Baker: 'All counties losing out from lack of games'
OFFALY hurling manager Ollie Baker admits to a tinge of envy at the resources available to his former Clare team-mate and current Dublin boss Anthony Daly.
Baker and Daly will be on opposing sides in a Battle of the Banner as Offaly travel to Parnell Park for Saturday's Allianz Hurling League Division 1B opening fixture.
Daly's Dubs have primed themselves for a fast start out of the blocks as they bid to launch their 2013 campaign on a positive note. The Metropolitans' Walsh Cup final victory over Wexford was a tasty starter that whetted the appetite for more silverware this year.
Ollie Baker's panel is restricted by injuries and the involvement of county champions Kilcormac-Killoughey in the All-Ireland club championship final next month.
He admitted: "You'd be envious of the selection headaches that Anthony Daly will have as opposed to what I'll be having on Saturday evening, but they're a fine hurling side.
"As they proved two years ago they have the ability to go on and win national titles. There's very few teams out there at this moment that have that capability and certainly Dublin are one of them. We're up against a huge, huge task on Saturday evening."
Offaly have Stephen Wynne on the long-term injury list while David Keaney and Del Morkham are doubtful with hamstring problems.
"They're not ruled out, and they'll be going through late fitness tests," said Baker. "We also have a number of people absent from the panel or who aren't available to us this year that were with us last year, so there's a lot of changes."
The Offaly manager is braced for a big challenge in Division 1B, as his team have only two home games and must travel to Dublin, Carlow and Limerick in a hectic run of five games in six weeks from this weekend to Easter Sunday.
"I would be a fan of the format but not the scheduling. The scheduling, you are just in a rush to get it over with," Baker said. "We haven't had a competitive game at national level since last July and now we're into the last week of February. In six weeks our league campaign is going to be over, and depending on the results, you might get one or two more games out of it.
"Then you've a two-month hiatus and you've got championship again. I don't think the fixtures do anything to improve hurling in the counties that don't make the All-Ireland semi-finals.
"You could write down five or six counties that have been in the last five or six All-Ireland semi-finals and everyone else has just been struggling to get game time," said Baker.
The Clare man has a point. In the last six hurling championships, Kilkenny have made six appearances in the semi-finals; Tipperary and Waterford five each; Cork three, Limerick two, and Galway, Dublin, and Wexford one each.
"The GAA, I feel, have let the ball slip a small bit in that regard, because it's as much about keeping hurling going in a lot of the counties as it is about Kilkenny winning the three-in-a-row or the five-in-a-row or whatever it may be. There's a huge amount of time during the year, when Offaly haven't been hurling at all, and that surely can't be good," Baker said.
"I'm blue in the face from saying it, but it's games, games, games, that are needed here. The ratio between games and training is totally the wrong way round. There should be way more games."
If that meant a return to the old format of the league beginning in October and ending the following spring, then so be it, even if clubs are involved in provincial championships in the late autumn.
Said Baker: "Counties don't have their players available to them who are involved in the provincial club campaigns, and that's going to be the same from the middle of October all the way through to the end of February.
"So why not play some kind of games before the Christmas period and let people out to play hurling? The only way the standard is going to grow is by playing more matches and the only way teams are going to get competitive again is by playing more matches.
"Supporters are crying out for it. We go from 60-70,000 people sitting inside in Croke Park for the All-Ireland final in September but the next competitive fixture isn't until the end of February.
"Just when the GAA is on a high, they just go into hibernation for four months.
"It's a huge loss in terms of how they're going to market their games and promote their games.
"As a result, in counties like Offaly, we're losing a lot of players through emigration and to other codes because maybe there's more of a structure in place for games.
"Young lads want to play games, so that's what they're going to do, they're going to follow where the games are."
As for the league, Baker proposes playing 10 matches, five before Christmas and five after Christmas on a home-and-away basis, with the top two ending up in the league final.
"I don't have all the answers but I can definitely see the problems. I don't mean to be going off on one here, but we're playing on Saturday evening against Dublin and we're put to the pin of our collar in that. But the way the league is structured this year, half the league will be over and I won't even have a third of my panel available.
"It's a good complaint to have in one way in that Kilcormac are in the All-Ireland final and Coolderry last year were in a similar position.
"But just from a national perspective there could be a bit more imagination put into the league," added Baker.