Tuesday 21 November 2017

Colm O'Rourke: Fixtures overhaul only way to end GAA's great divide

The over-emphasis on preparing county teams is hitting clubs hard

Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

This is the one article that never goes out of fashion. It is the continuing official destruction of clubs by some county boards by allowing county football to take over to the extent that the vast majority of players wait impatiently for club championship games to be played at short notice.

At Congress every year the usual suspects talk about the importance of the club, "the grassroots of the organisation". At the same time there is weed killer being sprayed on these grassroots.

Not only that but a lot of county teams have nearly bankrupted their own counties. It is an area which every county is trying to get a grip on and one where the gap between rich and poor is widening. Dublin won't struggle to get a sponsor, others will and the amounts involved between the main few counties and the rest will amount to hundreds of thousands. Just another reason why only a small number can compete.

With money there is every conceivable advantage in travelling expenses, medical back-up, nutrition, gym membership and every other small thing that exaggerates the huge gaps in standards.

On top of that, clubs are kicked around as if they don't count. If Mayo could win the All-Ireland next Sunday nobody would care too much if there was no club football over the summer, but the real problem arises in those counties who have little chance but whose clubs still suffer.

Last week Donegal decided there would be no championship games played next year while they are still in the championship, Dublin have had teams out of the championship for months, while the Kildare vote on the ousting of Kieran McGeeney had some of its roots in the drought of meaningful club games over many summers. Now of course it would not be accurate to say that there are no club matches in these counties but clubs want to play matches with their county men on the field. At the moment it does not happen in most places. A county man becomes an occasional visitor to his club, and the more successful the county, the less his club will see of him.

It is a difficult job for county boards to look after both sides, especially when a team gets a run through the qualifiers. The uncertainty of it all for clubs means they are like the Civil Defence – on constant alert as their most important game of the year may be played at a week's notice. Talk about parity of esteem. How would a county manager and his players react in a case like this? They would complain loudly. Yet a club player just has to get on with it.

Unless there is a strategy to set a calendar for county games, clubs will have to continue limping through the summer. It's true that there has to be a balance here. A successful county side is the greatest recruiting mechanism of all. I saw it with every successful Meath team over the last 25 years. When Meath won there was a surge of interest among young people in clubs and schools which, properly harnessed, almost guaranteed future glory. Yet the main mechanism for promotion is the club and there is justifiable concern that the present system is distancing county players from their own clubs and destroying club fixtures.

It does not have to be one or the other. When Meath won the All-Ireland in 1987, the semi-final of the championship was played on the Sunday after the All-Ireland and the final two weeks later. The club championship had continued alongside the county one. It is similar in Kilkenny. Occasionally a player gets injured in a club game and there is a great song and dance over players having to play club games. County men get injured in training too.

In Kildare, the defeat of Kieran McGeeney had at least something to do with club fixtures – as well as the fact that they have won nothing of consequence. The players who marched to his defence have to be careful they don't exaggerate this gap between club and county. Democracy is a dangerous animal but nobody seems to have a better idea on how to do things. If clubs have a rational discussion at a meeting and instruct their delegate to vote as per the wishes of the members, then county players should be careful about attacking those decisions.

As a rule, I do not advocate opposition to anything without an alternative. In this case the alternative would be a very radical overhaul of all fixtures.

Without that, many counties are killing their own clubs by depriving them of their players for long periods, and boosting the transatlantic transfer trade in the process, allowing some managers to undermine elected officials and run an elite team at a financially unsustainable level. It's a bit like a pig eating its own.

Sunday Independent

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