Saturday 24 August 2019

Ciarán Whelan: 'I can’t recall such a dispiriting beginning to a football championship'

Read Ciarán Whelan every week in The Herald

Conor Sweeney of Tipperary during Munster GAA Football Senior Championship quarter-final match between Tipperary and Limerick at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Conor Sweeney of Tipperary during Munster GAA Football Senior Championship quarter-final match between Tipperary and Limerick at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Ciarán Whelan

The provincial championships started in earnest across all four provinces last weekend – well, in Ireland, at least, after the previous week’s trips to London and New York for Galway and Mayo respectively.

I can’t recall such a low-key, dispiriting beginning to a football championship than what we witnessed last Saturday and Sunday. There were seven matches played, of varying quality, but not one of those games was deemed sufficiently prominent to be covered live by any television station.

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Granted, you could find deferred coverage of Tyrone’s match against Derry on BBC2 last Sunday evening, but most people are fully aware of the result by the time the game is transmitted and it’s never the same experience watching something where the outcome is already known.

Given that Tyrone were All-Ireland finalists last year and one of the teams fancied for honours this year, it seems wrong that football supporters all over the country were denied the opportunity of live action. 

Instead, what we had to rely upon was the usual combination of updates on Twitter and frankly, that is not acceptable in trying to promote the game of Gaelic football.

As usual and predictably, week one of the football championship was followed by discussions about the old issue of championship structures being tiered and, to be brutally honest, I’m sick and tired of this discussion at this stage.

Any talk of whether counties should be placed in a second tier or – heaven forbid – even a third tier is nonsense at this point. Look how much respect is been given to the one-tier championship at present. Let’s not kid ourselves, a second or third-tier championship within the framework of the existing broadcasting rights and the inter-county GAA calendar would sink quicker than the Titanic.   

Don’t get me wrong, I am on record saying that a review of the structures is required. But we cannot put the cart before the horse. It is easy to say a second or third tier would be given respect with their day out in Croke Park.

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However, a deeper review of the GAA calendar with a proper window for club football has to be the priority. Secondly, more exposure for inter-county games across all media platforms is required before we even think about a championship restructure.

Obviously, I am conflicted by being employed by RTÉ, but they cannot be blamed for the lack of promotion for football over the next five to six weeks.

RTÉ pays significant money for the GAA rights so it is understandable that there have to be financial considerations at play when they choose what games to broadcast.

I strongly feel that the GAA erred massively in not opening up the broadcasting rights when the championship structures changed last year for hurling and football as I’m certain there is an appetite from various providers to showcase our games across the various platforms. 

With the English Premier League over and the rugby season close to an end, this is the GAA’s opportunity to flood the media channels with GAA content. 

The GAA have to take a holistic view regarding this matter, as they are complicit in taking away from the enjoyment that people derive from football, and there were enough decent games last weekend that would have helped maintain a higher level of interest.  

Three-minute highlight packages on the Sunday Game or a couple of paragraphs on-line is not acceptable in terms of maintaining and developing the profile of the football championship.

Everything seems so rushed and hurried at the minute, as the GAA attempts to squeeze all these games into such a short period of time.

I am all for a structured club season but I cannot help feel that allocating the month of April to club football was a token gesture, a sticking plaster for a bigger problem. There are a number of valid reasons why I do not think the club month works well.

Firstly, the ban on intercounty activity is overlooked on regular occasions, with a couple of counties even posting updates from their senior inter-county challenge games during April.

This complete disregard and flouting of the rule highlights the lack of support for the initiative, which I feel is a disaster and achieves very little, both in the short and long term.

There doesn’t appear to be any party that benefits from this arrangement, as the county managers cannot prepare for the imminent arrival of the championship when they don’t have access to their players.

How could those managers, whose sole focus is on their own team, support losing their players at a vital time in terms of preparations and fine-tuning matters ahead of the summer? 

Secondly, I’m not sure how beneficial it is to club managers across the country.

While the players are supposedly back with their clubs and fully committed to being involved in the relative county championships, sometimes the truth is far removed from the intention.

There were quite a number of absentees from the Dublin club championships last month, in both codes, and you can understand why that is the case.

It’s naïve to think that all the county players will be equally committed and focused on their club football with a full inter-county championship on the horizon. I’m sure the odd niggle or two have been exaggerated down the years to ensure the player is suitably fresh when he returns to county action.

For those counties who do play club championship in April , there are stories of many club managers being hugely frustrated by a system that requires them to prepare their teams to compete at high level of intensity in April and then again at some point when the county exits the championship.

No planning or structure is afforded to club managers or players, which simply has to change.

The club issue is a mess and really the plan at present suits nobody. 

The simple solution is to end this arrangement and leave the county championships until all inter-county activity is concluded, even if that means bringing the All-Irelands forward by a week or two to mid-August.

If we could bring the provincial championships forward to the beginning of April, the extra few weeks would allow better exposure for both codes. Inter-county managers could then prepare accordingly and club managers would have a structured season running for two months from mid-August through to October.

These changes would clear the way to explore the best option for new championship structure.

Wishful thinking!

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