Wednesday 21 February 2018

Comment: New fixtures plan should help the players but calendar-year goal remains long way off for GAA

The outgoing Paraic Duffy
The outgoing Paraic Duffy

Comment: Donnchadh Boyle

The 'calendar year' has been one of the buzz phrases in GAA discourse over the past few seasons.

Fixtures and how to manage them have been a bone of contention for some time now.

At the outset of his term, GAA president Aogán ó Fearghaíl identified it as one of the key issues facing the GAA.

A more streamlined season was a priority and among the suggestions was running everything off before the turn of the year.

If nothing else, that would be neat and tidy. The whole thing would be boxed off by the end of the year and, as with everything else, the GAA would turn to a fresh chapter once we got to January 1.

There would be no more merging of the seasons, no more club competitions to be run off while the new season is trying to get off the ground. Everyone would know where they stand.

From an administration point of view, it would be cleaner, too.

Change at the top in counties generally comes at end-of-year conventions.

This way, the new administration would come in with a new season. That remains some distance off, however.

When the GAA launched their master fixture plan for 2018 in October, they effectively put in place the incremental changes made at Congress in the previous three years.

The changes didn't go far enough for some but they were still significant and should make things clearer for the beleaguered club players who have rallied and set up their own representative body in the Club Players Association.

However, the GAA's changes didn't include having the whole season wrapped up before the turn of the year. And that's because it remains a bridge too far.

Director-general Páraic Duffy has admitted that while completing all competitions before the turn of the year was preferable, it was not a priority.

There was, he reasoned, enough change coming down the track as part of the new three-year experiment.

There was little point in trying to ram the whole lot in before Christmas.

"I think what I'd like to see is that we run this programme here for three years and see how it works out," Duffy said in October when asked about the possibility of a calendar-year season.

"Ideally, yes, I'd like to see all our programmes completed within the calendar year but it would make sense now to run this schedule here next year and the following two years and then see.

"I think the obvious outcome of that would be that you'd like to get to a situation where you would get to play everything in the calendar year and I always like that, whether it be at county level or national level."

The changes introduced by Croke Park are significant. September, once one of the GAA's sacred cows on the basis that it dominated that month in terms of media coverage, has effectively been ceded to make room for the club game.

April has been made totally free. League and championship will be run off in more condensed windows.

Proponents of the plan say that there will be more games for counties and more teams out of the championship earlier in the year.

In theory, clubs and club players should benefit.

Of course, the changes have had their critics. There is concern as to how the free month of April will be used.

Kilkenny have already indicated they will play club matches in that month but it's likely that many inter-county managers will put their county boards under pressure to have access to their players that month with championship around the corner.

That the Munster and Leinster hurling finals are to be played on the same day has also drawn ire.

At the launch of the new fixture list, Croke Park chiefs admitted that they expected teething problems.

It is likely that tweaks will be required and that could include an easing of the schedule by offering an extra weekend here or there.

Under the new schedule, the year is already under pressure for enough suitable weekends.

The changes, which mean the league begins in January, have seen Leinster opt to start the O'Byrne Cup before the turn of the year.

December has already demonstrated how a turn in weather conditions can wipe out an entire weekend's activity, as was the case with the Leinster club SFC final and Corofin's trip to London for their All-Ireland club SFC quarter-final.

Had the calendar-year season been in place, the likelihood is that a broader and more significant series of games would have been wiped out.

It would only take a couple of bad weekends of weather to throw the calendar-year plan into chaos.

Trying to squeeze in more action for the sake of neatness just isn't practical.

For now, it seems the calendar-year idea will just have to wait.

Irish Independent

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