Dick Clerkin: GAA letting down young players on fixtures
Fiasco of club-v-county conundrum for Dublin U-21 footballers exposes stark lack of leadership
As the last chapter in what has been an illustrious 53 years of the All-Ireland U-21 football championship, Saturday's final between Dublin and Galway had an element of history about it and thankfully the quality of the contest matched the occasion.
While I am normally a sucker for the underdog, I was glad to see Dublin win. For no other reason than that the regrettable events that marred their build-up will, at least, not be centre stage in post-match discussions this week.
That a group of 19/20-year-olds had to hold a collective discussion among themselves about whether they should or shouldn't play with their clubs in the first round of the Dublin championship during the week before an All-Ireland final asks serious questions of those who govern the GAA locally and nationally.
This is the latest indictment of the perennial 'club v county' debacle - which as everyone knows has seen frustration levels peak among the grassroots, spawning the establishment of the new Club Players Association (CPA). A different result on Saturday would have surely thrust these events back into the spotlight.
Instead, we can focus on recounting the memorable duel between Con O'Callaghan and Sean Andy Ó Ceallaigh, the daring raids of Cillian McDaid, and the rangy exploits of supersub Darren Gavin, who took the man-of-the-match award. Special mention must also go to Dublin's forward dynamo Colm Basquel, who was a central figure into last week's sorry 'club v county' episode.
Going against the apparent collective decision last Wednesday week - Basquel came on as an early sub for Ballyboden St Enda's in their top-billing tie with St Oliver Plunkett's/Eoghan Ruadh - his actions could have fuelled a backdrop excuse for a Dublin defeat.
Basquel, a really promising player full of style and not lacking in substance, and his U-21 team-mates should never have been placed in this ridiculous situation where they had to decide on whether to play for their club nine or ten days before an All-Ireland final. Ironically, the Ballyboden youngster was in need of game-time as he only played one half-hour in the Leinster U-21 campaign due to injury.
For Dublin, who protect their inter-county players more than most, these events were even more surprising. Why could the club championship games involving the U-21 players not be pushed out a week or two, and allow them properly prepare for what could be the biggest game of their lives?
Was it simply that Jim Gavin's preparations couldn't be encroached on further than had already been permitted? With two out of Carlow, Wexford, Westmeath and Offaly to negotiate en route to a provincial final on July 16, the All-Ireland champions could surely have coped with one week less of preparation for Leinster to accommodate a rescheduling of the club championship.
Casual observers may look at the two rounds of Dublin club championships played at this time of year and commend the administrators and Gavin for prioritising the club game over his county team's preparations.
Scratch a little deeper, and a cynic might conclude that they prioritised getting enough championship rounds played off now so the remainder can be shoe-horned into October and November - after the Dublin team's season is over.
The nett result is that by the middle of May, 24 of Dublin's 32 senior clubs will be out of the championship and left with nothing but seemingly meaningless league and relegation play-offs to look forward to for the rest of the year.
Dublin are certainly not alone in this ongoing fixtures debacle. As the 'club v county' debate rages, every county is fighting their own specific circumstances. Dublin's problems are just on a complex and more public scale than most. April into May is the most difficult part of the year for inter-county players, managers and fixture-makers. Club and county managers routinely jockey for priority in all districts. Clubs training all spring want to get the year off to a good start. County managers want uninterrupted preparation for the looming championship.
Playing my club football in Monaghan, who have as strong and progressive a club structure as any, April and May was always a delicate balance with the opening rounds of club league and championship overlapping with inter-county Ulster championship build-up.
As a recent example, after a gruelling national league campaign, and a mere six days after taking the Dublin defence for 1-9 in Clones, Jack McCarron turned up for duty for his (and my own) club Currin in our first 'Junior league' game of the year.
Coming off the bench to kick four points in the second half to win the game, Jack maintained the ethos that has underpinned so many of Monaghan's top players over the years with a visible commitment to his club. Similarly, he will be available for the first round of the championship the week following Monaghan's first-round game against Fermanagh.
Likewise, Basquel put his body and, in his case, reputation on the line last weekend when lining out for Ballyboden. Two of the country's most talented young footballers, showing leadership and maturity akin to their burgeoning talent.
Under the guidance of CEO John Costello, the ambitions set out in Dublin's 'Blue Wave 2011-17' strategy have largely come to fruition. The latest wave crashed over the shores of Tullamore last Saturday and for Costello and co, fallout was diverted. As we enter the final season of Dublin's strategic plan, they are a GAA superpower with few peers.
Yet, with great power comes great responsibility. If a countrywide solution is to be sought for the current situation, Dublin must lead the search for a solution, and not simply ride the crest of a 'Blue Wave' that shows no sign of breaking any time soon.