AS TENSIONS increase over the pressures facing many players in their efforts to serve different managerial masters during the next few months, the lop-sided nature of the fixtures schedule is today illustrated in stark clarity.
Players who have college, county and U-21 commitments are heading into a manic period between now and April, while there's added pressure on those still involved in the All-Ireland club championships, which won't be completed until St Patrick's Day.
Some players are answerable to four different managers (county senior and U-21, club and college) at the same time due to a fixtures schedules which continues to front-load the vast majority of county action into the first half of the year.
An Irish Independent analysis of the 2011 fixtures' schedule reveals just how heavily the inter-county programme is weighted towards the first half of the year, with the first four months incredibly busy. All-Ireland club championships, Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cup competition, plus the closing stages of second-level competitions, are also shoehorned into the early part of the year, creating an intolerable burden for some players.
In a separate development, the scale of the imbalance between the number of games played by club colleagues in a season has emerged. One example shows a 17-year-old footballer having 41 games in the space of six months last year, while a 21-year-old club colleague, who was involved with the county senior and U-21 squads, had only 11 starts.
The 21-year-old spent much of the season on the subs' bench with the county teams, during which he was getting no club games. At the other end of the scale, the 17-year-old player had played 70 games by the end of November, while his April programme involved four games in five days.
However, it's the heavy pressure on inter-county players in the early part of the season which merits most attention. The schedule tapers off over the summer and early autumn and dries up completely in the closing months of the year. The Irish Independent analysis of the 2011 inter-county schedules reveals that:
Controversy has arisen over burn-out of players in recent seasons, leading to the GAA to order a ban on inter-county training in November and December. However, the fixtures schedule suggests that it's the timing -- rather than the number -- of games which is causing the biggest problem.
With many counties eliminated from the All-Ireland championships by mid-July, managers -- especially newly appointed ones -- are extremely anxious to begin working with squads much earlier than the following January. However, they are prevented from doing so and even when they return in January they find that many of their players are not available to them due to the involvement of third-level colleges in pre-season inter-county competitions.
The problem continues into February and March, during which time the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cup competitions are played, while provincial U-21 football championships and All-Ireland club championships also impinge on the senior squads.
Meanwhile, U-21 managers complain that they are being squeezed between senior and college activity. The desire to make more time available for club fixtures is largely responsible for squeezing so much inter-county activity into the first half of the year, but now questions are being asked as to whether the schedule has become so lop-sided that it needs a complete overhaul.
Club programmes are closed down for months in summer in order to facilitate inter-county championship games and training, followed by a busy return in late summer/early autumn when players face several games in a short space of time.
Meanwhile, there's the problem of losing profile to other sports due to the inter-county close-down between late September and January.
An attempt to address that, plus easing the pressure in the early months of the year, will be spearheaded by Roscommon at Congress in April, when they propose returning to an October start to the National Leagues, slotting in three games in each division before Christmas.
However, judging by the on-going controversies over scheduling of various competitions, plus the fear that early-season overloading is damaging players, there's growing evidence of the need for a radical shake-up across the entire spectrum of club, college and county activity.