GAA Football

Cahair O'Kane: Sunday games making players resent a game they love

Tyrone club football has moved to Friday nights this year, and it already feels like such a popular move that if they ever try to change it back to Sundays, the move will be resisted at all costs. Picture by Philip Walsh

NOT taking away from the eloquence and more measured approach of Rory Grugan’s tweets at the weekend, but I preferred the bluntness of Conor Murphy’s.

While the two men made basically the same point, and Grugan’s contribution to the debate carried significant weight given his standing on the county squad, it was Armagh Harps clubman Murphy who got the ball rolling in beautifully culchie fashion as he clearly pondered his life’s choices at 10.30pm on Friday night.

“Sickens my s***e seeing counties like Down and Tyrone play club games on a Friday night while us in backward Armagh stick to playing games 2pm on a Sunday. Whole weekend revolves around 60mins on a Sunday, give lads the chance to have a life, especially after the year we’ve had.”

At the time of writing, his words had been liked almost 3,500 times and shared the length and breadth of Ireland.

Armagh are like so many other counties in being steadfastly tied to the old tradition of club football on Sunday afternoons.

In rural Tyrone, Sundays began with one religion and carried into the other. Mass in the morning, home for the spuds and then up to watch the club. As such as day became night, the ball was thrown in for the reserves at 2.15pm and the seniors at 3.45.

This year, they’ve gone to Friday nights. On the one just past, there were 36 goals scored in their top flight. It was glorious fare.

The sun sat high in the sky as the followers baked in the renewed freedom that permits them to go down to the club, watch a game again and go for a pint after it.

It has not only been a long year for everybody, but one that has led to a lot of resetting of values.

As horrific as parts of it have been, the pandemic has also afforded people the time to rediscover what they truly value in their lives.

Nothing is more precious than time.

Wanting to play club games on a Friday night is portrayed as everyone wanting a feed of pints on a Saturday evening. And for some, that’s the case.

The beer garden, the sun, Euro2021 on TV, the craic flowing, it’s what the next handful of weekends should consist of if that’s what you want them to be.

In Tyrone and Down, it will. Elsewhere, players will be chained to the house.

It’s not about drink or drugs or women or men or friends or children or pets or parents or weekends away.

It’s about having that time and being able to do whatever you choose to do with it.

Anyone that starts to play football and continues it into adulthood knows that it is a weekend pursuit. Nobody goes into it blind. You expect that for a certain period of the year, your weekends won’t be your own.

It just doesn’t have to be the case for eight, nine, ten, eleven months of the year in some cases.

Sunday club football plays to the deepest complexities of a Gaelic footballer’s relationship with the sport.

How can you find yourself resenting something that you clearly love so deeply?

Playing with your club’s name on your breast, representing those that went before and now hang over the wire telling you you’re nowhere near as good as they were, giving smiles and warmth to friends, family and elders is something that nothing else in life can replicate.

But we’re not all built the same. Many do it for the parish and the people. Others do it because it’s something to do, and they just enjoy the feeling of kicking a ball about.

Gun to their head, they could walk out the gate and never come back quite happily.

There are more of the latter and fewer of the former in the generations that will fill our fields for the next century. We’ve evolved out of Guinness and turf fires. The world seems tiny and Gaelic football is more easily moved on from.

That makes Sunday club football every bit as backward as Conor Murphy says it is.

Because you only have to ask one question: Who actually wants it?

Players do not want club games on Sunday.

Managers want happy players.

Everyone wants happy wives and girlfriends.

Most importantly, everyone wants to be able to have a life.

Football is a huge part of life for most of those that play it.

The week revolves around it.

Every decision made on going out for a meal, going away for a weekend, kids’ birthday parties, nights out, holidays, they’re made around football.

But there’s no need for football to be such an obstruction.

It doesn’t have to be an either-or situation.

In Down, they have been playing Friday night football for a generation. It is overwhelmingly popular. The players could not be happier.

One is they do have is with reserve footballers in that players on the fringe of a senior team are then having to commit to two games on different days. Nothing is ever perfect.

In Tyrone, they’re going with 6.15pm and 7.45pm on Friday nights.

In the good light, it’s working. A huge factor in the decision, driven by CCC chairman and former referee Martin Sludden, was reserve football.

Sunday reserve games were being cancelled hand over fist. Teams weren’t able to field because, by their nature, reserve footballers in small rural villages just weren’t bothered enough to give up their entire weekend for it.

In the first two rounds this year, across all divisions, there have been just two games unplayed.

The move has been almost unanimously welcomed.

Managers have reported very little trouble getting players out of work and to the venues on time.

Tyrone is huge engineering and construction country. If they can make it home from a day’s hard labour on the site and get out for games in time, then anyone can.

This column still believes that Saturday evening at 4.30 and 6pm is king. It’s the time of weekend where the largest number of players would be available to their clubs.

For those that want their Saturday nights, they’ll have them. For those that want their Sundays, they’ll have them.

One problem in Tyrone is that there are a few clubs already training Sundays. It’s understood that one club trained last Sunday at 6pm. That’s an off-putting feature of Friday games.

But rest assured that if Tyrone ever tries to go back to Sunday afternoons now, it will be resisted at all costs.

Other county boards have to follow suit. I grimaced when I saw our fixture list in Derry for the year. The first six games, all Sundays. Our first two have been 2.30pm throw-ins.

For a home game at the weekend, I was gone out of the house for four hours in the middle of a glorious afternoon. Playing the game was great, but it would have been equally so on Friday or Saturday evening.

Slap-bang in the middle of a Sunday, the day is lost, the weekend is lost.

Footballers play football because they want to play football.

But they also want to live their lives and not feel that resentment towards a game they love.

Time seems more precious than ever.

Will the next generation of players be as forgiving of their weekends being wasted as their predecessors have been?

Friday or Saturday, whatever. Pick a day and run with it.

But for the love of God, no more club football on Sundays.

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