Saturday 16 December 2017

Martin Breheny: Fresh thinking needed to get balance betweeen club and county right

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

AND so the great divide continues in the GAA between the high-powered inter-county pomp and club players who feel alienated by a fixtures schedule that's clearly not satisfying the majority.

Last week I suggested that a proposal to play the All-Ireland senior finals in August, thereby opening up more time for club activity, had a serious downside as it would effectively remove top-line GAA activity from the main sports agenda a month earlier than is now the case.

In promotional terms, there are serious risks for the GAA in departing the national stage in August, just as soccer and rugby are cranking up, especially since the Allianz Leagues don't start until over five months later in early February.

Reaction to the piece was mixed, ranging from arguments that conceding September to soccer and other sports would be an error to claims that, unless the lot of club squads is improved, the inter-county scene will be seriously undermined as players drift towards sports with a more reliable timetable.

As always, it's informative to listen to specific cases, one of which represented a sentiment held by many club players.

One reader wrote: "I have just been reading your article in the Indo regarding playing All-Ireland finals in September. I, like you, would not like to see a break from this tradition.

"However, there is a major issue in the GAA and that is the scheduling of club fixtures. We are a small rural club and, for years, we have lost players who have lost interest as a result of poor planning.

"I remember one year we played the first round of the championship in mid-April and the second round in late July.

"Players were so fed up training and not knowing when our next game would be that it became a joke.

"I'm not one to moan without offering a solution. The GAA needs to rule out replays of all inter-county and club games with the exception of All-Ireland and county finals. Games must finish on the day so that scheduling for clubs can go ahead.

"Players are tired of being treated as second class citizens in the GAA. They are priority, in my view, because without them there will be no games and no need for county boards or Croke Park.

"The club is the cornerstone of the organisation, the feeder to all county teams, and the GAA needs to recognise that.

"There are other ways of making money than replays. Please put this point forward in the near future."

The irony is that the player who offered that stark analysis of life on the local circuit has a lot in common with GAA director-general Paraic Duffy.

Duffy's regular query to suggestions in this column that it's crucial, from a promotional viewpoint, for the GAA to maintain inter-county activity as long as possible throughout the year is: "What about the clubs? When are they going to have their time?"

When motions were coming before Congress last April to add semi-finals to Division 1 of the Allianz Leagues and to eliminate extra-time from drawn games in the early rounds of the senior provincial championships and All-Ireland quarter-finals, Duffy warned that they could further limit the space for clubs activity.

"Should we be surprised if we are sometimes accused of paying lip-service to the oft-repeated refrain that the club is the most important unit in the association," he wrote.

Duffy urged delegates to "offer arguments from the perspective of clubs before final decisions are taken."

Congress went ahead and voted for the League semi-finals and the removal of extra-time, including in the All-Ireland qualifiers, something which wasn't really intended.

An effort will be made at next year's Congress to rescind the decision on replaying drawn qualifier ties without going to extra-time. However, replays will apply in all provincial games, putting added pressure on club schedules.

Everybody agrees there's a major difficulty in streamlining the programme to accommodate the club and inter-county scene, yet the search for a solution appears no more advanced than it was a few years ago.

Just as loading the austerity truck isn't going to carry this country back to prosperity, cutting back on inter-county activity wouldn't necessarily fix the club schedule problem as county managers would still insist on having the top players to themselves for as long as possible.

The reality is that the solution can't be brought about in isolation. What's required is a blank sheet of paper, some smart planners and a mandate and a willingness to get the club/county balance right.

It seems fairly simple, but that's before the vested interests intervene.

And, boy, are there a lot of them out there.

Irish Independent

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