Split season should bring balance between club and county scenes

Kenny Archer

Kenny Archer

Kenny is the deputy sports editor and a Liverpool FC fan.

The CPA has got its wish for split season to give more space for club fixtures.
The CPA has got its wish for split season to give more space for club fixtures.

Certain incidents stick even in my patchy memory.

Yet a quarter-final match at an Ulster U21 Club Football tournament, a game which didn't even feature an eventual finalist, wouldn't have been expected to do so.

The reason wasn't even a brilliant individual performance, but rather an absence of one – or three, to be precise.

Kilcar U21s were representing Donegal in the tournament at Creggan, county Antrim, against Monaghan side Magheracloone.

I'll be honest, I had to check the date of that – it was five years ago, early 2016.

What sticks in the mind is the Kilcar U21s having to field without their three best-known players: Stephen McBrearty, Eoin McHugh, and Ryan McHugh.

The reason might have seemed reasonable enough, that they were involved with the county senior side.

But although it was late January, it wasn't the start of the National Football League, not even the McKenna Cup.

Nope. It was for a challenge match.

It was understandable that McBrearty would want to prove himself with the county senior side, trying to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious brother Paddy.

Even Eoin McHugh, highly-rated though he was, hadn't been able to establish himself in 2015, years later revealing that he had suffered meningitis.

Yet Ryan McHugh? The destroyer of Dublin around 18 months earlier. The light-footed speedster whose 2-2 had led the Dubs' defence in a merry dance.

The player whose performance in an All-Ireland semi-final had produced a result which resonates all these years on, the last time the Dublin footballers lost a Championship game.

Standing on the balcony at Creggan, gazing at Lough Neagh (on a good day), where the welcome was always much warmer than the wind, all the chat was about the Kilcar absentees, and how unnecessary it seemed.

A challenge game? Over a provincial tournament?

2016 was the year that the groundswell of unhappiness rose up from the grassroots to form the Club Players' Association, which was officially set up in early 2017.

There were plenty of other examples, from other counties, of various 'club versus county' debates and dilemmas, many of them at senior club level.

All too often, almost invariably, the county held sway, with players forced – or choosing, or a combination of both – to put the county first and their club second

It wasn't quite the tail wagging the dog, but the public face was utterly dominating the rest of the GAA body, to the extent that the latter was often forced to be inactive.

Inter-county matches dictated the schedule, with many county boards putting off programmes of club games at short notice. Or leaving vast swathes of the summer blank as regards club matches because of the ongoing interests of county teams.

Alternatively, club players sometimes had to be too active. The window for club games became smaller and smaller, leading to farcical situations in county and provincial club championships with teams scheduled to play major matches on consecutive days.

All that was ever needed for club and county scenes to work well together was common sense.

However, that always limited quality had become increasingly rare over the years. Every time I typed those words 'common sense' I knew they were pointless.

County demands on players were becoming all-encompassing. The desire to do better, to improve, is always there.

That led to a spiral of more training, more expenditure.

'County men', once seen as a source of immense pride for clubs, became almost a disparaging term. They were rarely around the clubs, accused of not caring about the place which had nurtured them.

Most, though, felt torn. Splits are usually seen as negative, but the decision to go with a split season in the GAA, county followed by club, has been widely welcomed, and looks like repairing much of the damage which has been done over the years.

Interestingly, Ryan McHugh's famous father Martin is on the new CCCC, the GAA's Central Competitions Control Committee.

New GAA President Larry McCarthy, referring to the club then county scenario which occurred last year, commented:

"I think the inter-county lads going back to their clubs and playing with their clubs for an extended period was something they also thoroughly enjoyed.

"They once again felt like full members of their club and team and were no longer trying to save themselves for someone else. I think they all enjoyed that very much and that's a lesson for us. Adopting the split-season will hopefully continue that."

It's strange that something which only a year ago would have been regarded as rather radical then passed through Congress at the weekend with barely a murmur.

There was much more consternation about taking away the right of two pairs of hands to lift a trophy than about taking the All-Ireland Finals out of September altogether – and into July.

McCarthy put it well that the strange circumstances of last year brought about a better way almost accidentally: "Inadvertently we learned that having the club playing in the middle of the summer is the thing to do and we have recalibrated the calendar accordingly and adopted the split season as the model going forward.

"So now the clubs have the hard ground to be playing on in so far as they'll now be playing at the best time of the year and on pitches in their best condition."

Top level GAA will have a shorter timeframe in the 'shop window' but it seems right that the bulk of the Association's matches will be played in the best weather, in late July, August, and September.

2020 and the coronavirus crisis has changed everything.

McCarthy also pointed to a greater appreciation of the clubs, what they mean, what they provide: "The importance of the club became very, very prevalent last summer in terms of what the club did at a local level in supporting their own communities. We will continue to support them as much as we possibly can."

Sure, the boost for the clubs comes at the expense of the counties.

In the literal sense that could be beneficial in terms of cost-cutting, with a time limit now on inter-county preparation.

Of course, that's assuming inter-county managers won't be seeking collective training sessions and challenge matches from September 2022 onwards…