Wednesday 13 December 2017

'Friday night GAA plan is worth pursuing'

Presidential hopefuls behind initiative – but not if it affects players' ability to earn living

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

THE rejection by Kildare and Offaly of requests to partake in Friday night games next year has raised major doubts over the short to mid-term viability of switching even a small number of senior inter-county matches away from Saturday-Sunday slots.

However, the three men who will bid to succeed Liam O'Neill as GAA president in 2015 believe that Friday night action should not be totally written off.

Kildare rejected a proposal to play a league game against Dublin in Croke Park on a Friday night next March, while Offaly were similarly unwilling to travel to Longford for a first-round Leinster championship game in May.

It doesn't augur well for the GAA's plans to move some games to Friday nights in order to reap a promotional harvest from an extended playing week.

Aogan Farrell (Cavan), Sean Walsh (Kerry) and Sheamus Howlin (Wexford), the only three declared candidates so far for February's presidential election, agree that playing senior games other than on Saturdays/Sundays has merit but only if it can be achieved by consensus.

"It will always be about getting agreement from counties but I believe that can be achieved in time," said Farrell. It's about striking a balance between doing everything we can to promote our games while also working towards making counties comfortable about playing some games at times other than weekends."

Walsh also believes that balance is essential if counties are to be convinced that Friday games have merit.

"Obviously, it can only happen if it involves counties within close proximity to each other. Even then, there can be issues with traffic in some country towns on Fridaynights. The GAA can never force counties to play on recognised working days, but if it can be brought about to even a small degree with consensus it has advantages," he said.

Howlin added: "Where it's possible to play games on Fridays and where it wouldn't interfere with players' employment, then it's worth pursuing, but it has to be in those circumstances only."

Farrell said fixture planning will be top of his priority list if he becomes president, so extending the playing week would be an area for serious examination.

"There are only 52 Sundays in the year – we can't fit everything into those. We use Saturdays quite extensively too but we've got to look at ways of spreading some of the load across other days," he said. "We have a duty to make sure that the 98pc of players who are not on inter-county panels are properly catered for.

"It's all about striking a balance between providing a proper games programme for all players while making sure the inter-county games continue to be showpiece attractions from a promotional viewpoint."

He believes Ulster's experience with the McKenna Cup proves there is a market for action other than at weekends.

"We get big crowds at the McKenna Cup games on Wednesday nights. It has lifted the whole competition. Before that, even the McKennas weren't attending it, but we've had a 100pc increase over the last few years. Playing the U-21 championships midweek has also gone well so it's clear there's an appetite among the public for games other than on weekends," said Farrell.

"We spent around €10m installing floodlights all across Ulster so it's important we use them to spread fixtures and to ease the load at weekends. The way to get anything done is through agreement and if we are to play games on Friday nights, then it's got to be achieved through discussion so that everyone comes on board.

"If that can be done, there are advantages to be had from spreading the fixtures programme."

Walsh also referred to the success of mid-week U-21 action in Munster but would have some concerns if players had to take time off work for Friday games.

"In these difficult economic times, that would be an issue. We wouldn't want to have employers reluctant to take on inter-county players because they feared they might not be available on certain Fridays. It's something to weigh up but, in general, there is a promotional value to be had from playing games outside weekends," he said.

Howlin also has concerns that, if players had to take time off work to prepare for a game, it could have serious implications for their employment.

"Obviously, we can't have that. It's hard enough to get jobs nowadays without doing anything to jeopardise them," he said. "Having said that, there must be occasions when it's possible to organise some games for Fridays, without impacting too much on players. We've always got to keep trying to find ways to do things differently.

"Switching the U-21 provincial championships to midweek has worked very well. The players are happy with it and the public certainly love it."

Despite their enthusiasm for limited Friday action, Farrell, Walsh and Howling all ruled out the possibility of financially compensating players who had to take time off for weekday games.

"The GPA has always said that pay-for-play is not on the agenda. Compensating players for loss of earnings due to playing games is not a road we're going down," said Walsh.

Farrell said: "There are more than players involved here. What about stewards, referees, umpires and all the others who give their time for free? That would apply on Friday nights too, but nobody suggests compensating them. We're a volunteer organisation and that's the way it should stay."

Howlin added: "There could be no question of paying players for taking time off to prepare for games on Friday nights. If that started, where would it end? We have an amateur, voluntary ethos which has served the GAA well since its foundation. We won't interfere with it just to play games away from Sunday and Saturday, but that doesn't mean we should stop looking at ways of playing some games on Friday."

What the presdential hopefuls say:

"The GAA can never force counties to play on recognised working days, but if it can be brought about with consensus, it has advantages, certainly from a promotional viewpoint." – Sean Walsh

"Where it's possible to play games on Fridays and where it wouldn't interfere with players' employment, then it's worth pursuing, but it has to be in those circumstances only." – Sheamus Howlin

"The way to get anything done is through agreement, and if we are to play inter-county games on Friday nights, then it's got to be achieved through discussion so that everyone comes on board." – Aogan Farrell

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