Bitter January has become busiest month on GAA fields
It's official - miserable January is the busiest month on the GAA's senior inter-county calendar. February runs a close second, with March in third place.
It defies logic that January has the most games but that's the case this year, arising from the dramatic scheduling changes which will apply later on. Incredibly, 46 per cent of all games will be played by the end of February, with over 64 per cent completed by March 31, six days after the clocks change to summer time.
By the end of June, only seven per cent of games will remain to be played while over 98 per cent will be completed by the end of July.
As the country shivers through an icy blast, which forced the postponement last night of the Donegal-Armagh Dr McKenna Cup semi-final in Ballybofey, the monthly breakdown proves how distorted the fixture programme is. By the end of January, 101 games will have been played, comprised of pre-season fixtures and the opening rounds of the Allianz football and hurling Leagues.
The figure would be higher if all six counties had completed in the Munster senior hurling league and McGrath Cup. Leinster and Munster started their pre-season programmes on December 30 in an effort to ease the pressure in January but it still comes in as the busiest month.
Jamming so many games into January was made necessary because of the decision to leave April free of all inter-county action except the Division 1 and 2 football league finals.
It forced the Central Competitions Control Committee to launch the leagues on the last weekend in January, a week earlier than usual in football and two weeks in hurling.
The early starts have also made it necessary to play football and hurling double rounds on four weekends.
The manic pace continues in February when 99 league games will be played, followed by 81 in March.
The squeeze prompted the CCCC to fix the Division 1 hurling final for Saturday evening (March 24), a month earlier than last year.
It's also the day before the last round of football's divisional games, which will significantly reduce media coverage of the hurling final.
The CCCC have defended the Saturday scheduling of the hurling final on the grounds that they felt 'the time was right to trial it'. They also believe that 'there is a terrific marketing opportunity there for the playing of a national senior final under floodlights.'
In fairness to the CCCC, they had to make the best of a near-impossible situation once the decision was taken to leave April free of county action. It has resulted in more games being packed into the first three months of the year than ever before in GAA history.
The full impact won't become apparent until later in the league when the heavy workload takes its toll.
The Division 1 hurling league finalists will play eight games in eight weeks while the football finalists in all four divisions will play eight games in nine weeks. That's after a busy January where some counties will have played six games.
Clearing April of all inter-county action is designed to boost the club scene but already there are clear indications that it will not be as productive as envisaged. Several counties have decided not to start their club championships in April - either that or play one round - so it remains to be seen how many players on inter-county panels will line out in local league games.
With the provincial championships starting earlier than usual, county managers will be anxious to have their full panels together for as long as possible, resulting in less top-line club action than planned.
The new schedules will certainly benefit clubs later in the year. With only 29 football and hurling games to be played after June 30 (eight after July 31), there's no reason why counties cannot complete their local programmes earlier.
Of course, that has always been the case in counties eliminated in the earlier stages of the championship but history shows that progress often remained slow on the club scene.
Indeed, several counties who were knocked out of the All-Ireland race in late June/early July in recent years did not complete their championships until October.