Friday 18 October 2019

Colm O'Rourke: 'Solution to fixtures puzzle is straightforward'

'In the overall scheme of things, and compared to serious issues of health and state, the solution to the GAA fixture problem is pretty straightforward' Stock photo
'In the overall scheme of things, and compared to serious issues of health and state, the solution to the GAA fixture problem is pretty straightforward' Stock photo
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

It was a beautiful day in Navan last Sunday for Meath and Offaly's championship clash. It was, though, a poor match. Offaly had more possession, more scoring chances and the better players on the day and must be still wondering how they lost.

It was still a great occasion . . . thanks to all the kids. They took over one of the banks behind the goals and had the time of their lives. It only seems like three weeks ago when I was one of them, rolling down the bank, fighting for every ball that landed there and generally acting the maggot. That was before the health and safety bullshit took over, so thankfully uncommon sense has prevailed again.

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The race for possession when the ball went over the net was a sight to behold. There were at least 50 in pursuit of the ball. On one occasion a young lad got the ball and raced to the edge of the bank, with a posse in hot pursuit. He looked as if he was going to jump off the edge of the earth, he then threw a dummy and left those 50 pursuers behind only to run into another slower group. The tussle for possession was greater than anything on the field.

At half-time, there was what has become the customary pitch invasion. Hundreds of kids running around. They bring their own ball and can play until a few minutes before the teams come back out, which these days is nearly 20 minutes. I'm not quite sure whether it is the kids who enjoy half-time more or the adults who accompany them.

It is a chance for them to look around and remember their great deeds of the past and it gives them an opportunity to exaggerate what they did 20, 30, or 40 years ago. Points were kicked from 60 yards, balls were plucked out of the sky and low-flying birds were in trouble - all lies of course, but there is nothing to disprove the stories.

Many years ago it was the spectators' turn to perform at half-time. At every match in rural venues the break was a chance for everyone to get a 'kick'. It normally amounted to two groups assembling, one in at the goals and the other around midfield and whoever would win the ball would just launch it in high to the other bunch of clowns who could kick, punch, bite, scrape or use any other tactic to gain possession. All great fun, but apart from loads of minor injuries there were usually a few pairs of trousers with the arse missing when the real game resumed.

Parnell Park is another place where kids are encouraged to bring a ball and it is a win-win situation for the GAA. By enticing kids to matches with the prospect of getting out on the pitch at half-time, it means an adult has to bring them. They have to pay in so it becomes a revenue earner.

Imagine if the same thing was extended to Croke Park. The surface in Navan is in fantastic condition and the kids did absolutely no damage to it. Neither would they in Croke Park. If kids were promised a kick-around in Croke Park for some of the games which are less than half full, it would cause a surge in the attendance. Young boys and girls would hound their parents to bring them to Croke Park so they could run around at half-time. Word would spread like wildfire in primary schools. A small county would need a fleet of buses to cater for demand.

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Most kids get their love for the GAA from such experiences and, at a time of falling attendances, a move like this would provide a boost both for now and the future. We can be a bit precious about pitches - open them up and let the kids be the heroes.

Hopefully the same mass invasion takes will place today in Sligo and Newry, where more football championship matches are taking place. One of the big problems in the GAA is that people who make big decisions are paralysed by fear, so often nothing gets done. It's time to be brave, take a chance and try something different.

We live in a society where GAA people are making important decisions in businesses, schools and even politics. Everybody understands that things don't work all the time but at least go for it occasionally. Radical or redundant, as the Progressive Democrats used to say, even though they lost their radicalism and became what they feared: redundant.

The same applies to the new fixtures group which is going to be set up by president John Horan. It is a chance to have a green-field approach to fixtures and is a great idea. So much so that I have volunteered my services, although I have been advised that my criticism of people and policies in Croke Park damages my chances. They could hardly be that petty, could they? We will soon know the answer.

Many years ago, I was involved in the committee which redesigned the championship and brought us the back-door system. The original committee at that time had come up with a much more radical proposal which was shot down in flames.

From the ashes emerged the present system which I think ran its course a long time ago, something I have argued for many years now. The tiered championship idea, which is gaining traction at the moment, goes back to that original committee.

More recently I was part of another group which put forward other proposals to improve the competition structure. One of those was to get rid of minor and under 21 and replace it with an under 19 competition where those involved could not play for their county at senior level. I still think that was a good idea. So much for democracy.

Anyway, this is a great opportunity to bring representatives from all factions of the GAA together - GPA, CPA, provincial reps, a county board rep, a referee, some full-time officials, higher education and anyone else who would make a positive contribution. Lock them in a room until they come up with a solution that is not the piecemeal ideas which emerge from groups who are looking at one part of the problem and missing the bigger picture. And if it means blood on the committee room walls, then so be it.

This is a once-off opportunity to look at the big picture, a chance to forge a fixture plan which caters for all needs into the future. Beware all those who think it can't be done. It depends on the will of man. The starting point has to be fixtures for counties which gives them games at the right time of year when spectators will come. And allows the kids with their balls to invade pitches on sunny Sundays rather than in the cold and muck of winter.

The pieces of the jigsaw can then be put in place with the greatest consideration for clubs; that also depends on a general agreement that counties have to provide a minimum number of games for all their club players. There are plenty of competing forces at work here and a lot of various GAA bodies act on the basis of self-interest. Yet in the overall scheme of things, and compared to serious issues of health and state, the solution to the GAA fixture problem is pretty straightforward.

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