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Monday 1 September 2014

Colm O'Rourke: Closed season needs solutions before the revolution

The winter break concept is full of good intentions but a few minor tweaks would be helpful, says Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Published 12/12/2010 | 05:00

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How many have a problem with global warming this week? Last Wednesday when I was driving to work the car was registering minus 14 and I began to wonder was the thermometer on the blink or was a new ice age returning. It is certainly one way of ensuring that the closed season for November and December in football is observed.

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If it was 100 years ago, with this cold we could have been in training for an expedition to the South Pole with Scott, Amundsen or Shackleton. At 14 below, the great Kerry explorer Tom Crean, who travelled with Shackleton, would probably have been out and about in a string vest. He was a hard man and if he had stuck around, Kerry could have won even more All-Irelands. Anyway, this present weather is causing its share of difficulties but, like the Budget and all other great issues of the moment, they will pass.

One thing that is exercising some attention is the closed season which has been imposed by the GAA. Like most other stories, it is always better to start at the beginning. The committee which came up with this idea had numerous people of experience in dealing with young people, the best of medical knowledge and then a few like myself on it to make up the numbers.

A whole raft of proposals on player welfare were made and the closed season was just one of them. Most of the others did not survive the furnace of Congress where the considered opinions of the great and the good was that proposals to abolish the under 21 grade and merge it with minor in an under 19 competition was not a runner. Along with a lot of others too. It would have been good to see how a new competition would work for a year and especially as under 19s could not play on their senior county team. The principle behind the considerations was to try and bring some order to the multiple competitions that the most talented players from 18 to 21 are involved in. The idea was to set out a season for all county teams from minor up.

Like many small interventions in any system, it gives a mixed bag of results and throws up a share of contradictions too. One is that the very players we are trying to protect at this time of year, with an inter-county training ban, are in many cases training with third-level colleges. Of course that is true but they are only training with one team and probably don't have any weekend activity at all.

In January, the demands will increase -- club, county senior, county under 21 and college and, even with all the co-operation in the world between various managers, overuse injuries are more likely on sticky pitches. With numbers going to third-level colleges likely to rise in the present environment, the problems are only going to get worse.

One answer of course would be to have all the major third-level competitions out of the way before Christmas and play leagues after that which don't involve inter-county players at all. It would give a chance for colleges, which are jammed full of good club players who never get on the first team, to play and improve their standards. That might seem like a good idea but that pig won't fly any day soon.

The real problem is that GAA fixtures, or player welfare, can never be improved by a piecemeal approach. Unless and until some revolutionary president asks a select group of gentlemen to start from scratch and set out a proper calendar of fixtures for every single grade of football and hurling -- at club, county and college level -- then little progress will be made.

So in trying to make improvements by changing something small, it creates difficulties in lack of media coverage, players playing other sports and policing this closed season. This is a bit like all those Bacon reports years ago on the property market -- one gave rise to another as events took unexpected turns. The same often happens when you give somebody a wallop in a game because they are looking for it; that is fine if you can give a dig and things move on quietly. More often than not, someone else intervenes and you get a slap behind the ear, his father and mother abuse you roundly coming off the pitch, his girlfriend gives you a belt of an umbrella and the priest denounces you for a cowardly act from the pulpit. All for giving a cowboy a bit of his own medicine.

Another serious concern for a number of people is the shortage of games on the national television station as a result of the closed season. A bit of chicken and egg here. The lack of coverage from RTE, apart from the few summer months, is something I have written about in the past.

Ten years ago, I campaigned for league matches in spring and county finals in autumn to be part of The Sunday Game series. Not that I was looking for jobs for the boys but there are surely 30 such Sundays with interesting games. It is still possible to do it. There would be absolutely nothing wrong with leaving other broadcasters, TG4, Setanta or TV3 doing their matches and RTE covering

league matches from Division 3 and 4 in the spring and going to smaller counties to broadcast their county finals in the autumn. This would expose the real soul of the GAA and could focus on real characters in the GAA rainbow. It is proper public service broadcasting too.

What would be wrong with live league games involving the likes of Clare, Longford, Leitrim, Waterford, Tipperary, Carlow and many more? The only time they get on is usually as cannon fodder to bigger teams in the championship. There are lots of stories to tell in the counties that don't get to Croke Park. Similarly, an attempt should be made to visit all counties over time and show their county finals. People love their clubs in counties that are in the bottom divisions of the league just as much as in Kerry, Cork, Dublin or Tyrone. Showing championship matches in summer is a very sanitised version of the GAA.

All these things are a by-product of the closed season. It should be called the collective session closed season. For all the players who are going to be the stars next year, this is their most valuable training time, a time for pre-season work which should be used to build up weak areas so as to avoid injury in the new season. And I don't think it would be a good idea to have league matches in November just to fill a hole.

Maybe the closed season should finish at Christmas though. The week after is a good time to start the preparation for the new year and secondary competitions start in provinces very quickly in January.

All minor tweaking, none of which will square the circle or make pigs fly. Roll out a new canvas.

Sunday Independent

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