Wednesday 16 October 2019

Eugene McGee: GAA must show real will to solve fixtures problem

IT'S terrible that one of the top games of the Gaelic football season has to be played within one week of Christmas Day -- and in conditions that are not only unsuitable for good football but also add to the risk of injury.

Yesterday's Leinster club senior football championship final was thankfully completed without problems and using O'Connor Park in Tullamore was a big factor in that outcome.

The fact that we had a super game of very competitive football and that Garrycastle made history in such dramatic fashion should not be used by officials as justification for playing a Leinster final on December 18.

The GAA nationally and locally has come a long way in making the organisation more efficient and this has been recognised.

Yet two outstanding problems continue to surface on a weekly basis. One is the plague of unsporting and often violent conduct that besmirches the good name of the GAA. The other is the inept attempts at providing GAA players with a proper fixture list comparable to those enjoyed by their counterparts in rugby and soccer.

Playing the St Brigid's versus Garrycastle game on December 18 is just the latest proof that fixture-making is the biggest problem in the GAA, rather than more publicised matters such as county board finances or All Star trips to California in December.

It's only fair to point out that there are specific problems relating to making a proper fixtures calendar in the GAA that do not apply in other sports.

Dual players, those eligible to play on anything up to five separate teams and the connection between inter-county and club championship matches are just a few of these.

However, like most problems in the GAA, if there was a real will to solve them, they would be solved.

But that will is not there to a sufficient degree to make the hard decisions that are needed to solve the fixture-making crux. And it is the ordinary club players who are the losers.

The trouble can be traced back each year to the failure of some county boards to finish their own club championships in good time, ideally by the first week in October.

But that affects only the elite club teams, those who win a county championship and so qualify to compete in the provincial and All-Ireland competitions.

For the vast majority of club teams and their players, the problems occur throughout the season from April to September.

The demands of county team managers, which have been well documented, are a major part of the problem.

But that would not be so if county boards were strong enough to overrule the managers and insist that club matches be played regularly.

In many cases they are not and the vast majority of club players are left sitting on their backsides for anything up to 12 weeks while the demands of those in charge of county teams are allowed ruin pre-planned fixture lists.

The staging of the Dublin county championship this year was typical of the problem and largely explains why the Leinster club final took place yesterday.

Contrary to what some GAA people claim, there are ways of solving this fixture disease. Club games should be played up to two weeks before a county team plays a championship match, with the exception perhaps of the All-Ireland final.

As far back as 1955, the Kerry county final was played on the Sunday before the famous All-Ireland decider between Kerry and Dublin -- and it didn't do Kerry any harm.

The notion that players should be distanced from their clubs while their county is still in the All-Ireland race is a total fallacy.

If we are to believe the reports coming from many county team training sessions, varying from 6am gatherings to seven-days-a-week training, players are at greater risk of being injured with the county team than when playing a club game.

As far as I can recall, the majority of serious injuries suffered by players in recent years have occurred while involved with county panels.

County board officers have the power to clear the decks for a proper club fixture list in summertime if they have the courage do so, or the interest of club players at heart.

In fairness, some county boards have taken a stand on this matter but not nearly enough.

The fact that most counties now play their club championship under a league system has aggravated the fixture problem rather than relieve it, but it is the clubs themselves who make such decisions, as they are entitled to.

There is a school of thought that says that bringing the All-Ireland finals forward would greatly help the club championships. However, this is not really the case, as only the leading clubs who reach the closing stages of the county championships would benefit from that.

The real club fixture problems are in May, June and July, when the greatest number of clubs are still in the competition.

Undoubtedly, it is a massive challenge for the GAA to come up with an enforceable and fair club fixture list but it is one which would bring rich dividends for thousands of players around Ireland if it could be achieved -- and Christmas could be a GAA-free occasion.

• Of the many excellent GAA books published this year, the one which probably required the most painstaking work and research is 'Breifne Abu' because, amazingly, it contains the results of every inter-county and club championship game involving Cavan from 1886 to 2011.

I never thought such a work of research could be attempted, let alone produced with such panache by the author George Cartwright from the famous old GAA club Cornafean.

The book must be the envy of nearly every other county in the land. Towards the end of the 368 pages, Cartwright throws in a selection of old ballads from the glory days of Cavan football, including, 'The Gallant John Joe' (O'Reilly).

Irish Independent

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