Tuesday 19 February 2019

Ciaran Whelan: Bringing forward the inter-county season could alleviate one key issue in GAA calendar

11 August 2018; Brian Fenton of Dublin in action against Gareth Bradshaw, left, and Cathal Sweeney of Galway during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship semi-final match between Dublin and Galway at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
11 August 2018; Brian Fenton of Dublin in action against Gareth Bradshaw, left, and Cathal Sweeney of Galway during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship semi-final match between Dublin and Galway at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Ciaran Whelan

With the All-Ireland SFC final just over a week away, now seems as good a time as any to take a step back from Dublin’s clash with Tyrone and look at how revising the championship format and calendar has impacted on the GAA landscape.

Of course, the final on Sunday week will hopefully put a positive gloss on what has been a relatively satisfactory year for football but there’s no question that the new championship format will raise many questions during the intercounty off season.

For many years, there was a push from several quarters for the GAA to be innovative in its thinking around a new championship format and calendar. Breaking with tradition was always going to be one of the key barriers to any change but to his credit the former Director General Páraic Duffy took on that task.

Progress is impossible without change and challenges. When the dust has settled in a couple of weeks,  the administrators in Croke Park will need to sit down and review dispassionately, the effects that the changes they implemented for 2018 have had on the game.

Duffy certainly meant well in terms of the policies that were adopted and there is no denying that the championship was more compact this year and that it probably served the intercounty players better as a result.

Players at the highest level have always strived for a greater amount of meaningful and competitive games over the summer with less down-time in terms of training and preparation. I think that their wish has been granted due to the more condensed season that we have experienced.

It was a pleasure to chat with Michael Murphy on The Sunday Game last Sunday week and his views on the game were fascinating to listen do.

He was adamant that the changes in terms of the season were a positive development and that players were happy to embrace these as matches came thick and fast and they didn’t have to endure their customary five-week break between Ulster Championship games.

Of course, there is a happy-medium in terms of games and rest and the GAA have to be cognisant about finding the right balance between giving players the competitive action and environment that they crave with ensuring that there is sufficient down-time for the players to recover from such high-profile and both mentally and physically draining matches.

I would imagine that this will need to be tweaked to a certain degree but from an intercounty player’s perspective, it was a step in the right direction in terms of addressing their perceived imbalance between training and championship games.

Thankfully, there were no replays in the football championship to create issues in terms of pressure on the shortened calendar but the same could not be said about hurling and only this week, Galway captain David Burke spoke of the mental challenges that both he and his team-mates faced after their two semi-final games with Clare. The format of the Super 8s are something else that the GAA may look at reviewing and it’s hard to know if they had a positive impact on the season although it was something that I feel was a step in the right direction towards providing a more competitive and equal championship structure. 

The elitism of the Super 8s is a problem and hopefully John Horan takes up the mantle to drive change by creating a second tier competition that will help develop the weaker counties.

There was also a fair degree of controversy attached to the venues for the Super 8 games and maybe the committee will look at ensuring that provincial winners are rewarded by handing them a home game in their opening fixture. 

In addition to that, I’m not sure that a couple of the neutral matches played in Croke Park had the desired effect in terms of attendances and consequently atmosphere, so looking to move these to provincial grounds might help address that issue.

Of course, any changes made to the calendar would have to take into effect the impact it would make on the club player and I’m not sure that the majority of club players benefitted from the changes to the calendar this year.  

There was much made of the move to restrict the month of April to club activity only but I’m not sure what concerted benefit that switch made.Of course, some counties didn’t even follow this brief and had little to no club championship action to speak of while in those that did, I’m not sure it had the desired effect.

Certainly, in Dublin, where two rounds of the Dublin Senior Football Championship took place, it failed to really take off and I don’t think that it’s fair on either the club players or management to have a championship season spilt in two like that.

It places more pressure and demands on the club players in terms of training and the commitment required and in that sense, it is disrespectful to the players and their families.

One consideration that could be made to alleviate this issue is to bring forward the intercounty championship season to April and it is one that I am strongly in favour of.

What this would allow is that the championship could be elongated if necessary without increasing the demands on the players and the season could still be over by mid-August at the latest.

From there onwards, the club season in terms of championship, could be played out without any distractions and it would ensure that there is a distinct separation between club and county, in contrast to the stop-start nature prevalent at this minute.

Finding the right balance between the club and county player is pivotal in any discussion moving forward and irrespective of what happens on Sunday week, an earnest and honest review is required to take the game forward.    

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