Wednesday 22 November 2017

Fixture mess now a major headache for the GAA

Player power? Clubs might laugh at that one, says John Greene

Recent events in Limerick and Clare can now be added to the mounting evidence that if a group of inter-county players don't like someone or something, then that's curtains for someone or something.

For some this is great. Isn't it great to see them boys stick it to that shower in the county board? For others this is bad. Who do they think they are? They should be honoured to wear that jersey . . .

But for others still, they can only watch on with what must be a mixture of frustration, envy and, worst of all, growing anger. This is the group often referred to as 'ordinary club players'. Now I happen to know a few of these ordinary club players, and I'm sure many of you do too. Perhaps you are even one yourself. If so, here's a question for you: what aspect of the GAA most annoys you? And I'll bet it's a one-word answer too: fixtures.

The sad reality of the ordinary club player is that he is presumed not to have a life. He does not work, he does not have family commitments and he most certainly does not go on holiday. He does not go to weddings, he does not take weekend breaks and he has not moved out of his parents' house. If he is unfortunate to succumb to any, or all, of the above then woe betide him.

For ordinary club players, existence is on a week-to-week basis, not knowing until a Monday or Tuesday if the county board has decided to fix a match. This is not a problem at grassroots level in soccer or rugby, but for Gaelic footballers or hurlers it is a major bugbear. So much so that they are starting to cry 'Stop!'

Last Monday night, the Meath board was presented with a survey which quantified dissatisfaction on fixture planning. Players are not happy, ordinary club players that is. And it's not just in Meath, it's in Dublin, and most other counties.

Society has moved on, and more and more of these players are voting with their feet and taking up other sports because of the frustration of simply not knowing when their next game is. They cannot understand a system which only seems to be able to operate from week to week, and can't even grasp the concept of planning for a month ahead, let alone a season, so that willing and committed players can make sure they are available every time their club is due to play.

Before Christmas, Tony Cunningham, who plays his football with Duleek-Bellewstown in Meath, set out to examine this issue. He devised a questionnaire and posted it online. The response was significant: 180 club players in the county completed it. There have been other surveys too, most notably one carried out by Connacht Council, and the issues which come up appear uniform.

Some of the responses in Meath were revealing, and indicative of experiences all across the country: 'games are constantly changed at short notice and players are expected to drop their plans'; 'five games in 16 days following a five-week gap -- ridiculous'; 'our club did not play intermediate championship for over 13 weeks -- we then had to play senior hurling championship on a Sunday, intermediate championship on a Tuesday and intermediate again on a Saturday'; 'why are there fixtures in December but a huge gap in the summer?'. And so on.

The survey found that, in terms of notice of games, 50 per cent reported it was less than one week, with nobody reporting notice of between three weeks and two months. One player's wife said: 'For years we have been unable to plan a holiday due to the commitment of my husband to his club.'

With the competition among the three main sports -- Gaelic games, rugby and soccer -- more intense at grassroots level than ever before, the inability of the GAA to plan their games at local level properly will cause players to defect. The issue does not concern the number of games a club has in any given year, just when they are played.

Most clubs have been back in training for some weeks now, slogging it out in the mud. The least they deserve is games during the summer months, not a rash of games in February, March and April, followed by a lengthy gap as all action grinds to halt when the county teams enter the championships.

To be fair, there appears a willingness at national level to tackle this problem. To some observers, Christy Cooney's presidency has been low-key, but those on the ground have noticed a move in Croke Park, led by the Corkman, to bring the Association back to the grassroots. Cooney has shown a determination to find out what obstacles clubs are facing and fixture planning has emerged as a key one. He now has a committee working to deal with it and he expects a workable solution to emerge which can be rolled out to all counties. It may not grab headlines, but it will be a great step forward.

Sunday Independent

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