Tuesday 16 January 2018

Players quitting due to crippling fixture calendar, claims Kavanagh

DAMIAN LAWLOR

FORMER Cork footballer Derek Kavanagh is the driving force behind an intriguing proposal to bring the All-Ireland finals forward by two weeks at next weekend's Annual Congress at Derry.

Kavanagh told the Sunday Independent that after he retired from playing he turned to coaching, only to be dismayed at the treatment that club players get.

"Shortly after I retired from both club and inter-county football, I started coaching with my club, Nemo Rangers," he says. "At the start it was absolutely great – almost every night that we trained in January 2012, we had 40 lads working hard in the gym. I couldn't believe the response and it really got my enthusiasm going. There's nothing like playing, but I thought I would be at this coaching gig for the rest of my life."

Kavanagh's illustrious playing career, which finally yielded an All-Ireland medal in 2010, was prematurely ended through injury. Only last Monday the 32-year-old underwent a hip operation. That early end to his career prompted him to go down the coaching route.

By June of his first season on the sidelines, however, he had enough.

"One evening in mid-June I remember going out to coach the senior team and there were only three fellas on the pitch. That was it. Lads had been pulled and dragged, left, right and centre by a range of county teams," he says.

"And with the inter-county championships in full swing it was as if the club didn't matter. It wasn't the fault of the Cork County Board – they are volunteers doing the best they can with a chronic fixture schedule. It's the overall national system that's killing us. I suppose I had been sheltered from this for many years because I was with the Cork footballers, but it was absolutely heartbreaking for me to see at first hand how clubs are being treated."

One year may be enough for Kavanagh's current coaching aspirations, but he didn't just sit back and moan about his lot. Instead, he set up an action group, researched an alternative championship structure and held a series of meetings with 50 clubs to see how they were affected by the staggered nature of their club campaigns.

Once his group had assimilated the information, he sat down with Nemo Rangers colleagues and together with the St Nick's club they put forward a motion to Cork's convention simply proposing to bring forward the All-Ireland inter-county senior finals by two weeks.

The proposal received much debate at last December's meeting, with Bob Ryan (Cork chairman) and Frank Murphy (secretary) openly speaking against letting the motion go any further, while former GAA president Christy Cooney also stressed the importance of September All-Ireland finals to the Association.

But Kavanagh's passionate speech was well received by delegates and the motion was carried by a large majority – a rarity given that the Cork executive did not support it.

"There was a reality to what we said at the meeting, so maybe that's why it got through," Kavanagh says.

"Club players all over Ireland are being crippled by the current calendar. Last year Bishopstown played their first championship game and beat us. Then, they had to wait 19 weeks for their second. Imagine if they'd known the wait that was ahead of them.

"We can go on about tradition of September finals and all that, but the reality is that club players and managers are walking away and deciding not to get involved in the GAA because they don't know when their next game will be. I've seen it at first hand myself with Nemo. That's why I didn't go back coaching this year.

"People might wonder what good bringing things forward by just two weeks will do, but it would be a start, a step in the right direction. It would give Croke Park officials a nudge that change has to happen and fast because if we don't have clubs, we don't have an organisation.

"This is obviously not just a Cork issue. Donegal didn't even kick off their club championship until October last year. Dublin have had problems. Two weeks mightn't sound like a lot, but in Donegal's case they could have run off three rounds of championship matches in that period. My guess is their county board would have taken your hand off for that respite. There have also been problems in Waterford, Wexford and Cork, but almost every county struggles with this."

Kavanagh knows the wheel turns slowly when it comes to GAA policy, rule changing and decision-making, but he hopes the motion will receive support when Congress delegates vote on a range of proposals at their annual gathering in Derry next Friday and Saturday. It comes to the clár as motion number 630 and simply calls for the All-Ireland football final to be played on the second Sunday of September, with the hurling final being played two weeks earlier.

"They say that September is sacrosanct for the GAA, but is it so important that club players are sitting around waiting three to four months to play championship games? No wonder these guys are moving to soccer, or going away travelling. We're losing players to retirement at the age of 31 and 32. At the age of 18 or 19 guys have football as their priority, but when they hit 30 they have partners and mortgages to look after.

"They might get away with devoting four months to their club, but they won't get away with devoting nine or 10 months. At the moment teams start training in January and most of them have only five or six championship games played by September. Holidays and family life are affected and players are demonstrating that it cannot continue because they are walking away."

Irish Independent

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