Saturday 20 October 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Fixture list looks the part but really it's an April fool's joke on clubs

Committee who came up with these proposals had right intentions but started in wrong place

'The club should be the centre of discussion and then build around it. Instead, the three-legged stool is devised around county fixtures which have no certainty' Stock photo: Sportsfile
'The club should be the centre of discussion and then build around it. Instead, the three-legged stool is devised around county fixtures which have no certainty' Stock photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

When I tried to study the fixture list for next year which was published last week, I did not know who to feel most sorry for - the county man or the club player. The county man will get no break at all, matches start earlier with pre-season games before the year is out in some cases, and when that is all finished he will put on his club kit which should see him well into the autumn of 2018.

Then the treadmill starts moving again with pre-season training for the county. A horse, a dog or a professional player would not be subjected to such a punishing ordeal.

Then the club player is waiting in the wings. He will train away in spring and summer but there can be no serious football until the county side are out. The promise of an April free from county activity is like a mirage in the desert. There may be no games but the county side will be training flat out, there may even be a training camp in some exotic place that nobody will want to miss out on so the club player will have to be content with league matches or challenge games. The compression of fixtures does nothing for the club man. All he wants is games with a full team; that is not going to happen next year.

So again I have become the grim reaper as far as GAA policy is concerned. It appears over the last couple of years that nothing that the suits come out with makes me happy and that is exactly the case. The Committee who came up with these proposals had all the right intentions, but like the man lost on a journey, they did not start from the right place.

The club should be the centre of discussion and then build around it. Instead, the three-legged stool is devised around county fixtures which have no certainty. By July or August clubs will have to be on a war footing. As soon as the county side lose, the clubs will have to be ready for championship football as I cannot see it happening any earlier. The students who are thinking of the American voyage should not worry either - this won't affect them at all.

When it comes to club football, I have some credibility. I have been involved in club management for a long time and for the last two years have played a small part in Simonstown winning the Meath senior championship. So I know the time of day and what a club player wants.

The Meath championship runs on a league basis and to win it requires a minimum of eight games. On top of that, clubs are guaranteed 13 league games which are often played without county players. It is a system with numerous flaws, but Simonstown have played 22 competitive matches since the start of the year, many of the league games without county players but all championship matches with them. Club players want games, lots of them, and in Meath there is a healthy ratio between training and matches.

One of the main dangers that I see from this condensed county fixture list is that county boards who see their club season shortened will decide to reduce the number of games for clubs in order to complete their internal fixture lists. This is the doomsday scenario where moves intended to help clubs in fact makes things worse.

Clubs with county players will see less of them and anyone who thinks that county players will be available for their clubs during the month of April does not live in the real world. This fixture list looks like a work of art but it is the gaps which are most telling. The provincial championships will begin earlier in May so the last two weeks of April will mean no county players with their clubs, if they see them during April at all. Those in high places can say what they like about April being for clubs, but the reality is quite different.

There is at least one serious omission which could disrupt club football even further. The All-Ireland under 20 championship semi-finals are fixed for July, so when are provinces going to play their championships? This is going to have a serious effect on clubs as these matches will be played in May and June.

So if your club has county senior players and others on the under 20 team, then you should get them to send their photos to the club because it will be a long time before their friends on the club team will see them. The All-Ireland junior championship final, which is also fixed for July, has the capacity for similar disruption at club level.

County boards will not be able to fix important club matches while counties are in the under 20 and junior championships as both of these will be running in early summer.

At least the change of minor competition from 18 to 17 and the fact that the younger age group can no longer play adult football removes one road block from the schedule. But I have not even mentioned third-level competitions. The multiplicity of competitions involving the same players means that compiling a fixture list without addressing this problem is really only putting the cart before the horse and will do nothing for clubs.

There is one other thing that the fixture-makers have not factored in and that is the weather. With pre-season competitions in January and the league to start before the end of the first month, all that is needed is another Ophelia or the latest equivalent to literally blow everything off course.

January and February are the two worst months of the year, weather-wise, for football but most counties will play more football in those two months than any other time of the year. The certainty is that some year soon there will be frost, snow, wind or rain which will completely disrupt fixtures.

I know a bit about this time of year through schools football and we have been lucky for the last few years, but relying on January and February for a lot of matches is playing a bit of Russian roulette. Sooner or later we will have a hard frost, heavy rain or a few weeks of snow and the league won't be finished in March. The poor clubs can do nothing but whistle Dixie then.

This fixture list looks great on paper. It reminds me of a time when Albert Reynolds was the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs and it was almost impossible to get a phone. Younger people will find that hard to credit but it was not a hundred years ago. Anyway, Albert was only in the job a short time and was telling the Dáil about all the new phones he had installed. One of the opposition bided his time and asked the Minister, "how many of the new phones are working?"

This fixture list for 2018 is a bit like that. It looks good and there is a date for nearly everything, but will it work? The proof of the pudding will come next year but my guess is that it will not make life better for clubs and will make fixture planning for administrators within counties almost impossible.

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