Fixtures debacle needs urgent action from top down
Overdue reform of the playing schedule for clubs is biggest issue facing the GAA, says Colm O'Rourke
As we idle our way through winter, the issues of pressing concern for the GAA can get a genuine hearing. Everyone has their own agenda, but one which continues to exercise time and energy in debate is the fixtures mess which just gets worse every year.
Big club games are being played today, counties are training to play most of their matches in the worst weather of the year, and then there are the club players who are finished with football by early autumn. Somebody should write a letter to Solomon in the hope that the man of wisdom could come up with a solution. But don't hold your breath waiting for a reply.
Solving most big problems is easy if you start in the right place. The solution to club fixtures would be relatively easy if there was a definitive county fixtures programme. That is the starting point, everything else hangs on that. At present almost all county activity is front-loaded in the early part of the year and club fixtures cannot be planned for summer as they depend on how the county team does in the championship.
What is more is the fact that a lot of top county players have almost no contact with their clubs for most of the year. Involvement with the county team is all-embracing and must be for success at that level, yet there has to be a better and fairer way to treat clubs. GAA officials seem half afraid to tackle this issue, but I hope that the next big committee in the GAA under Liam O'Neill's presidency will be asked to come up with a master fixtures plan – one which works and does not leave clubs as everyone's dogsbody. This committee would have to be run on a similar basis to last year's FRC chaired by Eugene McGee, which brought in some radical proposals.
Fixtures are even more important. Restructuring the county scene would allow other competitions to be run off in a properly planned way. If, for example, clubs knew their county team fixtures for most of the year, then they could slot in club games.
The elephant in the room is the provincial championships, those great institutions which help keep the poor in their place. Matthew wrote in the Gospels, "blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven". If that is true then there will be a big queue at the pearly gates and they will all be GAA volunteers. Club ones at that.
If the county season started in March or April with a three-division league/championship then every county board would know several months in advance what weekends were for clubs only. The top six in each division could qualify for the knockout stages with all these games in Croke Park, sixth against third and fourth versus fifth to get to semi-final stage.
Eighteen teams could play in Croke Park and it could all be finished in a few weekends with All-Ireland finals in each section. Dublin would still be playing Mayo in the main final, but there would be a realistic chance for all others to play and win in Croke Park. It is a terrible reflection on a great organisation that it actively discriminates against some brilliant players because they just happen to be born in the wrong county.
At least at club level a good player can get a big day out in a junior or intermediate final if his team are not in the top grade. At county level you rot in hell.
The top group of counties should be Dublin, Mayo, Donegal, Kerry, Cork, Monaghan, Tyrone, Kildare, Derry and then it is a toss-up between Galway, Armagh, Cavan, Down and a few others for the last couple of slots. Home and away games would be better attended. There could be experimentation with Monday night and Friday night games when the weather would suit bigger crowds and it would be up to every county to have a promotions officer to drum up the support.
The other divisions would be drawn up likewise but I am too cowardly to suggest counties in the lowest division as hell has no fury like a county scorned. Anyway, it is definitely the way forward.
The big winner in all of this would be club football. In a county season stretching from March to August, there would be over 20 weekends with county activity on less than half of them. The rest would be for clubs and they could plan perfectly ahead. Of course the knockout stages for clubs could be disrupted slightly by their county team's progress but this would only be a temporary setback.
It would also mean that clubs that are finished competitive action early, like in August or early September, could go in to some type of autumn league. A mini league involving club teams from a few counties could work well at this time of year. One of the problems in many counties is that even
in places where club players are getting 20 games in the season they may be sandwiched between February and August if their club doesn't qualify for the knockout stages of the championship. It is a long wait until February of the next year.
A more structured system like this would also make it easier to slot in things like third-level competitions or the under 21 when everything else is set in stone. The big beneficiaries would be the players themselves and especially younger players who would not be flogged to death with multiple teams early in the year.
This is the single biggest issue facing the GAA into the future, much bigger than rule changes, the epidemic of handpassing or black cards. I am always surprised that the GPA are not agitating very strongly for a powerful committee to come up with a better format.
But it is very hard to change something which has just happened without any form of planning over 100 years. Harder still if the cart is always put before the horse.
And don't be conned by anyone telling you that because London got to the Connacht final or Monaghan won Ulster that the provincial championships were great this year. For the most part they were a mess. There is a better and fairer way.