When I look at the current fixtures mess in the GAA there are many words which spring to mind: puzzled, baffled, perplexed, frustrated, confused. These are all the nice words. What I really mean is probably unprintable in a family newspaper, and the same applies to those who have the power to change what is happening.
At present, there are at least four competitions where a young player can be called upon to play in – third-level cups, under 21, National League and club leagues.
In addition to that, last Sunday, when club football leagues were starting in Meath and every club was in action, the authorities fixed a Railway Cup semi-final in Navan. A couple of hundred people paid in and plenty of discussion followed on how to save the competition. It just demonstrated to me the total hypocrisy involved in the GAA. The real discussion should have been on how to save the clubs.
Clubs are being squeezed from every side and rarely have county players available to them and yet, on the one day when all players should have been playing with their clubs, a Railway Cup match is fixed which meant half a dozen Meath players were not available to their clubs and probably won't be again until they play championship in April.
It was an absolute and utter disgrace and how anybody in their right mind would fix this game in a county where every club was playing beggars belief.
Maybe somebody has decided that death for the Railway Cup should be by a thousand cuts, or maybe it was an attempt to smother it with kindness.
Now I have no issue with players turning out for their province, it is a wonderful competition, but the timing and location is a bad joke. Almost all of the club league games in Meath had a bigger attendance than the inter-pro game in Navan, but that is not the point.
Then last week we had under 21 provincial football championship matches in Leinster while the Sigerson Cup finished in Belfast yesterday. Many of the same players are involved in everything. People then wonder why young players seem to have persistent groin, back and hamstring injuries, while hip problems seem to be the latest ailment. At least some of it is a problem of overuse. Too much training and too many games – you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure that one out.
If this abuse – and there is no other word for it – continues, a player will some day take an action against some unit of the GAA, where he has developed a persistent long-term injury, on the basis that leading officials knowingly continued to make fixtures which were contrary to sound medical advice.
Some years ago, I was on a committee which introduced the word burnout to the GAA. It explained a feature of young players' lives where they were under increasing pressures, both mental and physical, due to over-involvement in Gaelic games.
Some of the contributory factors include a multiplicity of teams demanding lads to play, travelling, injuries, lack of rest and worries over exams. Many sneered at the time about the idea of burnout but there are too many issues of mental anxiety becoming apparent in young people now, so things have thankfully moved on in some ways.
Not in GAA fixtures though. As a group we proposed that under 21 and minor grades would be abolished in favour of an under 19 grade. Howls of protest followed, but even with the facts pointed out there was no consideration even of moving the competition away from the busiest time of the year.
The same applies to third-level competitions. Just because something has been done for a long time does not mean it should not be changed. The third-level competitions are now such big events, taking in many of the same players as the under 21 grade, that they should be moved to times when they don't compete against each other. The Sigerson Cup should really be a pre-Christmas championship.
It really is shameful – and I use the word carefully – that people in positions of influence are either unwilling or unable to tackle some of these problems. On Thursday in the Irish Independent, a series of questions were put to the three presidential candidates. Nobody was going to get offside before the ballot on any question, but each person should have been invited at Congress or in a manifesto to spell out exactly how they intend to sort out the fixtures chaos. Most candidates are afraid to tackle the big issues because they have to take on vested interests like provincial councils but leadership demands action to protect players.
Last year in the United States, former American football players reached a settlement with the NFL for $760m as a result of problems resulting from head injuries in the game. Now the GAA is a world away from that level of risk but if fixtures are made which are likely to lead to overuse injuries then somebody is liable. Sports litigation is a big growth industry. Of course some will say that a player is not under contract and can simply stop, but ambitious GAA players behave with the same rationale as professionals.
This year the Leinster second-level schools competition started in late January for some, early February for others. At the same time counties agreed to an inter-county minor league to run during February. This despite the official guide setting February 1 as the start-up date for minor county teams to come together. So what you had was an unofficial tacit agreement between counties and the provincial council to openly break their own rules as every team had to start training in January or before it to play in early February. No investigation from Croke Park either.
What about conflicts of interest here and preparation for the Leaving Cert? Based on anecdotal evidence, it seems that some counties in Connacht have been training since well before Christmas and the only county I have ever heard of to take action was the Wexford County Board who removed their minor manager. A simple solution to this problem is to finish schools competitions earlier, and start county minor competitions later.
So it's easy to be cynical about the actions of those who are supposed to be running the GAA. And I don't have to make any of this up. I am presently manager of teams in my school and club and see the problems caused by official incompetence and unwillingness to tackle big issues, and some not-so-big issues, every single day.
Yet at the same time, as a club manager I am happy that the number of club games which the Meath County Board provides is entirely satisfactory, a guarantee of more or less 20 games. As in every county, the lack of access to county players because of the way county and other fixtures are shoehorned into this time of year means that a club without county men is often better off. Then I listen to the same old guff from Congress about protecting the club and it usually comes from people who don't know what they are talking about. It just sounds good.
Debate on moving the All-Ireland club finals into the calendar year and some other things like the redistribution of finances are insignificant compared to the games themselves. Aogán O Fearghail, if he is serious about reform, will immediately tackle the officially sanctioned mess of fixtures in spring. There needs to be a radical overhaul as it is causing a raft of problems including stress-related issues among young players, while undermining clubs at the same time.
It will take a few men at the top with vision and, most of all, courage to do the right thing. Hopefully by this time next year, instead of being annoyed and all the other words used in the beginning, I will be surprised and delighted. As Shakespeare wrote, some men are born great, some achieve greatness while others have greatness thrust upon them. Hopefully our new president-elect is all three.