Kicking Out: If there was a Sigerson solution, we'd have found it already

The Sigerson Cup and the start of the inter-county season are in perpetual conflict, and it isn't working for anyone, least of all the players. Picture by Hugh Russell
The Sigerson Cup and the start of the inter-county season are in perpetual conflict, and it isn't working for anyone, least of all the players. Picture by Hugh Russell The Sigerson Cup and the start of the inter-county season are in perpetual conflict, and it isn't working for anyone, least of all the players. Picture by Hugh Russell

JIMMY has three apples. He has two glasses. He can only put one apple in each glass. How can Jimmy fit three apples into two glasses?

I tasked my six-year-old with solving this puzzle yesterday. Sat the apples and glasses on the table and everything. The most telling part of the whole escapade was the puzzled look on her face. A look of shame and disgust that kind of said ‘why don’t you know the answer?’ and ‘why glasses?’ (It was the nearest thing to hand).

It’s fairly simple. Three into two doesn’t go.

The GAA’s calendar is, for the first time, split into two fairly even portions. Not quite halves but after generations of fighting for a quarter of it, the clubs are quite happy with their lot.

Inter-county teams even seem to be warming to the idea. The benefits of a shorter season have become more apparent. For them, the big downside is the gap from the end of one year to the start of the next.

Yet a fairly sensible approach worked itself out this autumn. Counties had a bit more freedom to go back into full training sooner. Players came back as their club seasons ended. They had a couple of months of a pre-season, time to rehab injuries and get some work done.

What we’ve seen in the early weeks of the football league is testament to that.

Mayo’s two games in particular have been played at something very close to championship pace.

The McKenna Cup was nothing like pre-season football. Tyrone and Derry’s two meetings and the Oak Leafers’ clash with Down were especially vigorous for January.

The county season and the club season will never sit still with each other. Their shoulders will keep on rolling for eternity, trying to nudge the other across a bit, looking an extra week or two out of what they’ve been given.

But as Tom Ryan said last week, this is the future now. There won’t be September All-Ireland finals again. Nor should there ever be.

County and club were always able to fit into the same twelve months with the right attitude towards making it work.

But what doesn’t fit now is university football.

The Sigerson Cup has no home in a new calendar, but it had no home in the old one either.

Rightly or wrongly, that’s how it is.

New Meath boss Colm O’Rourke, a Sigerson Cup winner with UCD in his day, had his say after Meath’s win over Clare on Sunday.

He called what was happening “abuse of players”, listing the injuries, the fact that none of his Sigerson-tied players could train with Meath and then saying it “needs to be put on at a different time of the year.”

Nobody would argue with him that it’s grossly unfair on the players to be expected to play Sunday, Wednesday (including extra-time) and Sunday again.

The Sigerson hasn’t been helped by the January weather leading to a flood of postponements and a backlog of games that ran through the opening weeks of the National Leagues.

But there is no obvious solution here. If there was, we’d have found it already.

The inter-county season is short and precious. The league is so important to about 28 counties, and to Gaelic football itself. The quality of springtime games continues to improve every year.

Disbanding pre-season competitions would make no difference. If anything, it could make the players’ lot worse.

The “abuse” that Colm O’Rourke terms is in public view. Taking away a McKenna Cup or O’Byrne Cup or FBD League wouldn’t stop the abuse, it would only camouflage the games, of which there could be even more.

The Sigerson Cup created some of its own problem by expanding when it could least afford to. The introduction of a back door appears deeply unpopular with those involved on the university circuit, which begs the question of why they would do that.

If the intention was to fight back in the battle for calendar space, Higher Education was always going to get the bloodied nose.

Yet the current impasse is fraught with danger for the clubs.

That’s because the most commonly referenced solution is to throw the Sigerson in before Christmas.

This year’s competition began on January 10 and will run until February 15. Take those 36 days and move them “before Christmas”.

Put a final on December 22 just past, for argument’s sake. That means the competition starting on November 16.

Most county championships finish in mid-October. Last season’s Ulster Club championship ran from November 5 until December 11.

For those still involved at that stage, it’s a non-runner. For the rest, it’s the one guaranteed rest period in the calendar.

You can’t run the Sigerson Cup through that because what happens the players then?

It’s all well and good to say ‘ah we wouldn’t do that to the clubs’ but would a university that’s giving a big name player a scholarship and looking after him in return for his involvement in a Sigerson team really be prepared to just say ‘ah sure don’t worry about it’?

The clubs need protection from ever being put in the position.

A pre-Christmas Sigerson would be disastrous. It would not fix the “abuse” of players and it would almost inevitably lead to abuse of the clubs.

The inter-county season ends in July. By then, a significant number of the men that played in it have gone to America for the summer.

Highlighted as a problem initially, it was interesting that the Ulster Club final this year was contested by two clubs – Glen and Kilcoo – who both lost a handful of key men to the States during the summer. It didn’t do them one bit of harm because they approached it sensibly.

That summer spell is a non-runner for universities anyway, given that they would be out of term time.

The GPA don’t know which side to take. On one end, there’s the player welfare issue around the volume of games.

On the other, they’ve always strongly encouraged third-level education and, understandably, for players to take whatever they can get to make their lives easier.

Being a student on a scholarship until you’re 23, 24, 25, it’s the most conducive day-to-day lifestyle aside from the obvious lack of income.

Scholarships means a commitment to play Sigerson football. For inter-county footballers, that means a clash with the start of the leagues.

The GPA will stay silent until they’re forced to speak.

This whole issue is supposed to be their entire raison d'être, to protect the welfare of the players, yet they cower in the back seat.

Is the solution that third-level students pay their own way for their own education, removing the obligations to play Sigerson? If the GPA then want to stump up then to help them fund their studies, then do so.

The current situation of players jumping back and forward from university to county team is unsustainable.

And the universities can't win either.

It’s not just empty stuff. Players are very definitely suffering over this. Their bodies can’t take it.

Pre-Christmas isn’t the answer.

October and November, worse still.

January isn’t working. February won’t work.

The Sigerson Cup doesn’t fit.

If there is no action taken on removing third-level students that are on inter-county squads from the Sigerson Cup then these wheels of discontent will be in perpetual motion, and the two sides will spend the early season blaming each other for it.

Three into two doesn’t go.