'Autumn start can lift league profile'
Roscommon lead calls for October throw-in amid fears of fixture pile-ups and waning public interest
CALLS for a return to an autumn start for the Allianz National Leagues are gathering momentum as county fixtures planners face huge pressure to provide a more even spread of games for club players.
There are also serious concerns that closing down the inter-county scene for over three months after the All-Ireland finals is damaging the GAA's profile and allowing other sports to dominate media coverage.
Roscommon are to put a motion to Congress in April, proposing that the National Leagues start in October, with three rounds played before closing down for the winter break.
The proposal came from the Elphin club and was enthusiastically supported at the county convention.
The newly-appointed chairman of Roscommon, Michael Fahey, said that the reasoning behind the proposal was to free up more dates for club activity in the early months of the year.
"The first few months are incredibly busy between National Leagues, third level and U-21 championships. It leaves very little room for club games, which is frustrating for a great many players," Fahey explained.
"It's a problem in every county and Roscommon's view is that playing a few league games in October and November would prove very helpful in spring.
"There were also comments at our convention about how the GAA were losing out on media coverage after the All-Ireland finals because of the absence of inter-county games. The provincial club championships are very popular but they don't have the same broad appeal as county games.
"We feel that returning to an October start for the leagues should be discussed at national level, which is why we will be putting the motion to Congress."
The spring fixtures glut is particularly acute for teams in Division 4 of the NFL as they have eight games, as opposed to seven in the other groups.
Offaly hurling manager Joe Dooley is among those who favour an October start to the leagues. He has argued consistently in recent years that playing three league games pre-Christmas would clear the way for a proper closed season while also easing pressure on players -- especially those with county and college commitments -- in the early months of the year.
The National Leagues were played in October-May up to 1997, when hurling moved to the calendar year. The NHL started on March 9 that year and completed the divisional games on June 1, with the semi-finals in August and the final in October. The divisional games proved hugely popular with the public but the experiment of playing the semi-finals during the championship, followed by the final (Limerick beat Galway) in October was not a success.
The semi-finals/finals were restored to a spring setting in 1998 but playing the full competition in the one calendar year was retained. Football moved to the calendar year schedule in 2002.
The argument in favour of playing the entire programme in the February-May period was based on the need to provide more time for club activity at the end of the year, plus financial considerations. It was felt that it would be less expensive for county boards if the leagues were run off over a few months rather than splitting them between two years.
The introduction of the November-December training ban has reawakened interest in starting the leagues in autumn as counties are unhappy over the pressure placed on players who can only return to collective work on January 1.
There have been several reviews of the leagues over the last nine years, but the policy of playing them in the one calendar year has been retained. However, Roscommon now lead the drive for change.
Another proposal will also come before Congress, calling for the restoration of league semi-finals, rather than allowing the top two teams directly into the final.
It's now generally accepted that scrapping the semi-finals was a mistake. However, it wasn't possible to restore them this year as it requires a rule change, which can only be made at Congress.
It will be interesting to see how other counties react to the call for an autumn start to the leagues, but Roscommon are hoping that, at the very least, it will lead to a vigorous debate.
"We think it's worth serious discussion. As things stand, the early months of the year are so busy on the inter-county scene that clubs lose out, while there's no inter-county activity at all after the All-Ireland finals, which is not good for the GAA in terms of profile and media coverage," said Fahey.
Whether the Roscommon motion is actually debated at Congress remains to be seen. Precedent suggests that motions proposing changes to the fixtures schedule are referred to the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) for consideration prior to returning to Central Council with its recommendations.
However, the fact that a county has made a formal proposal for change to the second most important competition means that an autumn start to the leagues is firmly back on the agenda.