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Colm O'Rourke: Opponents of closed season ignore the burning issue

L AST week saw the final public act with the funeral of Michaela McAreavey and the families can now grieve in private. The death of such a beautiful, lively young woman has shocked and distressed the whole nation and seldom has there been such an outpouring of sadness and sympathy to both the Hartes and McAreaveys. Their character and dignity shone through, decent people faced with extraordinary loss.

The plain people spoke in each and every parish in Ireland with visits to the family houses or with prayers and good wishes. For Mickey Harte, who has done immense good work in helping others deal with tragedy in a quiet way, it is an appalling burden to have visited upon him. Hopefully the tears, prayers and support of the whole country, which is absolutely genuine, can be of some comfort to the families during the dark days ahead.

In this context it may appear extremely insensitive to even be bothered with football matters. Nevertheless, the issue of the closed season has begun to dominate discussions and the calls for its removal grow ever louder. As I have pointed out before, I was part of the committee which put motions to Congress on a variety of things relating to player welfare. One of which was to introduce a closed season. A number of other motions which went before Congress failed, such as amalgamating minor and under 21 into an under 19 competition, so in hindsight it probably would have been better to put the whole raft of motions together and let them all go down in flames if that was the considered view of the great and the good which makes up the annual carnival, sorry, meeting.

The problem with all those who oppose the closed season is that they are seeing the effect but not looking at the cause. Some now think there is no such thing as burnout at all. That obviously means an elite player should be able to train and play in the early part of the year with his College, county under 21 and senior teams, not to mention his club. So square that circle somebody.

The easy solution is that if the GAA want to retain all these competitions some of them have to be moved from their springtime slots when activity is at the maximum. The opposite is the case in the autumn when a lot of players have no games. The simple solution of course is to shift the Sigerson Cup and other third-level championships to late November/early December. All third-level colleges could then withdraw from the secondary competitions in the provinces which would suit county teams preparing for the league.

The reality, of course, is that the vast majority of county team managers could not care less about third-level competitions in the same way county minor managers feel about second level. Self-interest dominates and nobody at county level is looking at the bigger picture: the improvement that takes place in players at this grade, the social aspect and the number of quality officials that emerge from students having to run their own clubs. Yet the squeeze is coming on and the third-level sector should jump before they are pushed by bringing their big competitions forward to pre-Christmas and running leagues afterwards which cater for non-county players.

The other competition which needs a new date is the under 21 and this would free up the whole early-season calendar. This competition should be run on a weekly basis in October/November with Friday or Saturday fixtures under lights. There would be clashes with some players involved with clubs and colleges but anything is better than the current situation.

Yet the biggest shambles of all is happening at minor level. Another recommendation which was passed was that minor teams could only start training in March. The idea was to allow second-level competitions run close to completion without interference. This is being ignored in most counties. In many counties minors have at least half a dozen sessions completed already and of course county boards who are supposed to be policing this are completely ignoring blatant breaches.

So while all these initiatives are not exactly perfect solutions they were all designed to protect players. Another aspect of the committee's work was to educate coaches and promote better coaching but in many cases it is not working. The practice of running the guts out of young lads is still widespread. There are some clowns in charge of underage teams who feel that they have to give their players a bit of hardship to harden them up and if they get sick or fall down from continuous running -- without a ball -- then so be it.

Having being involved running underage football teams for over 30 years, I have learned that training should be short and based on developing skills. A coach who can't get enough done in an hour where there is constant movement with the ball should not be in charge of a team.

This whole approach was brought home to me a few years ago when we were involved in a Leinster colleges semi-final. Our best player, who was also on the county minors, went down with cramp late in the game. Afterwards one of the county selectors told me that obviously I was not training the team hard enough if cramp was a problem. The real reason was he had to do a 90-minute running session with the minors a few days earlier and the calves of his legs had seized up. There is no replying to this kind of nonsense. Little wonder then that some physios are making a fortune on the stupidity of trainers.

So I have absolutely no problem in changing or doing away with the closed season so long as those opposed to it come up with better solutions but Congress is one barrier to progress.

It seems that a county player who is not motivated enough to carry out his own training programme in the off season to ensure his body is right for the new year is not one you would be relying on. Still, this debate is only beginning and hopefully the new president will set up a task force to look at the fixtures mess. In the meantime, shooting the messenger is only ignoring the real issues.

Sunday Indo Sport