how uncompetitive they are.

On the assumption that Derry won’t make it beyond the Super 8s, the players will return to their clubs to finish the league before heading into the club championship, which will start slightly later than usual in September.

There are no perfect solutions beyond a complete split in the club and inter-county seasons, and a shortening of the latter to the first six months of the year.

And perhaps when you look at the long game, trying to find ways to work around the demonstrative body that is the inter-county game only weakens the club game’s hand in the increasingly fraught negotiations for more weekends.

In a time where the message has long been that club players just want a regular programme of meaningful, competitive games, this gives it to them. It also gives the county players back to their clubs.

You can fight over the minutiae but on those two key fronts, Derry’s new plan looks like it will be a huge success, and strikes a long overdue blow for clubs.