Martin Breheny: Early-year overload is not solving fixture crux
Counties have played up to 12 games so far but may have just two more
By the close of play last Sunday, almost 70 per cent of the GAA's senior inter-county schedule for the year across football and hurling had been completed.
Confined to football alone, it runs at 73 per cent. In addition, only five games remain in the All-Ireland U-21 football championships while third-level competitions are over.
Staying with football, a total of 182 games have been played in pre-season competitions and the Allianz League. That leaves six league ties to be completed before the focus switches to the All-Ireland championships which, barring draws, have 60 games.
Now, if almost three-quarters of all football activity is completed by the first week in April and 70pc has been played across both codes, it would be logical to assume that the remainder of the programme, albeit the most important part, could be worked into the system over the coming months without major disruption to club schedules.
It won't, of course. As the year progresses, stories will emerge from counties where club players have been left without games for months. That will be followed by a manic burst of activity as county championships are shoehorned into a short space of time in order to have champions available for the provincial campaigns. Meanwhile, in the background, lurks the proposal to complete the All-Ireland club championships by December from 2016 on. It has the backing of senior GAA officials, who are trying to persuade counties that it's not only desirable, but also feasible. It will be a hard sell.
The first three months of the year are ridiculously overcrowded with inter-county action. Then, after the first week in April the pace slows dramatically, before cranking up again for the championships.
That's where the real excitement takes over on the road to Croke Park in August/September.
Among all the glamour and glitz, it would be easy to forget some stark realities, the main one being that most county teams are guaranteed very little action after the first Sunday in April.
The majority of counties will have played 10 to 12 games by now, but may have as few as two more over the rest of the year.
Offaly, Westmeath, Derry, Fermanagh, Leitrim and London had only two outings each in last year's football championship; Louth, Wicklow, Carlow, Wexford, Cavan, Antrim and Waterford had three each. That's 13 counties involved in very few games after early April.
In hurling, Clare, the 2013 All-Ireland champions, had only three games, as had Offaly.
Counties don't provide a time-based breakdown for the cost of training teams, but given the amount of preparation that goes into the championship, it's safe to assume that huge expenditure is incurred in the April-early July period.
With many county managers now in tight control of club schedules through their insistence on having exclusive access to the squad for as long as they wish, it's difficult to envisage any improvement in the lot of the club player any time soon.
In fairness, some of the championship schedules are difficult to figure out too. Galway footballers could have played three Connacht championship games (v New York, Leitrim, Mayo) by June 14, six days before Sligo have their first outing.
The provincial championships have always been law unto themselves, not least in Ulster where the organisers insist on running the eight games over separate weekends, which is scarcely conducive to regular club activity in the various counties.
Provincial championships apart, one thing is clear: running off 70 per cent of the entire senior county programme by the first week in April is a serious overload for all concerned.