Sunday 15 December 2019

Bumper weekend is great for the Ulster Council's coffers - but will anybody think of the volunteers?

Declan Bogue

SO, a big game Saturday night in Cavan, followed by another blockbuster less than 24 hours later in Clones.

What's that you hear? Oh, just the sound of champagne corks going off in the Armagh offices of the Ulster Council, flush with their good fortune. Lighting cigars with £20 notes and all that.

We joke, of course. Additional income comes with a series of enormous logistical difficulties to stage the games.

When Tyrone and Cavan finished level two Sundays ago, it came as a surprise that the replay would not be for a fortnight.

Tyrone's last draw in Ulster was against Down in 2014 and it was replayed six days later. The last time they drew with Cavan also happened to be an Ulster semi-final in 2005. Again, they reconvened six days later.

Informed they would get a full two weeks before resuming hostilities at Clones, Tyrone manager Mickey Harte said with a hint of puzzlement; "That's unusual, two weeks to prepare after that."

The extra week has played havoc with fixture scheduling, the equivalent of the flap of a butterflies wings in the Amazon causing a tornado in Texas.

Most counties create their master fixture plan after studying the National Fixtures Plan. League games are planned and set out from this point and Championships are tied down. Imagine the frustration of fixture secretaries in counties that see their painstakingly formulated plans go out the window on a week like this.

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You look at a county such as Derry, who would have been working out their training loads in preparation for their Round 2A game against Meath this weekend.

It will not happen, because the CCCC were forced to kick the can down the road for a week, preferring Round 2A to be played on the same weekend, which includes the loser of Tyrone-Cavan.

The unsuccessful Ulster side will face Carlow at home. They will also face a schedule of five - FIVE - games in July in their bid to make it to an All-Ireland semi-final.

Carlow's own leagues were thrown out of kilter. If they are annoyed, then their complaints are easily dismissed with a shrug and a 'sure it's only Carlow' stinking attitude.

The six-day turnaround also continues to frustrate players and managers.

Such as Declan Byrne of Louth, who told local radio station LMFM after bowing out of the Championship to Derry; "We trained for six or seven months of the year for the Meath game and to be beaten in that game and asked to play six days later is very frustrating.”

"The GPA are the organisation that should have come in on that. They speak about player welfare but nothing materialised."

Here we come to the problem, and let it be known that this corner is absolving the GPA of blame!

Although there are a certain amount of people who are employed by the GAA, there is still an overwhelming need for volunteers.

There was a time that entering the gates of Clones was like crossing Checkpoint Charlie. Everyone was rigorously scrutinised. It took the best part of a decade for some free and easy banter to pass between myself and the stewards on duty.

Although they are volunteering, they take it very seriously. The Ulster Council now have a tight squad of efficient, courteous and friendly stewards and gatemen. There aren't any hangers-on and everyone is engaged in a purpose. 

But because they are volunteers, it is too much of an ask to get them to two games last weekend. The draw in Cavan has forced their hand though, and there was no option but to ask them to give up this entire weekend for the health of Ulster GAA. Remember that, the next time someone is being difficult with a man in an 'An Maor' bib.

The very idea of separating qualifiers into A and B sides was to do away with the six-day turnaround. Since then, some provincial councils have freestyled it, eschewing the safeguards put in place. It backfired on their volunteers.

In future, if influential policy drivers in the GAA get their wish, the provincial Championships will find themselves streamlined. When that happens, the shortfall in volunteers becomes a greater issue than you would ever have considered.

As one GAA figure said to another this week; "The Ulster Council need a Development Squad for gatemen."

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