GAA fixtures set-up serving neither club nor county properly
BY the close of play in the National Football League tomorrow, the senior inter-county season will, in terms of the number of games played, have passed the three-quarter mark, even though the year has only just ended its first quarter.
Between next week and January 2011, counties who lose their first game in the provincial championships and are then eliminated next time out in the All-Ireland qualifiers, will have had just two games in nine months.
That's a depressing fate which befell Leitrim, Carlow, Offaly, Waterford, Clare, Armagh and London last year, while Louth, Longford, Westmeath, Tipperary, Sligo, Monaghan, Laois and Cavan had just three games.
So nearly half the counties were served up the most meagre of fixture rations in a nine-month period which included part of spring, all of summer and autumn and most of winter.
There will be changes to the actual counties dumped into the same dark hole this year, but the numbers will remain fairly solid. Meanwhile, all counties will have played seven league games in just over two months, having prepared for them with pre-season outings in cold, snowy January.
The imbalance in the inter-county schedule is graphically illustrated in this year's figures.
Barring replays in the provincial and All-Ireland SFC, the entire number of games in pre-season, National League and championship will be 251. That figure comprises 124 league, 67 pre-season (Connacht League, O'Byrne, McKenna, McGrath Cup competitions) and 60 championship games.
It's far from being an unreasonable load, yet the carve-up has to be unique in world sport. Where else are three-quarters of all games fitted into one quarter of the year, some of which is deep winter? And if the first few months aren't busy enough, third-level competitions and U-21 championships are shoe-horned in, too.
Once mid-April is reached, the inter-county scene tapers off dramatically in terms of the number of games played, while at the same time gaining importance as it powers into the championship.
In theory, it looks all very neat for a dual-purpose, multi-code organisation -- a busy January/ February/March followed by a lull in April and early May before the championship kicks in for the summer run to late September, after which the years belongs to the clubs.
In reality, it's anything but that smooth. Worse still, it doesn't achieve what it's supposed to. How can it be healthy for football and hurling that so many counties get so few games in the nine months from early April to early January?
And what of the costs involved in training teams for so few summer games? A total of around €20m -- or €385,000 per week -- is spent annually on running inter-county teams, much of which goes on championship preparations for what can be a two-game programme stretched over several weeks.
After tomorrow, only the divisional finalists have any interest in the league. The others will intensify championship training, even if some are nearly two months away from their first game. Indeed, in Leitrim's case, they have to wait 10 weeks for their first outing on June 20, which is a week longer than the duration of their entire league campaign.
Keeping large panels in training is an expensive business, which makes a streamlined fixtures programme essential. It's ridiculous that a county has a 10-week wait between the end of the league and the start of the championship, just as it's wrong that the losers of Derry v Armagh, Wicklow v Carlow and Kerry v Tipperary on May 16 will have to wait six weeks for the All-Ireland qualifiers.
What are they supposed to do in the interim? Abandon inter-county training and lose their edge, or work for another six weeks for what may be only one more outing? No wonder the club scene suffers -- not to mention county board coffers.
There are no easy solutions to the scheduling in an organisation that caters for such a multiplicity of inter-county competitions across two codes while also trying to accommodate club players.
However, what's clear is that the current structure serves neither club nor county properly.
On the county side, far too much is squeezed into the first three months of the year, while clubs continue to complain that they are badly treated in summer when many local programmes are seriously restricted in order to give county teams maximum opportunity to push their championship case. When that's finished, clubs can face several games in the space of a few weeks in the rush to finish the championships.
GAA director-general Paraic Duffy points out in his annual report that the most persistent criticism made by clubs is the negative impact caused by county teams to their schedules. Specifically, he mentioned the role of county managers in persuading county boards to largely abandon club championships while the county remains in the All-Ireland race.
Since taking over as director general, Duffy has repeatedly emphasised the need to free up more time for club action. That creates the impression that the problem is caused solely by an excessively large inter-county programme when, very often, it's down to poor organisation at local level.
While allowing for the fact that counties have to cater for football and hurling, many are much stronger at one than the other. So, if the NFL divisional games are finished by tomorrow, leaving half the counties with a maximum of three senior inter-county games in the next nine months, why should they have any problems with club fixtures?
John Greene (Longford), chairman of the National Fixtures Planning Committee, points out in his annual report that while games programmes don't meet the basic needs of club players, many of the problems are avoidable. His committee is currently working on plans to streamline the entire fixtures set-up, both national and local, with a target date of 2015 to complete the process as demanded by Croke Park's Strategic Vision and Action Plan.
It's a very difficult task and while they must be conscious of club needs, it's also important to find a way around the unsatisfactory situation which currently exists where so much inter-county action is crammed into the first three months of the year.
Many of the problems caused by not providing enough club games on a consistent spread throughout the year could be solved if county boards lived up to their responsibilities and refused to close championships down while the county team remains in the All-Ireland race.
Blaming the inter-county game for club woes is a cop-out. Only 60 senior inter-county football games will be played between May 1 and January 1 next. Now how on earth can that cause such problems for clubs, unless of course county boards allow it?
Providing club players with a regular flow of games is vital, but it's also important to improve the balance of inter-county activity. It is, after all, the GAA's main promotional vehicle and needs to be promoted like never before at a time when global sports are being beamed into every house in the country, day and night.
This weekend, for instance, the final round of the National Football League has to compete with major rugby, golf and racing events. That would be a difficult challenge for the GAA at any time but even more so when the NFL has been damaged by the head-to-head rule which removes the edge from many of the games.
A final point. Given the pressure to find dates for club action, how can it make sense to have a fixtures-free Sunday in May? It was introduced last year as part of the GAA's 125 celebrations but has been retained this year, with May 9 being set aside as a day when clubs are to host family-friendly events which do not include competitive fixtures.
It's a nice idea, but not in the month of May.