Saturday 27 December 2014

The Great Debate: Will All-Ireland finals in December improve the lot of club players?

Martin Breheny and Colm Keys

Published 04/07/2014 | 02:30

Crossmaglen have been the most successful club team of recent years – including this victory over Ballinderry at Casement Park in Decemebr 2006, the same month that the All-Ireland finals will now be held. Photo: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE
Crossmaglen have been the most successful club team of recent years – including this victory over Ballinderry at Casement Park in Decemebr 2006, the same month that the All-Ireland finals will now be held. Photo: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

YES, says Martin Breheny

Completing the All-Ireland senior, intermediate and junior club championships by the second weekend in December – and surely it can't be any later – means that the provincial series will have to be finished by the third weekend in November.

That in turn will require that provincial campaigns in Leinster and Ulster, in particular, get under way before the end of October, which can only be achieved if county championships are completed by early October.

There's very little leeway in that schedule so, whether or not they realise it, county boards are facing a brand new organisational test. Their Central Council delegates committed them to that last Saturday when they voted to restructure the All-Ireland club championships so that they are played in the one calendar year.

The only way that can work is if counties play much of their championship programme during the late spring/summer/early autumn months, irrespective of how the county team is progressing in the All-Ireland race. That will be a major plus for the many club players who are often left idle for much of the summer while local championships are abandoned to allow the county managers unlimited access to their squads.

The lack of games during the summer months, the uncertainty of knowing when the championships will resume and the cramming of games into a short period late in the season are among the biggest gripes raised by club players.

It has got steadily worse over the last decade, reaching a stage where even counties who are eliminated from the championship relatively early still don't complete their local programmes until well into October.

Once it becomes the norm that all counties have to have their champions available to begin the provincial club campaigns no later than mid-October, they will have no choice but to conform.

No doubt, there will be initial threats to withdraw from the provincial championships by some counties, but that can easily be sorted out by introducing punitive sanctions if any of them see it through.

Forcing a December conclusion to the All-Ireland club championships may be regarded as a blunt instrument, designed to force counties to streamline their local schedules, but so what?

Many counties haven't reacted to the clear imperative to provide more consistent action for all their players, rather than just the county panels, but now the dynamic has to change if they are to be represented in the provincial championships.

NO

says Colm Keys

Late October 2012. Karl Lacey is being helped from the field at half-time in a Donegal Championship match. His season is over and the following season has effectively been written off too.

A month earlier he had put the finishing touches to his case for Footballer of the Year as Donegal secured a second All-Ireland title.

But six games in 22 days – yes, six games in 22 days – have brought him to his knees.

By Christmas, Lacey is in Santry Sports Clinic having corrective hip surgery.

Lacey was the victim of some exceptional circumstances. Donegal shelved their local championships until after their All-Ireland race was run and that led to a bottleneck of an unprecedented nature as the county sought to provide representatives for the Ulster club championships in time.

Under the new arrangement from 2016 onwards, that post All-Ireland schedule is only going to get tighter and tighter and more cases like Lacey's are sure to arise.

It is fanciful to believe that some counties will be able to wrap up their championships three weeks earlier to accommodate All-Ireland club semi-finals and finals in the same calendar year.

For sure the move will help those who win their provincial titles and can conclude their involvement in the All-Ireland series quickly.

But for the rest, is it really as simple as everything else falling into line behind those pillar provincial final dates that must now be strictly adhered to?

You only have to look at events in Clare last week when a number of second-round fixtures were pulled at short notice as the '13 day rule' was invoked to suggest no.

If Clare progress like last year and add in a successful All-Ireland U-21 campaign, when will that second round be played? What if they are involved in another All-Ireland final replay? Would they then meet commitments to having representatives in Munster club championships?

To succeed, counties will have to play their club championship fixtures much earlier but that has consequences too, shortening the club season for far too many.

By compressing the club season, the GAA may only be playing into the hands of rival sports who will offer longer and more sustained competitive seasons.

Many counties will be tempted to take the lead of Dublin and revert to knockout championships, and while that may lead to greater intensity, the fall-off in interest of club players over the summer will be even greater and, quite frankly, not worth it, for the sake of a few weeks at the end of December.

The only way playing an All-Ireland club final in December can work is if the conclusion of the inter-county season is brought forward.

And the promotional value of a mid to late September finish is unlikely to be sacrificed.

Irish Independent

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