Monday 26 August 2019

Donnchadh Boyle: 'No gain without pain as fixtures puzzle leaves club players at breaking point'

Briody: Merit in Cork’s planning. Photo: Sportsfile
Briody: Merit in Cork’s planning. Photo: Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

It was, to use that nauseating phrase, "blue sky thinking".

Cork's 'Proposal C', which suggested the playing of championship games without county players, was out of left-field but it also did the GAA a service in that it got the club fixtures issue back to the top of the agenda while underlining the level of disillusionment amongst clubs and players.

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Before that proposal, championship was seen as sacred. Clubs of every level went into their most important competition with access to their most important players. Any other world order wasn't even considered. On Tuesday night, the proposal gathered 23 per cent of the vote. Not enough to see it over the line but enough to make the rest sit up and take notice.

Perhaps it's no surprise that the idea first gained traction in Cork, although Monaghan have it in use in their leagues. With the broadest church in the country (160 clubs), a strong dual mandate as well as divisional and college sides to factor into their domestic championships, Cork is arguably the trickiest puzzle of all to solve.

Cork have shone a light into a part of the GAA that demands urgent attention - club fixtures.

After all, this 'club month' will be used in varying different ways. Meath will play two rounds of football championship, while just north of them Cavan are only starting their leagues but will squeeze in five rounds between the end of their Division 1 campaign and their Ulster SFC opener on May 18.

Wexford are down to play championship in both codes, while it's also been reported that the county's senior hurling squad are heading abroad on a training camp.

For the Club Players' Association, the Cork proposal is a sign of the disillusionment, something Wexford's Rory O'Connor echoed when he stated: "I don't understand how club players actually stick around for us and wait for us to come back, it's an awful thing."

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CPA chairman and Meath native Micheál Briody agrees that Cork have done well to get the conversation started.

"There is merit in the way Cork addressed the whole thing," he said. "They looked at it. They talked to clubs and talked to a lot of players led by Kevin O'Donovan and Ronan Dwane that we would have come across in our time, so you have to commend them, they came up with the proposals and let the clubs decide what they wanted. But the unfortunate thing is that neither of the three (Cork) proposals are ideal because the whole summer calendar is hamstrung by the inter-county championship hurling and football."

A group tasked with looking at the fixtures issue is being set up and it's hoped that workable solutions will be brought to Congress next year. Briody insists there are some easy wins surrounding the structure of the championships and more uniformity around start dates.

"The only way it will work for clubs is if there are designated periods somewhere along the calendar for them. It's unfair to think a club player cannot play championship in the summer months of May, June and July across the board. The way the hurling and football is at the moment with the new hurling championships and the 'Super 8s', that's the way it is inevitably set up.

"There is options there could be summer leagues, stuff like that, but the key word here is meaningful. If you don't have a meaningful games players will just say, 'Ah, that's a Mickey Mouse cup'."

The fact is there will have to be pain for everyone before there can be gain for anyone. Club players won't get everything they want, county players might have to accept an even busier schedule that could see them mix club and county duties at certain times of the year. Provincial councils might have to accept that their competitions have lost some of their lustre. The erosion of influence of county senior managers in some counties is a must too.

Centrally, Croke Park can help with all of that. But some of the sacred cows in the GAA might have to be put out to grass.

"(Ideally) you have some period in summer that is allocated to clubs, be that two or three weeks where they can play games but the other dates on either side of it, for inter-county games, all have to be equal... so it's not that some counties can avail of (the free weekends) but some can't. That's the kind of challenge that's on it but when you start with a blank canvas that is all very possible. This is not rocket science."

Not rocket science maybe but change often comes slowly and painfully. And if the proposal in Cork showed anything, it's that clubs and club players aren't willing to take too much more.

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