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State of the game

CHRISTY Cooney and Paraic Duffy have been travelling the country for a week, stopping off in Limerick, Croke Park, Monaghan and Claremorris to engage with county chairmen on what they clearly regard as matters which require to be addressed.

Some are mere housekeeping issues, such as reinforcing the call to support the VHI Summer Camps, rather than running individual projects, but others are of a much more fundamental to core GAA principles.

The reaction from the chairmen has been mixed, ranging from a view that the interaction "has been helpful enough in its own way" to an interpretation that it was a means of "whipping us into line."

Cooney and Duffy have, unsurprisingly, being espousing the official GAA line on controversial subjects such as the closed season, use of GAA property, payment to managers and the club fixture schedules, but hasn't that failed so far? And if it's not working, why not re-appraise it?

Core values and principles have their place, but there's always room for tweaking, so that they evolve and develop in line with modern trends and demands.

Closed season

It's not so long ago since inter-county squads commenced training in September, often before the All-Ireland football final had been played. New managers, plus those whose teams had functioned poorly in the championship, were especially keen to begin the early slog.

The former used it to get to know the players and to impress County Boards with their enthusiasm, while the latter wanted the message to go out: "He means business this time."

Then, the debate on burnout gathered momentum, followed by the proposal to declare November-December a collective training-free period for senior teams. Counties dutifully supported it at Congress, only to discover that the real power-brokers, the team managers, grew seriously disenchanted with the new regime.

More than that, many of them ignored it, while others came up with imaginative ways of beating it by forming unofficial boxing or athletic clubs. That enabled players to work collectively, but not under the heading of hurling or football training. It was another GAA problem hoisted on what purported to be a solution.

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Cooney and Duffy told county chairmen that it was up to them to ensure that the rules were applied. The instruction is a waste of time. Most County Boards won't cross the managers and, besides, if one county adheres to the regulations, only to see their neighbours break them and gain an advantage, the pressure to do likewise becomes intolerable.

Bottom line? Bans don't work, especially when they involve instructing players not to train for the games they love. It doesn't apply in any other sport, so why it should it work in the GAA? It hasn't and it won't, irrespective of how many instructions Croke Park issue to county chairmen.

Use of GAA property

Those who opposed easing Rule 42 argued that if rugby and soccer were allowed into Croke Park, it would be impossible to keep them out of other GAA grounds, large and small. Pure nonsense, of course, but propaganda is always an important weapon in any war.

It didn't work in 2005 and time has shown that there has been no great pressure applied to open up other GAA grounds.

However, there is sensitivity regarding the use of GAA facilities for training by other codes. Many GAA clubs have ultra-modern gyms and floodlit pitches, installed at huge expense which, in these more difficult economic times, is loading on the financial pressures.

Renting them out to other codes when not required for GAA activities is an obvious means of earning extra revenue, but, under rule, is not allowed. It has led to local deals where all the parties keep quiet about the arrangement, which works well until somebody mischievously chooses to bring it to the attention of the GAA authorities.

There have been a few instances of this in recent years, leading to problems for the clubs involved and unease in Croke Park as they attempt to apply a rule which, as it currently stands, is far too inflexible.

The sky didn't cave in, nor did the sun refuse to rise after Croke Park opened to rugby and soccer. Indeed, the deal with the IRFU and FAI proved hugely beneficial to the GAA, netting €36m in rent money, plus hugely positive PR.

It's natural that the GAA would want to ensure that their facility network is not hijacked by other sports, but it's equally important to retain some perspective. GAA clubs are well able to decide what's right for them and are hardly likely to give away too much to their rivals from other sports.

That's why they should be allowed greater flexibility to decide if they want to exploit their facilities for financial gain.

After all, it scarcely makes sense to have club officers meeting in cold rooms, trying to figure out how to generate the finance to run their facilities, while, at the same time, their gym/floodlit pitch lies idle despite requests from rugby/soccer to rent them.

As with the training restriction, it's better to manage than ban. Surely, the change of policy towards the use of Croke Park proved that.

Club fixtures schedule

Draw up your fixtures and stick to the schedule unless there's absolutely no alternative but to change. Such is the official line, but that's before county team managers tell County Boards that if they are to have any chance of success, the club championships will have to be deferred until the end of the inter-county season.

Okay, it doesn't happen in every county, but it's sufficiently widespread to make it a real problem. The GAA tends to operate in extremes, operating a fixtures schedule which forces today's Sigerson Cup finalists to play three games in less than 48 hours, while club players can go months without a championship game in summer.

Clearly, there are no easy answers in a multi-layered competition structure involving two sports. However, it's clear that the current haphazard club schedule is a major drawback when compared to the more streamlined programmes which apply in other sports.

Croke Park can't solve the problem at local level where the responsibility rests solely with the County Boards to ensure that constructive use is made of the time available. That certainly doesn't include abandoning the entire senior championship programme until the inter-county team is finished its All-Ireland bid.

However, Croke Park has a role to play in better structuring of the inter-county championships, in particular, the provincials which take far too long to run off.

Connacht open their six-game football championship with New York v Mayo on May 1, yet the final won't be played until on July 17. Six games in 11 weeks -- any wonder counties have club fixture problems?

Ulster's eight-game championship takes nine weeks, yet Leinster's 10-game campaign will be run off in seven weeks.

Obviously a balance needs to be struck between maximising the promotional value of the championships by extending them for as long as is practical and the need to leave openings for club activity, but, as of now, it obviously isn't working.

Payment to Managers

The options are as limited as they are stark. There is no way of preventing payments to managers if the paymasters are, in many cases, the same people who made the appointment and who are charged with upholding the rules. Once it's accepted that many counties will blatantly ignore the existing regulations and Croke Park ends its plaintive cries for senior County Board officials to apply the rules (they won't) then it comes down to one of three choices.

1 Regularise payments to team managers, with all that involves in terms of income tax, contracts, employment rights, etc.

2 Ban cross-border movement, so that counties and clubs are prevented from importing outside managers.

3 Do nothing and allow the current situation to continue.

What odds against Option 3?

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