Sport Gaelic Football

Thursday 19 October 2017

Fans the real losers in battle for Friday action

Eugene McGee

Eugene McGee

For an organisation that has a reputation for being slow to make decisions, the GAA can sometimes, in a moment of apparent madness, go in the opposite direction and make an over-hasty decision.

Last week, for example, the Leinster Council held a meeting to draw up their championship fixtures for 2014 and at one stage it seemed that the first-round game between Longford and Offaly at Pearse Park would take place on the evening of Friday, May 16, as opposed to the more usual time of the afternoon of Sunday, May 18.

This was going to be an experiment by the Council to ascertain how a Friday night game in early summer would work out.

Earlier this year, you may recall, a similar Friday night experiment was made for the meeting of Laois and Carlow at Dr Cullen Park and almost everybody seemed delighted with the result. But this time it was all very different.

On the day following the Leinster Council meeting, word percolated from Offaly that they would not agree to play on the Friday. We got the usual reasons, such as distance between the counties (by the way, it is 42 miles from Longford town to Tullamore) and players needing to take time off work to get ready for the game.

Well, within a very short space of time the game was confirmed for the Sunday afternoon, and so tradition won out once again.

'Sure, Sunday afternoon is the natural time for a big game, wasn't it grand for the last 130 years so why change now?' was the logic used by those rejecting the proposed change. Of course what many GAA people still do not seem to realise is that Sunday afternoon is often not the best time of the week for 'lesser' inter-county games nowadays.

A match between Longford and Offaly, two Division 3 sides next year, will probably draw a crowd of 5,000 or fewer. There were almost 20,000 in Pearse Park when the teams drew in 1984, so there will be no scramble for tickets.

Instead, if it is a fine day, many families will find lots of other interesting ways to spend their Sunday, and it is the same with most provincial first-round games that do not have some special appeal such as the Donegal-Tyrone game last May.

There have been SFC double bills in Portlaoise in recent years with crowds of less than 10,000 in May or June. I have no doubt that the majority of people aged between 18 and 35 would prefer to watch the Longford-Offaly clash on a Friday night than Sunday afternoon.

Young people like to make an outing of such games and from what I know of the social habits of young Offaly people, they would be looking forward to a summer's night in Longford.

Of course the proposed Friday fixture had far wider ramifications than a mere first-round championship game. As we learned earlier this year, the GPA is taking a stand on what they call midweek games, claiming they cannot go ahead unless the players who lose wages because of the timing of the game are compensated, among other things.

It is a cornerstone of the GAA's amateur ethos that no players can be paid on such occasions. Stalemate is likely to exist for some time on this one and guess who will be the losers – that's right, the punters who wish to see the games as midweek fixtures.

Strangely, there seems to be no objections to playing Leinster and Ulster U-21 championship games under lights in midweek for the past few years and some of these players are also working. So what's the difference? Hundreds of club players also seem to have little problem travelling very long distances to play games midweek in their home counties and even to leave early from work to train for those clubs.

GPA members seem a special breed in the world of Gaelic football who do not feel obliged to make any sacrifice to allow midweek games to be played. Such games have the huge advantage, apart from the convenience of the games themselves, of making more weekends free to play club games thereby helping to solve the single biggest problem facing the GAA today, which is chaotic fixture-making in many counties.

COMPROMISE

If these impasse situations develop regarding playing midweek inter-county games then the GAA and the GPA will have to reach a compromise for the benefit of players and, more importantly, the followers of the game who pay admission money.

If any section of the GAA decides in their wisdom to play more such games then it is up to the GAA to make the hard call and ensure the games take place.

There is a widespread belief among GAA members that the GPA have a long-term plan to make county teams professional in some shape or form and that their opposition to weekday games is but the thin end of the wedge.

It is not a view of the GPA that I share simply because it is an impossible notion to have 32 professional teams in a country the size of Ireland. But of course there are several different levels of professionalism and paying players for loss of earnings is likely to be the first target for the GPA.

After that it is a slippery slope to total payment. Some people would agree with that development too but the question is where the boundaries would be drawn.

Would players want to be paid for a full day off work to travel from Tullamore to Longford? Would the Offaly County Board be capable of paying such demands? Would Croke Park be expected to subsidise the players' costs?

The biggest can of worms in the history of the GAA would be opened up should any form of direct payment take place.

Leinster Council chairman Martin Skelly was the man who tried to experiment with midweek games and most people were in favour of it. But the elephant in the room, this time pay-for-play in some form, will be the battleground, not Martin Skelly or the wishes of GAA followers.

Irish Independent

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