Tuesday 27 September 2016

Mid-March madness - 57pc of schedules already completed

Inter-county programme is so unbalanced that several counties now have only four games left to play

Published 16/03/2016 | 02:30

Leitrim footballers in a team huddle for last year’s Connacht SFC clash with Galway – one of only two games they had between April and December 31, the same number of matches they had during the corresponding period in 2014. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Leitrim footballers in a team huddle for last year’s Connacht SFC clash with Galway – one of only two games they had between April and December 31, the same number of matches they had during the corresponding period in 2014. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

For reasons probably connected to the fact that in my young days the Railway Cup finals on St Patrick's Day were big attractions, I have always regarded this time of year as the official start of the GAA season.

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The Railway Cup finals were two of only six games shown 'live' on TV back then (the All-Ireland football semi-finals and final and the hurling final being the others) so they were something of a spring fix.

Besides, the National Leagues started in October, playing off four rounds before the Christmas break, leaving the January-April period far less cluttered than is now the case.

And guess what? There was a lot of sense to it. Of course any suggestion to play league games pre-Christmas nowadays would be greeted with horror, on the basis that players need a break.

Manic

To do what exactly? Pump iron in gyms or play with their local soccer or rugby club before heading into the manic early-season schedule which, in addition to hosting the full Allianz League programmes, features the All-Ireland U-21 football and third-level championships, plus the concluding stages of the club campaigns.

It's only when you examine it closely that the utter nonsense of it all becomes apparent.

And so to a little test. What percentage of the senior inter-county programme do you think has been played so far this year?

Bear in mind that it's only mid-March and up to this week, the weather was wintry and clearly not conducive to providing maximum enjoyment for players or public.

In fact, up to last weekend, it wasn't remotely suitable for hurling, yet the ash clashed week after week since early January.

Anyway, here's the truth about the lopsided scheduling. Between pre-season games and five rounds of the league, a total of 147 football games have been played so far.

In hurling, where four rounds of the league are completed, 113 games have been played, bringing the combined total to 260.

Now comes the really interesting part. The number of games to be played over the rest of the year is 197 (99 football, 98 hurling). It means that 57 percent of the entire senior programme has been played by mid-March. By the end of the month, almost two-thirds will be completed.

Gaelic football and hurling especially require good weather to have their skills showcased, yet over half of the yearly programme is played between January and mid-March. How can that make sense?

Here's further evidence of how crazy the system really is. Seven counties - Down, Leitrim, Wicklow, Carlow, Waterford, Limerick and London - lost in the first round of the provincial football championships and All-Ireland qualifiers last year.

If that were to happen again (and if it's not those, it will be others) it means that they have four more games to play in 2016. Some others have five games remaining if they get three championship outings, which is quite common. The same applies in hurling.

The football league's divisional phase finishes on the first Sunday in April, leaving some counties with only two more games for the rest of the year.

Despite that, club activity will be frustratingly haphazard, with players left idle for long stretches before squeezing in several games in a short space of time.

Inter-county costs in 2015 totalled almost €22 million in a system where most of the action is shoehorned into January-March.

If you were to talk to every GAA member, they would all agree that there's no sense to either the condensed early-season programme, the erratic club schedules or the amount of money being spent on inter-county teams. Yet, the nonsense continues because no agreement can be found on devising a balanced fixtures grid.

Blocking out the latter part of the year for inter-county action is part of the problem.

Streamline

We're told that it has to be kept free for club action but if the inter-county schedule were more evenly spread earlier in the season and if county managers weren't allowed to lock players away from their clubs, it would be much easier to streamline the fixtures.

Why did playing the early rounds of the league pre-Christmas work for decades, only to be regarded as out of the question nowadays?

Some counties would be without players involved in the provincial club championships but there are a lot of absentees at this time of year too for various reasons. Besides, only players from one club would be missing from the county squad.

Player burnout was high on the Congress agenda last month, yet little progress was made on lightening the load at this time of year. As for the clear anomaly where almost two-thirds of the inter-county programme is completed by mid-March, it wasn't even mentioned.

Silence sure ain't golden on this one.

Why are the best teams getting the best refs all the time?

Waterford football manager Tom McGlinchey has raised an interesting point by suggesting that top referees should be spread across the four divisions, rather than being almost exclusively appointed for the top games.

Other managers from the lower divisions have also expressed reservations about referees, which poses the question: why should top teams get top officials all the time? Aren't all players supposed to be equal?

Besides, some Division 1 games are easier to referee than ones further down so there seems to be a solid case for more flexibility in making appointments.

Meanwhile, Sligo manager Niall Carew claims that he has noticed a discernible difference between refereeing in recent weeks, as opposed to the first two rounds of the league. He believes that referees were much stricter early on but have since gone for the 'let it flow' approach, which makes it very confusing for players.

The same tends to happen in the championship, with referees becoming less fussy as the season goes on.

Suffice to say, it's much easier to pick up a black card in May than in August or September.

Cats and their captains link up with horsey set

How's this for hurling wealth: 53 years - 22 All-Ireland senior titles.

That's Kilkenny haul since 1963 and they are marking the incredible success rate by inviting all the captains as guests of honour at their annual race day, in aid of the players' holiday fund, in Gowran Park on Saturday.

Liam Fennelly (above) holds a special distinction, having twice captained Kilkenny to glory in 1983 and 1992. His brother Ger was captain in 1979. The O'Connor brothers, Eddie and Willie, brought the Liam MacCarthy Cup back to Kilkenny in 1993 and 2000 respectively.

In addition to the holiday fund, there's an opportunity for clubs to raise funds for their own activities by selling tickets for a race meeting which gets underway at 2.10.

Here's the full list of 21 Captain Cats who will be honoured.

1963: Seamus Cleere; 1967: Jim Treacy; 1969: Eddie Keher; 1972: Noel Skehan; 1974: Nicky Orr; 1975: Billy Fitzpatrick; 1979: Ger Fennelly; 1982: Brian Cody; 1983 & 92: Liam Fennelly; 1993: Eddie O'Connor; 2000: Willie O'Connor; 2002: Andy Comerford; 2003: DJ Carey; 2006: Jackie Tyrrell; 2007: Henry Shefflin; 2008: 'Cha' Fitzpatrick; 2009: Michael Fennelly; 2011: Brian Hogan; 2012: Eoin Larkin; 2014: Lester Ryan; 2015: Joey Holden.

Irish Independent

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