'I don't know how long more club players will put up with it'
Report is yet another reminder that the club/county impasse is close to crisis point, writes Dermot Crowe
THE second and final report of the Football Review Committee (FRC) revealed little we didn't already know and still it had the capacity to shock. Adult club fixture schedules in many counties are verging on slapstick. This is the latest, perhaps the loudest, alarm call but the GAA will look to counties to self-reform rather than being brow-beaten into submission.
The FRC report increases awareness of the scale of the problem. And the problem is that if you want a truly rewarding playing experience in the GAA, you are better off being a junior player. In roughly half the counties if you play intermediate or higher you are facing a feast or a famine. You'll be fed, but you'll not know when, or how much.
Club fixtures have a key emphasis in the second part of the FRC report which is more deliberative than the first, which led to the introduction of substantial reforms in the area of discipline. This is a discussion document. The FRC is stating the bleeding obvious, but with some detail and statistical data
thrown in for good measure. All those tales of Johnny losing the holiday deposit and Mary giving out and wrecking Johnny's head -- this is the formal version of the anecdotal evidence. It is now over to those in positions of power and influence to see that these recommendations are followed up and embraced.
In the meantime, the GAA has the facility to tackle county committees over dubious fixtures planning. Donegal officers were called to Croke Park recently to explain the recent and well-documented decision to hold no intermediate or senior football championship games until the county team exits the All-Ireland race next year.
This summons followed a letter of concern written by player welfare interests and it is believed the Donegal delegation received a minor rap on the knuckles but no more. There are concerns within Donegal over the course being taken but one club manager said the outcome was the lesser of two evils -- the other option being, as advocated by Jim McGuinness, to play a round or two in April and then suspend the competition until Donegal are eliminated.
Donegal is not an isolated case and in a sense McGuinness is reacting to the trend being set elsewhere. Eugene McGee, who chaired the FRC, believes the GAA is aware of how pressing the issue has become and the need for action. "They (GAA) are concerned because the balance between club and county football is gone haywire now. The whole summer is dominated by a few (county) teams and a handful of (county) managers. County boards up to now, most of them, have conceded to inter-county managers if they wanted something changed."
But if new rules are introduced to boost compliance they need to be enforced. "A FRC motion (at Congress 2013), giving the CCC ultimate power for making fixtures, was passed," as McGee points out. The FRC wanted to stop county committees using bye-laws to overturn decisions of the CCC on fixtures.
The report acknowledges that inter-county championships are "unwieldy" and in need of "rescheduling". In essence, the inter-county structure needs reform to create more room for club championship games in the peak summer months. The FRC proposal to realign the inter-county championship into four provinces of eight counties is linked to that aspiration.
"There is ample evidence of inter-county players not having a championship game for up to five months, encompassing the summer, and then being scheduled to play a number of games within a very short period in late autumn," the FRC states.
In 2013, it took six weeks to run off the Munster senior football championship, involving six counties, and 11 weeks to complete Connacht. One county had to wait seven weeks after winning its first round for the next match.
The review talked of "widespread dissatisfaction" over the scheduling of club games, a "strong desire" for a more streamlined inter-county championship, with fewer gaps, all working to a "clear mandate" to retain the provincial championships.
An online survey revealed the following: Forty per cent of respondents rated adult fixtures at club level as "poor" or "very poor". When that was broken down to players only, the figure increased to 52 per cent. Sixty per cent of players said that fixtures could not be relied on and 64 per cent said the season was too long and protracted.
An example of classic club congestion? In 2012, a team played five club championship games in 15 days, including replays. In another county this year a five-month gap existed between championship rounds and "a virtual blitz" ensued to finish the competition. This required the county's football champions to play four top-grade games in 13 days. That level of farce speaks for itself.
The FRC also alludes to Donegal's decision to postpone all senior and intermediate championship games until the county exits the All-Ireland race, describing it as a "fundamental and potentially disastrous development".
It adds: "Were such a practice to become widespread this would strike at the very heart of club football and undermine the ethos of the GAA as an amateur, sporting, social and community organisation."
Or players might just say they've had enough and walk away.
"It is a problem I guess for half the counties of Ireland, obviously dual counties have extra problems," says McGee. "For some counties it is a matter of policy not to play senior championship till they are out of the inter-county championship. Dublin played one game in April last year and none again until mid-October.
"Tyrone have not been starting until August and in their county it is the norm and they manage to get a team out in time for the Ulster club championships. The point is that this is grossly unfair on club players. Maybe they play a match or two in April and at the behest of the county manager all fixtures are abandoned; they are left with league games, in some cases these are Mickey Mouse affairs and in some cases there is a grading that is linked into the championship but generally they are not taken seriously.
"A constant and underlying thing in the GAA is to underestimate the importance of club football. If you have a county player in a club team in rural Ireland, well he is the star of that team and the leader of the team, and the big man in the parish as well and week after week they don't play a match. I don't know how long they will put up with it. I am surprised there isn't a club players' association. I am amazed they are so docile."
A special congress in 2006 dealt with this issue, or attempted to. The idea then as now was to tighten up the inter-county programme to allow more time for club games. A series of measures was agreed, including the controversial move to reduce the number of qualifier rounds by placing some counties in the Tommy Murphy Cup. The GAA also looked to penalise counties who persisted in suspending club fixtures to facilitate county teams but there is little evidence of this having been followed through. The Cork delegate Bob Honohan said presciently: "We're wasting our time here today unless we grasp the nettle because the two windows of opportunity created for club matches will simply be used by managers for the more intense preparation of county teams."
Connacht's John Prenty added: "In the absence of any kind of sanction we can monitor all we like but it won't make any difference."
Not a great deal has changed in the interim; in fact, the situation has got considerably worse. The Manager's Charter introduced a few years ago to help counties find a better balance hasn't been received with much enthusiasm. Catering to club and county interests, especially in dual counties, is an unenviable task but there is strong evidence of a dangerous emphasis on county teams to the detriment of local schedules.
The FRC report is saying nothing new, but it offers some useful solutions for inter-county structural reform, as well as a forceful reminder that the current situation is not sustainable. Club players will not put up with it indefinitely.