Annual 'burnout' clicks into full swing
BY next Sunday evening, some footballers from Leinster will have completed almost a quarter of the year's entire inter-county schedule.
By January 27, two Leinster counties – the O'Byrne Cup finalists – may have played 36pc of their yearly quota, since their guaranteed fixtures for the rest of year feature just seven Allianz League and two championship games.
The O'Byrne Cup finalists will have played five games (all in 21 days) in January, making it the busiest month of the year for them. And while panels are rotated to a considerable degree during this month's pre-season tournaments, the fact that counties have so many of the entire year's games are played in January underlines the lopsided nature of the GAA's inter-county programme.
Last night was due to feature the highest number of midweek senior inter-county games in GAA history, resulting from Leinster's decision to play the O'Byrne Cup with a round-robin system, which guarantees all sides three games.
There are busy January programmes in the other three provinces also as counties build up to the start of the Allianz Leagues on the first weekend in February. Footballers will play on successive weekends in early February, followed by a three-week break before they face into four games over 22 days.
They are guaranteed one game in April (some will have one or two more depending on qualification for semi-finals/finals), after which they head into the championship where they are assured of two outings. However, eight counties will have their season completed by the end of June and will be joined by another eight two weeks later.
The lopsided nature of the inter-county programme is illustrated in the accompanying table where the most startling statistic shows that January is the busiest month of all in football, where more games are played than in the entire May-September period.
Granted, the January action is confined to pre-season tournaments, compared to the high-octane championship programme in summer/early autumn, but the question still arises as to why the schedule is so imbalanced.
The current system of jamming so much into the first half of the year could be justified if it contributed to a smooth-running club schedule, but that's far from being the case. Indeed, there's widespread frustration at club level over the absence of a streamlined programme, especially in counties which enjoy extended runs in the All-Ireland.
We are left with the worst of both worlds with so much of the inter-county programme shoe-horned into the early part of the year, but not achieving the desired result of leaving more room for club activity later on.
It's quite bizarre that 65pc of all senior inter-county action in football and hurling will have been completed by the end of March, with the total reaching 91pc by the end of June. The remaining 9pc will be played in July-August-September, leaving the last three months of the year to the clubs.
The situation in hurling is even more inexplicable. It's clearly a game which is best suited to dry, fast ground, yet almost two-thirds of the programme will have been completed by the end of March, while only 7pc will be played in July-August-September.
Another interesting dimension to the programme hinges on the insistence on squeezing all league and championship games into Saturday/Sunday, thus missing out on the promotional opportunities available by playing games either in midweek or on Friday nights.
Interestingly, the Leinster counties agreed to play O'Byrne Cup games last night, yet a similar proposal in the league and/or championship would almost certainly be met with opposition.
The Football Reviews Committee, chaired by Eugene McGee, will make recommendations regarding various competition structures in the second half of their report which is due for release after Congress in mid-April.
They are expected to offer a menu of options for a revised championship structure, but it remains to be seen if that includes playing outside the weekend.
Meantime, the 2013 programme will continued on its lopsided path, with so much front-loaded into the first three months of the season that it leaves players in serious danger of burnout.