Radical plan needed to end fixtures chaos
Chorus of frustration over lopsided schedule underlines desperate need for new blueprint
Two weeks ago, Sean Cavanagh came within a wet night of being unable to play for his country because his club were scheduled for a relegation play-off three hours before the start of the Ireland-Australia International Rules game.
Heavy rain made the pitch unplayable for the Moy-Eglish game, so Cavanagh was able to play for Ireland. He later vented his anger at the Tyrone County Board for fixing the club game on the same day as the international Test.
"You give 14 years' service to Tyrone and you are being told that you cannot go and represent your country and try to win the Cormac McAnallen Cup," he said.
Last weekend, Derry's Chrissy McKaigue criticised the Ulster Council for fixing the provincial senior club hurling final on the day after the second Test, forcing him to play for Ireland on Saturday night and for Slaughtneil on Sunday afternoon.
"There is no concern for player welfare," said McKaigue.
Last Thursday, Dublin midfielder Michael Darragh Macauley described the fixtures calendar as "a bit of a joke".
Club commitments kept him out of the International Rules series and once the new year arrives, he is facing a hectic schedule with Dublin and NUI Maynooth.
"There is no magical solution but it does call for a whole restructuring of the league and championship to try and accommodate everything," he said.
Also on Thursday, it was announced that the logjam in the Clare senior football championship meant that the winners of the county final on November 16 would be forced to play in the Munster championship 24 hours later.
These are four examples over the last two weeks alone of the frustration caused by the fixtures congestion and, no doubt, lots more applied around the country. It's an ongoing problem, peaking in spring – when the inter-county and third-level college scene is frantically busy – and autumn, when important club action is shoehorned into a tight schedule.
The GAA's fixtures structure is the sporting equivalent of the Irish health service: clearly dysfunctional but so complex that a solution appears unreachable.
The multiplicity of competitions across various grades at club and county level in two codes makes scheduling very difficult, but there is still no excuse for the level of congestion which arises every year.
Certainly, there should be far fewer problems at this time of the year when the inter-county fields are bare. However, it's the inter-county game which leads to the October/November problems, having clogged up the club mechanisms throughout the summer and early autumn.
County finals are played much later than used to be the case, even where inter-county teams were eliminated quite early from the championship. And with many counties suspending their senior championship action until their county team has completed its championship run, late completion of club competitions is inevitable.
The more successful the county team, the more likely clubs are to be left idle for long periods.
Donegal have taken it a step further by stitching it into their schedule for 2014 that no senior or intermediate club championship games will be played until after the inter-county team is finished with its pursuit of Sam Maguire.
It means that if Donegal reach next year's All-Ireland final (September 21), their county championship won't begin until September 27/28. If the All-Ireland final went to a replay, Donegal could not start their club programme until the first weekend in October.
A quickfire run-off would then be required in order to have the championship completed before the start of the Ulster series. It's a strange way to boost the Donegal club scene.
Donegal team manager Jim McGuinness had proposed that two rounds of the club championship be played in April, prior to going into recess until after the end of the county's championship run, but the clubs opted for a more extreme option.
Despite the fact that only 10pc of the senior inter-county schedule (see table) is played in the second six months of the year, the club programme still struggles in some counties to deliver much championship action in June/July.
Front-loading most of the inter-county programme into the first half of the year has been GAA policy for a number of years, but it's clearly not working. It's bizarre that, in purely numerical terms, January hosts the most football games of any month. And while they may be pre-season provincial tournaments, the fact remains that it's an extremely busy month. March is the busiest overall month across both codes.
Only 10 senior inter-county football games were played in May this year, yet little enough progress was made in county championships during that month because county managers insist on having constant access to their panel.
The month-by-month-table shows that the first third of the year is by far the busiest on the senior inter-county scene. In addition, it also hosts the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cups and the All-Ireland U-21 football championship.
The first four months of this year staged 310 senior inter-county games, compared with only four for the final four months. Starting the leagues in autumn, a policy which applied in hurling up to 1997 and up to 2002 in football, no longer has many supporters on the basis that the latter part of the year should be left to clubs while also allowing inter-county players to take a break.
Neither argument is especially convincing. Sixteen inter-county football squads had completed their season by mid-July this year with a further eight gone a week later, so do they really need to be off until January? As for the club argument, recent patterns have shown that the more time available for local action in the final third of the year, the fewer games that are played earlier on.
Remarks by Cavanagh, McKaigue and Macauley, plus the workload of two games in 24 hours awaiting the Clare football champions later this month, provide the latest examples of how the fixture dice is loaded in favour of chaos.
The accompanying inter-county action table shows how imbalanced the season has become. Yet it will most likely continue because instead of binning the current schedules, the GAA seem more intent on merely tweaking them.
The truth is they are beyond repair and need to be replaced by a new, imaginative blueprint. It wouldn't solve every problem but anything would be better than the current chaos.