Thursday 27 April 2017

Martin Breheny: Time for fixture-planners to show some imagination

Billy Fitzgerald (from Clonmel, Co Tipperary), Aiden Branch and Shane Branch (both from Kiltealy, Co Wexford), who were cheering on Ireland last night, will
be hoping that the fixture schedule will allow them follow the GAA championship action as well as Euro 2012 next
Billy Fitzgerald (from Clonmel, Co Tipperary), Aiden Branch and Shane Branch (both from Kiltealy, Co Wexford), who were cheering on Ireland last night, will be hoping that the fixture schedule will allow them follow the GAA championship action as well as Euro 2012 next
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

SINCE this column was completed by mid-afternoon yesterday, hours before the big soccer game, I can only assume that there was no Devon Loch-style disaster and that the Republic of Ireland are safely through to the finals of Euro 2012.

It will, of course, have implications for the GAA, even if not of the catastrophic proportions predicted when Ireland first qualified for the European Championship finals in 1988.

That was supposed to herald the start of a rapid decline for the GAA as a new generation, dazzled by international glamour, dumped Gaelic football and hurling in favour of soccer.

It didn't happen; not in 1988 when the famous win over England electrified the country; and not in 1990 or '94 or 2002 when Ireland's World Cup adventures dominated much of mid-summer.

Instead, the opposite occurred. Interest in Gaelic games surged in the early 1990s, with attendances showing a dramatic upswing.

Soon, the demolition crews were busily flattening the old Croke Park, which was replaced by a world-class stadium that not only became a symbol of the new, confident GAA but also saved the FAI and IRFU the embarrassment of staging their 'home' internationals in Britain while Lansdowne Road was being redeveloped.

Yet, the GAA had some foot-shooting episodes along the way. In 1988, Ulster was the only province to run a championship game directly against Ireland v England and it did so again in 2002, this time taking on Ireland v Spain, which resulted in only 7,000 attending the Donegal v Derry provincial semi-final.

Still, despite some minor PR setbacks, the GAA have coped quite well with the challenges thrown down by the showpiece events in a global game.

Now, they are about to face them again. They won't know until after the fixtures are made for Euro 2012 if provincial championship games clash directly with any of Ireland's games, but one hopes that, if they do, the necessary adjustments will be made. After all, it's in everybody's interests.

Ireland's previous involvement in major soccer tournaments shows that it has no permanent impact on the GAA, although, inevitably, it does have short-term implications -- not least in the battle for media coverage.

With no soccer championships, no Olympic Games and no rugby tours last summer, the GAA enjoyed record media coverage which, no doubt, contributed to keeping crowd levels higher than might be expected in the middle of such a deep recession.

However, the sporting environment will be a whole lot busier next summer, so competition for space will be much more intense.

That's a fact of life over which the GAA has no control and, of course, they can always be guaranteed huge coverage of the championships because of the level of public interest.

Beyond that, what exactly are the GAA doing to hold their share of media coverage?

Damn all actually. They close down the inter-county scene in September, just as soccer and rugby are cranking up, and rely on club championship fare from October until December.

They certainly can't complain about the amount of coverage the club scene gets, but the reality is that it will never compare with the county scene in terms of public interest.

The GAA's master fixture schedule for 2012 once again underlines the imbalance between the seasons, with the vast majority of inter-county games in all grades shoe-horned into the February-July period.

It's completely lopsided, yet, bizarrely, they have added the inter-provincials to the spring collection, slotting them in for February 19-26 and March 4 next year.

Most senior officials at GAA headquarters and down in the provinces (with the consistent exception of Ulster) want the inter-pros off the schedule. Indeed, several attempts have been made to scrap them, including not playing the competitions in various years, but the majority of counties stubbornly (and correctly) refuse to write them off.

Fixing them for February-March, two of the busiest months on the calendar, looks like another attempt to destroy them.

Meanwhile, the GAA can look across the Liffey towards Lansdowne Road and note how Munster v Leinster rugby attracts a crowd of up to 50,000.

The days when the GAA inter-pros drew such large crowds are long gone, but is staging them at one of the busiest times of the year the best the fixture-makers could come up with?

If that's the level of imagination which was brought to the 2012 fixtures plan, there's every reason to worry that the GAA hasn't a clue on how to deal with the challenge thrown down by international events such as Euro 2012, the Heineken Cup, Six Nations Championship and Olympic Games, all of which are on the agenda next year.

Irish Independent

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