Friday 23 August 2019

Colm O'Rourke: Under 21 and junior grades not sustainable when burnout is rife

Páraic Duffy’s blueprint is a promising start in trying to plot a way out of the fixtures maze
Páraic Duffy’s blueprint is a promising start in trying to plot a way out of the fixtures maze
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

The runaway train that is football fixtures has been tackled. Páraic Duffy has made 11 recommendations, and now it's up to the GAA world. This was once a make-believe place where competitions were added on but never cut.

Basically, the same number of players were involved so they just played more, and if you were between 17 and 21, you played a lot more. Until recently nobody bothered about the long-term consequences - never mind the short-term ones - but a raft of reports over the last decade has revealed that playing football can damage your health.

Many of the GAA public still don't believe in player burnout. I did not realise the extent of it until the medical and scientific evidence presented by various experts to a committee on fixtures which I served on, and which incidentally made similar recommendations to Duffy. In effect, Duffy has revisited some reports of the last decade and picked out the most relevant bits to tackle the great beast.

Naturally, there are complaints, especially about the abolishing of the under 21 competition. I have read all week about how important this championship is. Nobody can doubt that, but there are hard choices to make.

You can't accept the idea of player burnout and still feel that so many competitions can run every spring - under 21, third-level leagues and championships, inter-county leagues and club football.

I am sure a lot of people would have preferred to go for the jugular with third-level games and get the Sigerson Cup finished before Christmas. Duffy backed away from this.

Up until 1968 the Sigerson Cup was played in early December until the foot and mouth outbreak in Britain at the time. Now colleges argue that it is not feasible to play at that time of year because of exams.

I wonder about that one. When I was in one of those institutes all exams were at the end of the year so you enjoyed life and studied in May. Now there are awful things like continuous assessment and exams twice or three times a year. It forces students to work hard, go to Coppers on Thursday nights and stagger home on Friday afternoon!

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I think it would be better all round to have third-level activity at its peak before Christmas and run a league afterwards which could be used for players who are not on any county team.

Most county under 21s are in some type of third-level programme so something has to give. The games themselves are hardly a big issue. It is all the preparation, the challenge games, the travel, the extra training, the lack of sleep, the lack of study time or sheer relaxation. January is the horror month for students with a daily grind which causes a physical and mental drain.

At a time when mental health issues are being given a fair airing, the GAA must play a part in lessening the demands which cause pressure. A certain amount of pressure brings out the best in people but too much leads to ill health.

So under 21 must go even if it is a great competition for bringing on players. The advocates must bring a better solution to the table or forever hold their peace. The facts are that a lot of very good players might be involved with college teams, county under 21, county senior and club senior in the worst weather months of the year and also have to cope with exams. No professional athlete would have this load. Duffy is correct to try and rebalance the abuse, and make football more like a pastime than hard work.

Getting rid of the junior grade in football is self-explanatory. County football is for the elite, everybody else should play club. Except there will be another crying mob who will talk about the great honour of wearing the county jersey. That is precisely the point, a county jersey is not special if it is given out to second-rate footballers. It would save county boards money too but that is never a consideration in GAA politics.

Another good move is to change minor to under 17. So what if county and club ages are not similar. The same applies with breaking the link in some cases with hurling. Why should all competitions in both codes be the same? History, tradition, laziness, unwillingness to change . . . hurling should do their own thing. There are great games every year and then Kilkenny win it anyway. The supporters don't even hang around for the presentation anymore, they are back home by seven for a training session with underage players. If the minor age moves to 17 there will be less anxiety about the Leaving Cert and it would leave a proper space for schools competitions.

In the past I have had serious reservations about all competitions finishing in the calendar year but I now think it should be the norm. If the All-Ireland final moves forward by a couple of weeks then there are definite seasons for county football, namely summer, and autumn for club football. Counties who cannot finish their championships on time are inefficient. The calendar year is no excuse. And could journalists please stop writing that there is no club football in summer? It is not even remotely true.

There is plenty of club football in most counties every summer - the problem is a lack of championship football. The majority of players are happy with games, leagues, tournaments or whatever, and it is not hard to run off a championship. Most clubs don't have to play more than seven or eight games to win a championship. Where is the problem?

Ultimately, what Páraic Duffy is doing is plotting a route out of a maze but the trouble is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The great unwashed of the GAA want change but they are like the drunk who always falls off the wagon. Many will oppose some or all, like no replays for example. Turkeys voting for Christmas? This, however, is only the beginning of order. There are bigger fish to fry but small steps will do for a start.

The committee I was part of some years ago wanted under 21 and minor amalgamated into an under 19 grade and those players could not play senior county football. I think that would be better but I do hope now that all these proposals go through, at least for a trial period.

I hope too that Páraic Duffy presents it as an all duck or no dinner proposal. In the meantime, he will need PJ Mara to ensure that, like in the days of Charlie Haughey, there would be no nibbling at the leader's bum because vested interests will try to stop some parts going through while loudly proclaiming the virtues of others.

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