Wednesday 19 December 2018

Comment: Third-level conflict with inter-county game is a recurring theme with no obvious solution

David Clifford Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
David Clifford Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Last year, after his side had ruthlessly dismantled Mayo in a Croke Park league match, Dublin football manager Jim Gavin delivered a stinging rebuke of the schedules that placed such demands on third-level college players with county profiles.

The previous weekend Jack McCaffrey had hobbled out of the drawn game with Donegal in Ballybofey that came just over a week after McCaffrey and his UCD colleagues had played back-to-back Sigerson Cup games, culminating in that shock final defeat to St Mary's, Belfast in Bekan.

Gavin was in no doubt that the Friday-Saturday load had caught up with his flying wing-back, leaving him "tight".

"There's so many experts in the science field in the universities but yet we see them putting players out to play back-to-back games on a Friday and a Saturday," reflected Gavin that night.

"You wouldn't do it in any other sport, you wouldn't do it to a greyhound probably. To be asking inter-county footballers to play games like that, it's not acceptable.

"I wouldn't do it with the U-9s below at the club, play games back-to-back. So why would we do it at that level where most of those players are senior club players at home or they're either playing with their counties.

"It's just not good enough. And it's the cumulative effect of the load. It's not just the next day, it's the impact that it has over time. I hope somebody looks at it."

Paul Mannion missed both games for Dublin too in the wake of his UCD experience, Gavin opting to sit him out with a nod to the future. With the best squad in the game, he can afford to.

The competition organisers heeded his words. This year the semi-finals will have some space from the weekend final but in the new order that will create a potential problem elsewhere.

No other county can make the choices that Gavin could make with McCaffrey and Mannion.

Most err on the side of risk out of necessity. Even Eamonn Fitzmaurice, with a squad that is potentially as deep as Dublin's, finds himself without that room to manoeuvre as he seeks to integrate new players that have been fuelling a disgruntled county with fresh enthusiasm.

Last weekend David Clifford started his third game in seven days, coming off with a slight hamstring injury in the first half against Mayo.

Maybe it would have happened anyway but Clifford had played his first 47 minutes of competitive senior inter-county football against Donegal on Sunday and was on a five-hour-plus bus trip to Belfast from Tralee by the following afternoon, with a stop off in Dundalk IT to stretch the legs in between.

He played a vital role, scoring 1-4 and setting up a second goal that earned a shock first win in the competition over Queens.

With his Kerry colleague Gavin Crowley, they then got back on the bus around 5.0pm for the 460km journey back to Tralee.

By Saturday evening Clifford and Crowley were back up the road, more than 270km, to Castlebar for that league game. That's a lot of time sitting in a bus either side of two games.

Clifford's 'tweak' leaves him out of IT Tralee's Sigerson quarter-final tonight in Kerry, Crowley is a doubt because of his ongoing workload, with the Kingdom's third league match against Monaghan in Inniskeen looming large for the young Templenoe man with designs on the No 6 shirt.

It's a difficult balancing act for all parties, not just in Kerry.

The players want to play for both teams, inter-county management must look to consolidate their position and, in Kerry's case, build a new team while the colleges invest in scholarships in these players and have a right to expect that, at the apex of their season, they will have them available.

Last week Dublin newcomer Brian Howard sat out DIT's win over IT Carlow, having played against Kildare on the previous Saturday night and against Tyrone last Saturday night.

Yet players from Tipperary, Kerry, Cavan and Meath had to fit themselves into the same schedule, with three games in seven or eight days before tonight's trip to Tralee.

That creates its own imbalance, its own division for the player, the college and inter-county managers looking on with some bemusement.

It remains to be seen if Howard, busy trying to establish himself with the All-Ireland champions, is available for tonight's game in Tralee and a seven-hour round trip.

These conflicting issues have been a recurring theme for as long as league football and the primary third-level competitions have occupied the same space.

Limerick dual player Gearoid Hegarty's name resurfaced yesterday when it was established that by this Thursday, he may have played five games in 12 days with a Sigerson Cup quarter-final today against UUJ and a Fitzgibbon Cup quarter-final against UCC on Thursday.

But at this time of year such congestion is a staple diet for Hegarty.

Two years ago he had an involvement in 11 games in 33 days, between UL Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cup teams and the Limerick hurlers and footballers.

Some inter-county managers are pulling back. Derek McGrath gave Tadhg de Búrca the night off Waterford hurling duty against Tipperary, citing 'player welfare' after De Búrca's UCC schedule overlapped, but they are few and far between.

The solution? If it was that simple it would have been found long ago. The call to play third-level competitions prior to Christmas will inevitably go up but that doesn't align with exam time.

The GAA's footprint across the third-level landscape is exceptionally strong, a breeding ground for future administrators as much as anything else. That's why the competitions retain such an important place on the calendar.

But the risk of the inter-county machine devouring scholarship-tied players because of the narrowness of the schedule and the wearing timetables that players are being asked to commit to in that window has the capacity to threaten that dynamic further down the line.

Irish Independent

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