Swimming against the tide
Improved fixtures planning, says Charlie McGeever, is the key to solving problems of dual commitment, player rancour, welfare and burnout in the GAA
A long and eventful year for Charlie McGeever should finally draw to a close in Mallow this afternoon, when his Clonmel Commercials side bids to become the first Tipperary club to win a Munster football title.
To achieve that they must defeat the competition's specialists, Nemo Rangers, winners a record 15 times. Of the six matches they've played to reach this point, Clonmel were a good bet to win each one. Today is different.
McGeever hears talk that the side is young, with the majority in their early 20s, and how they'll get better with age. But he carries a cautionary tale from his own experience when he was a young player in the League of Ireland with Sligo Rovers. In 1981 he was only 20 when Sligo played in an FAI Cup final and he thought the future boundless. Before the year's end he suffered a cruciate ligament injury and never scaled the same heights again.
"The lesson I carry to the younger lads is that you have to seize the moment when it's there; on Sunday we have to seize the moment because it might not happen again. People are saying that this is a developing club and we are going to be up there for a while. But we might never get this opportunity again."
McGeever took on the job when there was a vacancy and no hurry to fill it at the club's AGM, even though he had a third year looming as county minor manager.
Both Tipperary minor teams reached the All-Ireland final in 2015, sharing eight dual players, and the challenge tested the partnership arrangement between the two codes. In the senior arena the prospects of playing both diminishes greatly and some good footballers will be lost to Tipperary.
Already, one of McGeever's players, Seamus Kennedy, who won an All-Ireland minor football medal in 2011, has been called into Michael Ryan's senior hurling squad for 2016 and Steven O'Brien, a key member of this year's All-Ireland under 21 final football team and one of the best young footballers in the country, is believed to be heading in the same direction. Colin O'Riordan, meanwhile, is trying to build a career in Australia.
McGeever has an interesting perspective on the dual player issue, being from Donegal and considering himself a dual player in his day, except in his case he played soccer and Gaelic football. The two worked well together: there was no friction, and he never valued one sport above the other. Injury robbed him of an Ulster under 21 medal in 1983 when part of a generation of players that included Martin McHugh and Anthony Molloy.
"The draw to be a top hurling player in Tipperary is still huge," he acknowledges. "And rightly so. I never played hurling, but it is the best game in the world as far as I am concerned. But there is room in Tipperary, and any other county, for two sports. Hurling is still a minority sport in the context of the country. It's mind-boggling that the game hasn't been promoted by the GAA like it should be in many counties, given the funds we have available and given it's such an exceptional sport.
"So in Tipp the draw is always there. It's a big disappointment to see what I consider the two most prominent footballers in the county - Colin O'Riordan and Steven O'Brien - possibly neither playing football for Tipperary next year.
"Colin's situation is very different. Good luck to him and hopefully he does well and makes a living out of it. If anyone is going to do it, Colin will. He was my captain three years ago. I met a lot of strong characters in my League of Ireland days and back here, and he is up there with the best. Even at 18 he was an exceptional leader. A quality you can't really instil; it's there. He is a huge loss, the caveat there being he might come back a better player. I mean, the door is always open in Tipperary for him.
"Seamus Kennedy developed into an exceptional footballer last summer. He was on the hurling panel two years ago: didn't get a look in at all. Returned to the football last year. He was part of the All-Ireland minor football winning team but he was part of the hurling team at the same time. A great fella. In that family hurling is a big thing for them. I wish him well.
"Steven, I think, would play on any team. I know very little about Steven's situation but he's definitely a loss."
The county football management teams for minor, under 21 and senior were only ratified during the last week, which McGeever feels didn't help football's prospects of holding on to dual players. Hurling stole a march on them.
"The county football board have been aware for some time that all the positions had to be filled. And it's a shame we are almost the last county in Ireland to fill those positions," he says.
McGeever came to Clonmel in 2002, having lived with his wife in Letterkenny for 14 years, while he spent some of that time travelling the country as manager of Finn Harps. He ended up in south Tipperary because it is his wife's home place, took up a job as a school principal, and immediately immersed himself in the local soccer team, Clonmel Town, and the juvenile wing of the GAA club.
In underage football Clonmel have been a huge force and in 2011 several of their players backboned Tipperary's minor All-Ireland win. The translation into senior success has taken time. This year's senior county win was their first since 2012, the previous win being ten years earlier.
"We won the county title by a point, and we were known in the past as a club who won by ten points or lost by one. My own take on it is that it is down to the fact that at underage level they tended to win matches by a distance but then at senior level, when it starts to tighten up, we've lost quite a few tight matches in the last number of years."
He thinks that's changing. They were six points down in the county final against Moyle Rovers midway through the second half and found an escape route.
In the Munster first round against Newcastlewest they hit six points in the final minutes to turn a match their way that seemed lost. A week after the county final they played an under 21 final, with many of the same players, trailed Loughmore by 11 points at half-time and came back to win in extra-time.
While pleased at this pattern, McGeever is aware than they have got this far realising it was within their compass.
"We have done nothing that is surprising at this stage. We'll find out on Sunday, what we're really like.
"You know what you are going to get with Nemo, they are so experienced, they are much further down the road in terms of development than we are. We have probably three-quarters of our players under 22, so that brings a lack of consistency at times. You just don't know what is going to happen and how you will react."
Dealing with dual players, especially younger players, is a delicate process which he has always tried to handle with care. "In Donegal, generally speaking, every player would play soccer and football seamlessly for a season. Yet the GAA seems to be the only organisation that can't deal with the issue itself.
"Looking at last year, there were a number of absentees who really would have bolstered the senior football team. You had Bill Maher - he played in the All-Ireland 21 final this year, a great footballer, who threw his lot into the hurling and didn't feature much. Liam McGrath, captain of the minors in 2011, not near a Tipp football team in the last couple of years.
"Then again it is the players' decision. A player will have to call that. Whether he wants to be a number 25 or 32 or whatever it is. It's frustrating, but players are of the age now, they are into the senior cycle; it's their call."
At times there were tensions between the two county minor managements striving to find a balance but McGeever says he never tried to influence a player to choose one sport over another. "I have never in my life asked a young fella not to play a sport, ever. I would never do that," he states firmly. Those who do, he can only denounce. "It's totally wrong. It's quite clear it does go on."
Why didn't you do the same? "Because I think it's wrong. I think every young man has a right to make that choice. If he doesn't want to play what I am providing for him then that's fair enough. Last year it became a big issue simply because the two [minor teams] were so successful. This year essentially they only played 11 matches between the two for the duration of the year. Let's be clear about a couple of things: the hurlers were out before the footballers every time so they had first shout. We were well beaten in the final, to me it had nothing to do with dual players.
"It became an issue after and it's probably still an issue in the county but the question I have is, why don't you hear any football people talking about this? Find me one football person in Tipperary who has an issue - it is completely a hurling phenomenon. The giving out is coming from that end. And then you have to ask how, in the last two years, a club from (the football heartland of) south Tipp have won the county minor hurling championship."
Fixtures planning - the riddle of when games are played - is probably McGeever's biggest complaint. As someone who had a strong soccer background, he finds this uncertainty harder to figure. Through long spells of inactivity, Clonmel compensated during the year with challenge games. They went to Cork, to Carlow, to Limerick, to Clare, to keep the squad sharp but it's demanding responding to what he sees as deficiencies in how fixtures are managed.
"The calendar is a huge thing in GAA. The calendar would sort nearly everything out if it was done in a proper manner. Player rancour, burnout, player welfare, that all falls within that . . . I think if they could sort out the calendar it would go a huge way towards resolving some of these problems. The problem at the minute is players have no knowledge of when they might be playing. Your life is completely on hold for the whole summer."
The fixtures mess was borne out last year when Tipperary failed to meet the deadline to send a representative into Munster. This year seems intent on providing compensation. Clonmel's win over Newcastlewest was the county's first in the province since 2006. Today they could strike an even bigger blow for the game in their county.
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