Kicking Out: Sheedy's comments a reminder of why split season is needed
WHEN Liam Sheedy retook the reigns in Tipperary in 2019, he was adamant he wouldn’t fall into the same trap as his predecessor.
The previous season under Mick Ryan, they had topped Division One, beaten Limerick after extra-time in the league semi-final and then lost to Kilkenny in the Division One final.
Tipperary would fail to win a game in the Munster SHC round robin, knocked out by June 10, as Limerick would go on to win the All-Ireland.
When Sheedy was asked about it the following February, he told The Irish Examiner that the blame lay squarely with Tipperary’s adherence to the April club month.
In 2018, three rounds of club championships were played on consecutive weekends, which he insisted couldn’t happen again.
In 2019, Tipperary clubs played one championship game in each code in April.
“It’s about trying to get the balance right,” he said.
“Let’s call it straight — 22 of the 32 counties absolutely ignored [the club month]. They can talk all they like about club month but if they’re serious about a club month we’ll have a club month; if they’re not, well move it.
"It’s typical in some ways, it’s not right. Why is it that some counties inside and outside of Munster will decide ‘well, we won’t play any club matches’ and other counties are going to try and flog the life out of each other for three or four weeks?”
Tipperary would win all four group games in Munster in 2019 and although they were beaten in the provincial final by Limerick, they would recover to win the All-Ireland.
As part of RTÉ’s live Sunday Game panel at the weekend, Sheedy recalled that his team’s first championship game that year was on May 12, yet this year the county was finished up on May 22.
And thus began the latest instalment of the tug-o-war over space in the calendar for inter-county games.
Anthony Daly and Donal Óg Cusack presented a united front: this split-season thing has gone too far.
Pat Spillane has been particularly critical about the same on the football front.
Their views would be shared by a lot of those at the top end of the inter-county game.
There are many out there who would argue that giving up August and September to the club game is promotional euthanasia.
But through Sheedy’s 2019 comments you get a sense of the problem.
In a lot of cases, inter-county managers are not willing to truly concede April to the club game. It became like selling your car but holding on to the keys, no good to either side really.
You couldn’t knock a club out of championship in April, and what transpired was either a handful of league games that county players barely played in, or getting in an early game in a round-robin system.
Tipperary’s championship campaign in 2019 began on May 12, but their league campaign had finished on March 16.
That’s nine weeks of dead space.
So was the solution to leave an empty month in the calendar, or to bring the inter-county championships forward? Fairly obvious answer there.
We can look at the championship in the context of its general flatness and lack of excitement so far, but that’s just the way the provincials have been of late.
The RTÉ panel highlighted youngsters flooding the field in Mullingar to get everything signed by the Galway hurlers, but the tone of the debate is as if the marker pen will have washed off by the time the weans get home, because this is damp May and not sunny June.
We’ve seen the lunatics let out of the asylum and on to Premier League pitches the last few weeks, headbutting and punching their way through the crowds, and it spoils the beauty of a pitch invasion.
But one of the absolute best things we’ve seen in a long time has been the re-growing trend of post-match invasions at GAA grounds.
The floods of youngsters coming on, particularly in Armagh this spring as their footballers dined out in Division One, hosting Kerry and the like, was just the most magical scene.
And it was happening in February and March, drawing in crowds of 14,000 and more.
Derry was ready to spontaneously combust with excitement after the win over Monaghan two weeks ago.
This weekend’s Ulster final will be a 28,500 sellout in Clones. When 2,000 terrace tickets went on sale last week, they were gone in eight minutes.
Look at the crowd in Portlaoise last week for the Leinster minor hurling final between Laois and Offaly. The place was jammed. What a special evening that was for those lads.
The problem with the inter-county game is not its timing, but its structure. The start of the provincial championships just contains so many mismatches that it would be a hard sell if it was the only sport left on earth.
And yet attendances are just about holding up. There has been a trend of decline over a long time but to go back to Munster hurling, four of this year’s 10 games attracted bigger crowds than their reverse fixture in 2019.
A total of 236,636 fans went to Munster group games in 2019, and that total this year was around 216,000.
The public’s appetite for GAA games is not dampened by the fact games are being played in April and May.
Their enthusiasm wanes because the league and All-Ireland series’ produces better games, and it’s expensive going to everything, so this has become the lull.
Emptying out April again won’t fix that, but what it will do is break the club game again.
The current calendar allows an absolute maximum of 17 weekends for club championships, including a bare minimum of four for the provincial series’, if you play them week on week.
That leaves between 11 and 13 weeks for counties to play their own championships. In a dual county, that’s not even close to a lot of time.
Giving any weeks back to inter-county would have the impact of pushing county finals back into late October, the provincial finals right to Christmas and the whole of the All-Ireland club series’ back into the New Year.
The whole idea of this is to bring balance to the calendar and to players’ lives. It’s not perfect but it’s a whole lot better than it was.
Inter-county football and hurling still has July. Club players deserve to share the sunshine stages of August and whatever hangs about in September. They should be allowed to feel the hop of the ball off the dry sod, to play a game without gloves and without the muck up to their ankles.
The inter-county game has to be used to build and promote the club game too. You can’t make a steak dinner without somebody rearing the cow first.
And there is no greater promotion than all these TV superstars back where they can be seen and heard and touched by their own.
The split season will fix more than it breaks. It has to stay.