Saturday 17 February 2018

Comment: January fixtures continue to pile up - but are they a waste of time?

Emlyn Mulligan of Leitrim. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Emlyn Mulligan of Leitrim. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Michael Verney

For fixture-makers and inter-county players there's no dry January, with the New Year signalling one of the GAA's busiest months, but halfway through it's also proving to be one of the most inconsequential.

All-Ireland hurling champions Tipperary opted out of the Munster SHL as Michael Ryan instead goes down the challenge game route, while Kilkenny U-21s, mixed with some fringe players not holidaying with Brian Cody's seniors, opened the Cats' Walsh Cup senior campaign, as has been the case in recent years.

Waterford's squad trained the morning of their defeat to Limerick before Derek McGrath fielded an inexperienced side, and while these games dominate column inches every Monday and Thursday, their value is diminished by the lack of star power present and the lack of enthusiasm by most managers towards the competitions.

I'll never forget an Offaly steward bellowing 'we're back' in front of Cody's face after the Faithful took out the Cats in the 2010 Walsh Cup, but their fortunes would go in totally different directions when things eventually got serious.

The only competition which Dublin contested in 2016 and didn't win was the O'Byrne Cup, but their semi-final loss to Longford comes with a big asterisk attached as there were more regulars absent than present.

And with eight months between the O'Byrne Cup and the end of the All-Ireland race, the priorities for each county were polar opposites.

Dubs defender Jonny Cooper remarked that "Longford were just better, cleaner, sharper, I'd probably put it down to them wanting it more" and it highlights the different emphasis on pre-season competition.

Dublin were off in Jamaica on a well-earned team holiday when Paul Clarke's second-string side fell to their first 'competitive' defeat in 359 days to UCD last week.

Similarly, Donegal have decided to not field senior players in the Dr McKenna Cup while Mayo were without their senior squad for the opening of the FBD League, a competition they haven't won in four years as minnows like Leitrim get their chance to make hay in January.

Leitrim won back-to-back titles in 2013 and '14, with the first of those wins their first trophy since 1994, as Emlyn Mulligan (pictured) and Co got a rare day in the sun. For minnows like Leitrim it may be the only opportunity to take down a big gun, but it is also a quarter of their annual fixtures jammed into one month.

When the ground hardens the likes of Leitrim will be starved of competitive games, so it's hard to see what purpose pre-season fixtures have if the game's finest are not buying in?

Championship is all that matters in most county calendars and yet a month is filled with pre-season games that are quickly forgotten.

There's ample opportunity for new managers like Leitrim's Brendan Guckian to run the rule over fresh faces but played in conditions alien to championship football, lessons are rarely learned in January. Perhaps the greatest lesson would be to follow alcohol's lead and make GAA a dry January.

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