| 17.4°C Dublin

Battle for bite of club sandwich

N OT that long ago, it was common for county teams on the rise to hail as seminal the downfall of parochialism. Johnny didn't talk to Jack because their clubs were sworn enemies. Johnny didn't pass to Jack, nor Jack to Johnny, for the same reason. Modern inter-county management eliminated those grievances and hang-ups by highlighting what they had in common. In Kildare, without an All-Ireland since 1928, it is safe to assume that club lorded over county for generations. If they had the footballers, then they never quite clicked or got it right or knew how.

Today, Kieran McGeeney's uber-modern Kildare creation approach the next hurdle on a fourth championship course with hopes high and a strong mandate from the county board and their devoted legion of supporters. But the club-county relationship still has issues to iron out. Nowadays the problem isn't getting the players to play for their county; it is trying to get them to play for their clubs. It is not a problem unique to Kildare, to be fair, but as they prepare to tackle Meath, united and en masse, there are factory floor concerns that require attention back at home.

The sudden resignation of the former board chairman Pádraig Ashe is believed to have been influenced by the strain in agreeing a suitable local fixtures plan between the parties involved -- the board, the clubs and the Kildare management, headed by McGeeney. A meeting of club chairmen attended by Ashe earlier in the year seemed to find some compromise: the clubs would relinquish a rule requiring county players to be available for at least eight league games provided the board fixed two rounds of championship before the expected summer break. Last year they played only one round before Kildare began their campaign and the next championship game didn't take place until August.

Aside from the obvious problems posed by a three to four-month gap in the local championship, the last two county champions have had only one week to prepare for the Leinster club. Once the Kildare championship resumed in 2010, there were three group games left to play and then three knock-out until completion. It meant a frantic rush to finish in time for the provincial series and diminished Kildare's prospects in that competition.

Having scheduled a round of championship games next weekend, the county board is now poised to backtrack at the county management's behest. Last weekend the draws were made for the junior, intermediate and senior ties but only the junior matches were confirmed to take place. It was announced that a meeting of the county board on Tuesday will give further details of the intermediate and senior matches. Most clubs have already made provisions based on them not going ahead.

If Kildare win today then they are in action again in the Leinster semi-final against Dublin or Laois in three weeks' time. Even if they lose they face a qualifier the same weekend. With the management team anxious that no club championship games take place between now and then, it is almost certain that the championship won't resume until August unless Kildare exit the championship before that. Some of the clubs cite as their main reservation the absence of clear communication. They find themselves having to second-guess the board's intentions.

Soon after taking over as manager of Kildare, McGeeney was asked about accommodating clubs. "Yes of course, I want people to play as much football as possible; if you want to become a better footballer you have to play football," he stated. "I will be trying to accommodate the clubs as much as possible; it is vital for players to be playing football and while I am aware of the problems I will certainly be trying to accommodate everyone, both players and clubs."

While many clubs are cognisant of McGeeney's monkish dedication to the cause and good intentions to create a tightly-knit group of players along club lines, they have misgivings about a growing imbalance between the two interests. The chairman of Eadestown, Pat Doyle, said: "I think we need strong people at the top (of administration). We need to get the balance right. End of the day the county board appoints management and we should be telling them how we feel. And there is a county charter where all of that is agreed and supposed to be signed off.

"To be honest with you, there would be a degree of unrest in respect of how the championship is being handled and how clubs are taking second place. I don't think we have got the right balance. The same situation arises in respect of the league. We had county players available for two league games, and that was under duress."

Club players in Kildare will not be without matches over the summer -- the league continues, although without county players. Trying to plan your summer as a club player, however, has become impossible. In Meath, three rounds of the championship have already been played and a fourth, irrespective of today's outcome, is pencilled in for next weekend.

Peter Whyte, the chairman of Moorefield and a candidate for the vice-chair of the Kildare County Board, is more philosophical about the fixtures squeeze. "I don't feel there will be a great issue over it. I don't anticipate a big row. The next round would be a real test and we have had some injuries to some key people and it would not help the cause having another round of the

club championship. You will definitely pick up injuries so why take the risk?

"We -- Moorefield -- have a good contingent of lads on the county team and are well aware of the commitment they are giving to the county panel and when they do come back to their clubs you are getting a better group of guys. They were outstanding when they came back last year.

"Three months without a championship game -- it's not really unusual. It's not the best for the clubs obviously but at some stage it might be good if we could sit down with all the other counties in Leinster and look at how we run the O'Byrne Cup and (national) league to facilitate the guys getting back to their clubs earlier in the year. The guys on the county team don't need any distraction."

Pat Doyle isn't too sure. "I understand where they are coming from; they see their county players as a club. I like Kieran (McGeeney). But you could get injured anywhere, I said to him (McGeeney) you could get injured in training. I don't think that it is either reasonable or fair to those who are hanging around. My own view is the 10-11-12th of June was set and at this stage with the draw having taken place those dates should also be included. For the sake of the players. You are now looking at August."

The county board chairman John McMahon said on Friday that the senior and intermediate fixtures "more than likely won't go ahead" next weekend. He said they were having informal discussions with clubs and next Tuesday's meeting would bring final confirmation of their decision. When it was put to him that this was unsatisfactory for clubs, he replied: "The decision is that they probably won't go ahead. Nothing is black and white. You set out your stall but issues will always arise."

Mick Gorman, the chairman of St Laurence's who won the championship two years ago, feels the clubs have been misled. "I would say there is a great deal of frustration with clubs not knowing what the situation is. We had a meeting for all club chairmen and the term 'set in stone' was used, that these two dates were set in stone. A number of our players are students and are going to America for the summer; we have been trying to get clarification over the last number of weeks as to what is happening. We have been unable to get it. Running any club is a lot of time and energy and effort and money and everything else, you just need to know these things.

"A club like us with four on the county panel, while we are delighted to have them and hoping Kildare do very well, it definitely does have a negative impact on the club not having them more often. There were two championship dates given; one was adhered to. Now everybody knows that the county board will decide next Tuesday night not to play the following weekend. Our difficulty is the lack of clarity -- it's just wrong. I am loathe to criticise officers of the county board but it's their function to oversee the fixtures in the county. Who is calling the shots would be a question you could ask.

"I would honestly say the great problem is the lack of clarity. We have a new chairman and a good man but we definitely haven't addressed the championship fixtures in Kildare. As a county we need to do that. It's unfair and the whole thing will dry up an-- lads putting time and effort into training and getting teams together. The whole way the clubs function will be called into question. "One of our better footballers is flying out to America tomorrow (last Thursday); he had delayed his going to America until after June 11-12 till it became very obvious that the fixtures were not going to go ahead. He would have gone two weeks ago had he known. In fairness to the lad in question, he got tired waiting. I do believe at the beginning of the year a deal was brokered. There is more to football in Kildare than the county team and we all want the county team to do well but the whole bedrock is that the clubs have games."

Sos Dowling, the former Kildare player and current manager of Allenwood, has felt the pinch first-hand. "It is frustrating for (club) management and players," he admits. "Someone told me that Meath have three rounds of championship played off. Kildare have only one. I played inter-county for 15 years and am totally behind Kildare -- I would love to see Kildare play in an All-Ireland. But you need to be fair to club players as well."

Allenwood were relegated in the league last year and had to go through most of the campaign without John Doyle. Despite the eight-match rule, they only saw him for two or three games. He has played two league games already this year but they don't expect to see him again before the league is finished.

"This is my second year at Allenwood, I won't manage a senior team again; you can't prepare a team properly, you are stopping and starting," says Dowling. "It's okay if you have big resources. But country teams who have the bare 20 . . . I just couldn't see myself trying to manage a country team. It has to be very frustrating for the players.

"I just think they will have to be a little more flexible for the clubs; it is 70-30 in favour of the county at the moment, they need to make it 60-40 . . . they had a rule for league games and that is gone. They have also added an extra game in the group stages, it has gone from three to four games in the group in the last two years."

McGeeney and his management team have had enough good results to show their work is paying dividends. If the levels of control being exercised are excessive, nobody will mind if they beat Meath this afternoon. The fever will grow. Right now, the county is king.

Sunday Indo Sport