Heffernan in call for autumn start to league
Cats legend insists switch can ease fixture logjam, writes Martin Breheny
Former Kilkenny star Christy Heffernan has called for a return to an autumn start to the Allianz Leagues so as to provide a better spread of games throughout the year and reduce the pressure points at certain times of the season.
While he was talking specifically about hurling, a similar argument can be applied to football, where the fixtures logjam is even more pronounced – especially in spring when the leagues, Sigerson Cup, All-Ireland club, U-21 inter-county championships and inter-provincials are shoehorned into three hectic months.
"Playing a few rounds of the league in October-November would give managers more of a chance to experiment with players than when the league starts in February," said Heffernan.
"By then, everyone is already thinking ahead to the championship, so the pressure is on. It leaves new lads with much less of a chance to make an impression as managers are already looking ahead to the championship and trying to get the team settled as quickly as possible."
Heffernan (right) believes that playing a few rounds of the league pre-Christmas would greatly decrease the pressure on the fixtures calendar in spring, while also having other positive spin-offs.
"There are still plenty of people who would like to see inter-county action at this time of the year. There are plenty of players who would like to get some games too," he said.
There's nothing better for players who lost out in the championship than to get back as quickly as possible. I'm not talking about playing every Sunday, but two or three games at this time of year would help on a number of fronts."
A proposal to return to autumn league action would, no doubt, alarm many of the GAA's power brokers on the basis that clubs are so badly squeezed for the rest of the year that they need the post-All-Ireland period to be completely free of inter-county activity. Heffernan believes that problem could be avoided by playing more club games during the summer.
"There's no reason why the club scene has to close down while inter-county teams are still in the All-Ireland championships, as happens in many counties," he said.
"Anyway, how many club players are playing big games at this time of year? The county champions are the only ones with more to do, but they could be left to get on with the provincial championships. Every county has enough players to field good league teams without the county champions. That's the way it used to be before the leagues were switched to a spring start.
"Even now, the counties whose champions reach the All-Ireland club semi-finals and finals have to do without some players for the early rounds of the league in spring. It's not a problem.
"The pre-Christmas games were always used by managers to experiment as much as possible. They could give new lads a few runs to decide if they were going to make the grade and then take a break to assess how things were going before coming back in spring.
"Now, it's all go from January when the Walsh Cup and Waterford Crystal competitions get under way, followed straight away by the league," said Heffernan, a four-time All-Ireland medal winner in 1982, '83, '92 and '93.
He believes that players would be quite happy to resume inter-county action in the autumn if it meant a less hectic schedule in the new year.
"What are players supposed to do at this time of year? Watch TV all the time? Players like to play. Pitches are usually in better condition at this time of year than in January/ February. Surfaces are a lot better now than when the leagues used to start in October back in my time," said Heffernan.
"So too are all the facilities, which are now left idle for months. Just because the league was changed to a February start several years ago doesn't mean it shouldn't be looked at again."
The hurling league switched to a spring start in 1997 and while the format has changed several times since then, the GAA has remained steadfast in playing the completion in the one calendar year. The football league switched to a spring start early in the last decade.
Heffernan's comments come at a time when the GAA's fixtures schedule is back under scrutiny, arising from crammed club action in some counties in recent weeks.
And while starting the league in autumn might appear the equivalent of tossing petrol on the fixtures fire, Heffernan's argument that more club games should be played earlier in the year has a certain logic.
The busy inter-county programme leaves little room for club action early in the year, which is by far the busiest part of the season. An Irish Independent fixtures analysis showed that 65pc of senior inter-county games were played in the first three months of this year, while 90pc were completed by the end of June.
Only 2.3pc of games were scheduled for the final five months of 2013.