Wednesday 18 October 2017

Winter of discontent as fixture rows hit club scene

Chaotic match schedules deals new Club Players Association a strong hand. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Chaotic match schedules deals new Club Players Association a strong hand. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It's heading for late November so all should be relatively quiet on GAA fields as the season winds down and clubs and counties organise AGMs and conventions while also putting plans in place for next year.

The concluding stages of the provincial club championships, plus some tidying-up in various counties, should be all that remain on the agenda with Sunday, December 11 the close-down date for the former when Leinster football is completed.

Of course, it's never as straight-forward as it looks when it comes to GAA fixtures. Indeed, this year seems to be particularly turbulent with scheduling rows erupting around the country.

Kerry became the latest to hit trouble when the Dr Crokes v Austin Stacks Division 1 League final was fixed for today.

Dr Crokes, who play Waterford champions, The Nire in the Munster final tomorrow week, sought to have the League final deferred and even got the support of Austin Stacks.

The Kerry champions have been in action for the past nine successive weekends and wanted a break prior to the Munster final.

Refused

Down champions Kilcoo also had problems with a League final, which was fixed for the Thursday after they beat Glenswilly in the Ulster quarter-final.

They refused to play it and were also annoyed over having a U-21 championship game fixed for the same day as the Ulster senior semi-final clash with Maghery of Armagh.

The senior League title was awarded to Castlewellan but Kilcoo have appealed the decision to the Ulster Council.

In Meath, Simonstown Gaels, who won the county senior title for the first time this year, refused to fulfil a U-21 championship game, which was fixed for the Tuesday night before they were due to play Rhode in the Leinster championship.

Four U-21s were on the senior side, prompting Simonstown to seek a postponement of the county championship game in order to concentrate fully on the club's first venture into provincial action.

They also argued that since Meath clubs have a poor record in the Leinster championship, they should be facilitated so that they were in peak condition for the clash with Rhode.

However, their request for a postponement was refused and they were thrown out of the U-21 championship and fined €200. It has left a sour taste with the club at the end of their history-making year.

No Meath senior championship games were played between mid-May and mid-August while there was a further break later on too.

In Roscommon, Kilmore were infuriated when ordered to play a county intermediate final replay and a Connacht semi-final inside 24 hours last month.

There have been several other outbreaks of dissatisfaction elsewhere too as fixture-makers force a conclusion to competitions.

Those entrusted with that difficult task will argue that they have little choice since so much of the season is a largely club-free zone due to inter-county commitments.

They have a point but then it all comes back to the question: who runs the GAA in any county? Given the level of frustration that exists among club players, it's obvious that the fixtures' grid is in chaos.

It has been that way for a long time and despite the high-minded promises by the authorities at national level to address the issue, it shows little signs of improving.

It's against that background the Club Players' Association (CPA) has been formed, carrying a mission statement that it "intends to be the voice of the club player, protecting their well-being by delivering an unchangeable meaningful fixtures programme within a shorter season for every club player."

How successful the new organisation will be remains to be seen but the fact that it has been founded underlines the deep sense of neglect that club players feel.

It was well-articulated by Declan Brennan, a former Monaghan selector and one of the main driving forces behind the CPA.

"We don't necessarily see ourselves setting something up in stone for years ahead. It's more to identify the problems at the moment, and put forward what we think should be done. If we're not listened to, we feel from talking to people that there is player power on the club scene, and we'll try to do something about it.

"We need to help the administrators in Croke Park, who have so much bureaucracy and red tape to go through that they can't manage it.

"It has to come from the players themselves. They have to drive this over the line. They want time off, and they want to play football at decent times of the year.

Respect

"I see no difference between club and county players - they're all putting in the same effort and deserve the same respect," he said.

Nobody can dispute a single word of his analysis, which makes the need for the CPA perplexing.

Why if players and administrators accept that there's a problem with club schedules can't a solution be found, without the requirement to form a lobby group?

Obviously, the solution would come in different fits and sizes across various counties but there's no reason why more streamlined programmes cannot be devised everywhere.

It's ironic that Down should find itself with a club row since, other than Kilkenny, they were the only county to complete their senior football championships by the end of September.

The vast majority were played from the second Sunday of October onwards.

Quite why so many counties, especially those eliminated the All-Ireland race between the end of June and the end of July, are completing their championships so late remains a mystery.

Traditionally, the second Sunday in September was busy with county final action but that has changed in recent years for no obvious reason.

Most counties have long idle spells throughout the summer, with the county team holding up club programmes for as long as they remain in the All-Ireland race.

It appears no gap is too wide, as typified in Mayo this year where a round of senior club championship fixtures, fixed for the last Sunday in August, was deferred in order to give the county team four full weeks to prepare for the All-Ireland final against Dublin.

The replay further delayed the Mayo championship, resulting in the eventual winners, Castlebar Mitchels, playing on six successive weekends - a demanding schedule that may have impacted on them when last Sunday's Connacht semi-final clash with Corofin went to extra-time.

Obviously, the delay caused by the All-Ireland final replay was unavoidable but was it really necessary to have four weeks free of club activity before the first clash with Dublin?

As happens in so many counties, it showed that the county team gets priority, irrespective of the damage inflicted on the club game.

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