Thursday 22 August 2019

Martin Breheny: Moving All-Ireland final dates, scrapping U-21s and changing minor age won't solve problems

Theo Clancy of Scoil Lorcáin in action against Stephen McMahon (left) and Jaques de Patoul, Hollypark BNS during the Sciath Kitterick final of the Allianz Cumann na mBunscol festival of football in Croke Park
Theo Clancy of Scoil Lorcáin in action against Stephen McMahon (left) and Jaques de Patoul, Hollypark BNS during the Sciath Kitterick final of the Allianz Cumann na mBunscol festival of football in Croke Park
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The president and director general were as one: if the GAA wants to prevent some players from being subjected to intolerable stress levels through over-exertion, while others are left deeply frustrated by lack of action, something has to give.

"We have a responsibility to do what's right for all our players," said Aogán O Fearghail.

"Are we going to practise what we preach by taking the welfare of our young elite players seriously and by providing the vast majority of our players with a fair and regular schedule of fixtures?

"The evidence that we are failing on both counts in irrefutable," said Páraic Duffy.

And so the latest proposals on over-training, burnout and the GAA's fixtures calendar, primarily designed to assist game-starved club players in summer, were released in Croke Park yesterday.

Down on the pitch, blissfully unaware of anything other than the pure enjoyment of sport, excited youngsters were realising the dream of playing in the great stadium in the Allianz Cumann na mBunscol finals.


It didn't matter to them that proposals were emerging to scrap the All-Ireland U-21 football and junior championships and the intermediate hurling championships, to reduce the inter-county minor age limit from 18 to 17, to play extra-time in all games up to and including All-Ireland finals, to bring the All-Ireland senior finals forward by two weeks and to complete the All-Ireland club championships in the calendar year.

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Other minor adjustments were also proposed in a discussion paper compiled by Duffy and endorsed by O'Fearghail.

The school kids would have no interest in it but perhaps they should, since some of the problems that the proposals are meant to address will probably still be there when they are adult players.

That's unless the mindset changes, not among the Croke Park administrators but much further afield in the provinces, counties and clubs. Based on precedent, there little enough reason to expect much change on that front.

After all, the latest document is the ninth to be published since 2004, dealing with a broadly similar range of issues. In 2002, the GAA's Strategic Review Report noted that Liam Mulvihill, the then director general, had regularly addressed similar problems.

So it's not as if this is a new conundrum, foisted on the GAA by mischievous outsiders. It has been there a very long time and while various remedies were suggested from time to time, the issues remain as intractable as ever.

In fairness, it's a complex area, due to the multiplicity of competitions across clubs, counties and colleges in two codes.

Duffy said yesterday that it was time to move on from talking to taking decisions. He acknowledged that the latest proposals would not provide a magic solution but insisted that they would ease the situation.

That's assuming, of course, that counties and clubs abided by them. But will they? Take the winter training ban. Duffy notes in the report that some counties breach the rule, yet sanctions cannot be imposed because it's impossible to prove it.

So who's breaking the rule? County managers, aided and abetted by county boards, are the guilty parties, which is pretty comical, since the rule was brought in to help players.

Duffy challenged those who will oppose the latest proposals to come up with alternatives.

Since I cannot understand the logic of bringing the All-Ireland finals forward by two weeks (it's a waste of valuable promotion time in September) and am totally opposed to scrapping the U-21 Football championships, I take it I have to come up with alternatives.

How about county boards actually fulfilling their duty and insisting on more club games being played in summer, rather than taking an instruction from team managers (although in fairness not all) that the local programme closes while the county team remains in the championship?

That would free up quite a few extra match days for club action.

Bringing the All-Ireland finals forward by two weeks is designed to leave more room for club activity in September but consider this: Laois were eliminated from all inter-county championships in June, yet didn't complete their SFC until 20 hours before the champions were due out in the Leinster first round on October 25.

Waterford had completed all their inter-county action by August 9, yet their senior football final won't be played until Friday night, the day before the winners are due to play in the Munster SFC.

There are several other examples of local finals being played quite late, despite counties being eliminated from the All-Ireland championships relatively early.

Cutting back on grades and contracting the All-Ireland championships won't solve that type of bad planning. Only county boards can correct it, but there's no evidence of a will to get it right.

That's why I fear for Duffy's document, much of which is sensible and practical, although I part wavelengths on the earlier All-Ireland finals, the abolition of the U-21FC and playing extra-time in all drawn games.

By all means have extra-time in most drawn games but not in an All-Ireland final, the best promotional tool of all. Play that one again, Sam.

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