Páraic Duffy throws down GAA fixtures gauntlet with new proposal
Earlier All-Ireland finals and abolition of U-21 football championship at core of proposed haircut for GAA schedule
"The time has come to take decisive action."
So writes the GAA's director-general Páraic Duffy in a discussion paper on player burn-out and the fixtures calendar that distils some of the contents of eight different reports over the last 12 years in an effort to bring clarity and real structure to the morass that fixtures in the association has become.
In essence, it is a rigorous 'short, back and sides' to the unkempt mop of games and layers that have developed with the growth and overlap of inter-county and club competition over the last couple of decades.
It aims to trim rather than reconstruct, taking some of the aspects of previous related documents like the two player burn-out reports in 2007 and 2008, the Football Review Committee and Hurling 2020 reports of 2013 and 2014, the minor review work-group in 2014 and the GPA's 'Never Enough Time' student report published earlier this year to ease loads on the elite and find more time for clubs.
With the backing of a president, Aogán ó Fearghail, who has made a better fixtures programme the cornerstone of his three-year term, the GAA at central level have thrown down a challenge to its units and membership to do something about a problem that is a perennial soapbox issue for players, managers and administrators.
"If we care about the welfare of our players as we say we do and if we want to provide our club players with a fair and meaningful schedule of fixtures as we claim we wish to do, then we can no longer simply talk about addressing these issues," Duffy writes in the report.
"Are we going to practise what we preach by taking the welfare of our young elite players seriously and by providing the vast majority of our players with a fair and regular schedule of fixtures? The evidence that we are failing on both counts is irrefutable."
An 11-point plan has been arrived at for discussion, some of which demands big decisions including a revisiting of the abolition of the inter-county U-21 competition which was proposed in the 2007 burnout task force chaired by Dr Pat O'Neill but never saw the Congress floor due to a palpable lack of support at the time. Is there a mood for change there now?
With some of the measures now proposed the GAA is putting its money where its mouth is - literally.
A proposal to play extra-time in all matches is included, potentially reducing the number of replays that are financially rewarding and have such promotional benefits. But that's a hit the GAA, at central level, are prepared to take, though the views of provincial councils may differ.
The congested period between January and April and the multiple eligibility of inter-county players for teams in competition in the 17 to 21 age-group is targeted to relieve some of that pressure.
Surprisingly, no concrete proposal to replace an U-21 competition with U-19 is made, though it is discussed. However Duffy is not in favour, sensing that many eligible at this grade would be involved in second- and third-level competitions.
"Given the level of over-training and the time spent on the preparation of underage teams the dangers of simply replacing one competition with another are clear," he states.
However, precluding U-19 players from playing in Sigerson Cup and League (until their U-19 interests are over) could resolve some of the issues.
Under the plans the U-21 hurling championship would be compressed to play the final almost one month earlier but because the number of games is just 11, by comparison to 20 in football, it remains largely intact.
To create more time at the back end of the season, a couple of subtle changes are proposed.
Duffy has long argued the value of championships that stretch into September because of their promotional effect to the association but now concedes that All-Ireland finals brought forward by two weeks are feasible for the greater good of the club player, especially with plans to complete all competitions in the one calendar year with All-Ireland club finals being played by mid December.
A move to change the minor inter-county grade from U-18 to U-17 was not considered by the Minor Review Work Group last year because they felt that the support for it would not be there among the relevant stakeholders.
But by making that change a majority of players are taken out of conflict with Leaving Cert and A Levels and, with the earlier conclusion to championships, the number of games in August and September affecting club programmes drops from 40 to 11 because U-17 can no longer play at adult level from 2016 on.
Duffy argues that tradition and precedence are "insufficient arguments" for resisting change in the face of the challenge to our values posed by the issues of player welfare and the denial of fair competitive activity to the majority of our players.
"A rebalancing of priorities is needed," he writes.