Counties have to be firm over April club programme
A tiered football championship and calendar year completion for club championships remain ideals within reach for the GAA in years ahead, director-general Páraic Duffy has predicted in his annual report.
But first the battle for April must be won with Duffy urging counties to stand up to county team managers and set aside up to four weekends for club activity in a month that has been stripped of all inter-county activity for that purpose.
"In too many counties the fixtures schedule is unduly influenced by the demands of inter-county managers, with a consequent downgrading of the needs of clubs," he writes in his annual report.
Duffy thinks it is "not unrealistic", as some managers have suggested, to expect them to free county players during this period for club games, suggesting they can train during the week (and play challenges from Monday to Wednesday) with the county and play club games at the weekend.
"Why should there be a problem?" he said at the launch of his report. "It's a problem if you think the clubs have no rights. Clubs have equal rights with the counties. Why should the county manager decide, 'No, they won't play with the clubs.' There is no reason in the world why club games can't go ahead in April."
The GAA has not enshrined April weekends for clubs into rule, preferring to leave the responsibility to counties and Duffy says some inter-county managers are "really good in this space" pointing to Malachy O'Rourke from his own county, Monaghan, where players are released liberally for league games which is linked to championship status.
"You get some people who make a lot of noise about it, because they are calling the shots. The County Board need to ask themselves, 'Who's running the show?' They appoint them. I don't accept that. April is there for the clubs and there's no reason why fellas can't play with their clubs."
Croke Park has already reminded counties of their obligations in this regard to avoid the playing of weekend challenge game and weekends away during this period in a letter to boards last week.
"Central Council, on an annual basis, allocates distribution grant of over €200,000 to each county under various guises. This funding is provided on the basis that the county complies with Rules, Regulations and Directives of Central Council. Breaches of either of the rules above will be regarded as breach of the rules under which this grant is paid," it advised in a thinly-veiled warning of financial penalties.
In his report Duffy set out a scenario where counties should ensure that competitions are framed so interest isn't ended in April or early May. "It is now possible for most counties to schedule the bulk of their club championships after their inter-county championship season is over and to avoid the elimination of teams from their county championship before the county's involvement in the senior inter-county championship has ended," he writes.
Leagues, primarily without county players, must provide a games programme while inter-county activity is ongoing.
"Players should - and usually do - play many more league than championship games. Club players want to play plenty of games, a good league structure will allow that, even without the participation of county players," he writes.
Duffy sees the current changes to the football championship as "temporary", writing in his report that there are "compelling arguments in favour of developing a tiered football championship system, as in hurling," but adding that "the debate around this issue remains as difficult as ever, notably in resolving the question of how a tiered championship would be structured."
Duffy said he was "conscious" of not passing this on to his successor but added at the launch of his report that "at some point in the future it has to be a tiered championship because we have five tiers in hurling.
"I'm not saying that we need five tiers in football. I made the point that it's really important this year."
Meanwhile, the Club Players Association has issued a statement outlining their intention to remain in place to see out their mission.
They intend to communicate with county boards in the coming weeks to give their position on two of their motions going forward to Congress.
"We do not intend to depart the scene until the fixtures situation is resolved and the GAA has more balance. The conditions that led to the formation of the CPA still exist and the focus on them is more acute."