Friday 15 December 2017

Colm O'Rourke: I wouldn't mourn county game but club is sacred

Corofin’s Gary Sice and Karol Mannion of St Brigid’s go head to head in today’s AIB Connacht Senior Football Club Championship final.
Corofin’s Gary Sice and Karol Mannion of St Brigid’s go head to head in today’s AIB Connacht Senior Football Club Championship final.
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

One organisation, the GPA, represents about three per cent of the playing population and receives millions in funding from the GAA. Then there is the recently formed Club Players' Association, which was set up by Declan Brennan and like-minded friends of the GAA. They don't, and won't, get any funding from Croke Park for the other poor unfortunates who make up the remaining 97 per cent of the Association. Riddle me that, as Dennis the Menace used to say in The Beano.

To most people of even moderate intelligence there would appear to be something shocking about this state of affairs, but we all seem to be immune to the creeping paralysis of the county game which has managed to suspend common sense when it comes to the relative merits of what is going on in the GAA.

If that same county game disappeared down a big black hole in the morning it would not cost me a moment's thought, but if the club game was interfered with more than it is at present then I would get very exercised.

There should be no need for the CPA; the club game is what county boards are supposed to look after, and it does say something about the general frustration around the country that so many are willing to get involved in this new body.

A county board fixtures' committee should provide every club with a minimum of 20 games per year with an even spread. In some counties there are plenty of games but they are shoe-horned into certain periods, with long gaps without competitive matches. Most club players don't mind whether games are league or championship, all they want is to be playing regularly. It is hardly too much to ask.

Naturally, clubs also want their county payers available for championship matches, while most are happy enough to play other matches without their stars.

In Meath this year, the club I managed, Simonstown Gaels, played 25 competitive matches, made up of 13 league, eight championship and four other knock-out games.

The season started too early (the first match was in January) but nobody could complain about the number or frequency of games - even if there are two championships.

One starts in April and there are a couple of rounds played before the serious business begins in August when Meath are out, and then it is helter skelter to the end. So a club needs to be still in the hunt when action resumes in August. As the championship is played on a league basis, the object of the exercise has to be to have a couple of points on the board before the summer break. I am not sure of records but we did not win any of our first three matches (two draws and a defeat) and still ended up winning the competition. It meant being involved in a knock-out championship early on, and that was no harm at all.

Anyway, the club fixtures problem can never be sorted without the county scene being put on a sound footing first. It is a bit like the man looking for directions from a stranger and being told that if he was going to that place he would not start from here.

When the CPA met officials in Croke Park they were probably told the same. Attempts by Paraic Duffy to put some shape on the calendar fell flat, but fixtures need a complete overhaul. It is trying to put the cart before the horse. The proposals to move the All-Irelands forward a couple of weeks and other minor changes only serve to highlight the absolute mess that exists in the number of competitions - the time of year they are played, the demands on players with multiple teams, and a thousand other things. Radical surgery is required but there is no stomach for it.

So the club scene rambles on. Matches are played to suit county teams, and when the county side exits the championship there is an immediate need to ramp up club training as the big games loom.

It is a messy system with no certainty as to when important club matches are going to be played. Club players are like the fire brigade or the Civil Defence: you never know when you can be called into immediate action. The solution must begin at county level. A set structure of dates for county matches, and then county boards fill in their club fixtures. It sounds easy, but there a lot of moving parts.

When I started playing football there were far fewer club games. At that time in the 1970s and '80s there were a lot of tournaments and these kept us all amused during the summer months. It was very enjoyable playing clubs from other counties, something that does not happen anymore as in Meath, at least, there are enough games during the summer to keep everyone happy.

I can recall a gold watch tournament in Drumconrath which everyone wanted to get an invitation to. We won it with Skryne one year and the watches worked too. Some kept going for years. I gave mine to my mother as the face of the watch was much bigger than most watches of the time and she found it easier to read the numbers.

Dunshaughlin ran a tournament with prizes of suits of clothes and jackets at another time. You could go to Clerys in Dublin and get measured up. The big trouble was in winning, and games were fiercely contested. A lot of thick farmers were hell-bent on winning a good suit as it covered weddings, funerals, dances and Sunday mass. It was worth far more than a championship medal to many.

There were other tournaments in North County Dublin, in places like Oldtown and Garristown, and other far-flung locations. The only guarantee was that there would be a good row and blood was liberally spilt in these places, but there was never a problem getting a team when there was a substantial prize on offer. If you won a similar tournament now the Revenue would be on to you for benefit in kind.

One of the downsides of a better structure of league games in summer is the lack of tournaments where you could play teams from other counties and players you knew nothing about. If they had a hatchet man, well at least you did not know until the match.

There were no worries about it in advance and there was novelty and often greater enjoyment in these ventures. There is scope to have some type of cross-county tournaments in the latter stages of the year for teams who are out of the championship. There is no point crying about players going off to play soccer or rugby from September to January if the GAA are not providing games.

There is an opportunity for clubs to put on an end-of-season tournament with a holiday, a car, or something substantial for teams to win, and have a couple of clubs from three or four counties involved. A good sponsor might be happy to run with such a project and it would keep players playing into the good weather of autumn. Maybe even a suit or a watch would still interest players.

County football has become a bit of a monster but club players, if they get regular matches, are still an easy breed to keep happy.

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