Wednesday 21 February 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Those happy with new football and hurling formats should be careful what they wish for

'Those with the smiling faces should be careful what they wish for.' Photo: Sportsfile
'Those with the smiling faces should be careful what they wish for.' Photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

The hurling proposals were last week swept through in the new GAA democracy where only a 60 per cent majority was needed. If it was a year earlier, when two-thirds was required, these proposals would have been shot down in flames.

So there was great rejoicing at the highest level as this initiative came from the top down, not the other way round, as is normally the case. Before I lay waste to this brave new horizon, at least I should recognise something I have advocated for a long time - that this is the way business should be conducted. The Politburo in Croke Park are there to lead and county boards can then accept their proposals or otherwise.

On top of that, there is at least a recognition among the hurling counties that one size does not fit all when it comes to running a championship. Hence different competitions. In football, the blind still lead the blind and instead of three championships there is just Sam Maguire.

That man has a lot to answer for. His name alone has such a grip on counties that no logic or common sense seems acceptable. Liam MacCarthy must be rather envious.

Anyway, in the bright new era there will be a massive increase in county football and hurling activity in the months of May, June, July and August. The All-Irelands will be played earlier and clubs will be given just three months to get their championships started and finished - April, September and October.

First of all, let's take April. Does anyone seriously think that club players will be released in April by county managers who will be training hard for their provincial championships which must now begin earlier in May? Don't hold your breath if you are involved in a club that you will be seeing your county players in that month and, by the way, you won't see them in February or March either as they will be involved in the league.

The reality is that county players will rejoin their clubs late in the summer, after their championship exit, when they will probably need a break after an intensive period of games and training.

The club championship will then be run off in a narrow time frame with games shoehorned into a tight window - and if there are dual players involved then it is a case of wishing a county's fixture committee the best of luck on that one.

Counties with a holiday period built into their calendars will be doing away with that too. Players will have to take their holidays at all other times and if they can't get off work, then tough.

Some counties who run their club championships on a league basis to give more games to clubs will even now be thinking of changing the format to reduce the number of games needed to finish the championship. I can't think of anything more perverse than the fact that these proposals, which were sold on the basis of improving things for clubs, have the real potential of making them worse - in fact, much worse.

Nobody even seems to have debated how this will unfold. The GPA, of course, will go along with the new system as they are only interested in the elite. The CPA are being ignored; the hope at the highest level is that they will just go away and stop being a noisy distraction in the background.

So club players will be sold down the Swanee again, in both hurling and football. The inevitable reaction in many counties is to look for the introduction of a knockout championship for clubs, or at least a watered-down version where clubs would have a very limited back door.

It would speed up the championship and allow more time for the county team. Strange as it may seem, county boards, whose primary function is to protect clubs and provide them with a meaningful games programme, will increase the injustice on those same clubs by having agreed to these new formats.

The argument will be made that clubs will be given more league matches which can be played without county players and a knockout championship can be started in April and then finished when the county players finish their summer campaigns on the big circuit. A bit like the Dublin championship now. Even they are changing to provide more games.

Anyway, anyone who thinks this will keep clubs happy must have been born yesterday. What will happen is there will be a complete loss of interest in the club after an early exit from the championship. Players will not be too keen on training for league matches and there will be a rush by the students to book flights out of the country. At least they will have early notice to travel so there will be more painters in Boston, barmen in New York and construction workers in Chicago in the next few years.

Clubs may be struggling in Ireland, but they are flourishing elsewhere. And the standard of club football and hurling will drop as well, with less training and competitive matches.

What is really needed now, and very badly, is another new GAA organisation along with the GPA and the CPA - an association of clubs. It's primary job would be to protect the club from extinction and guard it from those who are supposed to be protecting the same clubs - namely the county boards which have become enslaved to a county team juggernaut which is rolling over everything.

If a meeting of every club chairperson and secretary took place in each county, would there be a substantial difference in their priorities and the policies at large?

My impression is that there would be a mutiny. They would want a defined playing season, more games with all their players available to them at both underage and senior level and a reduction in the length of the county season.

It's not much to ask for, as this is what every president talks about when looking for high office. None of those same men have ever said - as far as I can recall - that the club can not only be ignored, but actually walked on once in office. Perhaps John Horan could save the club from our own?

So forgive me if I am not a cheerleader for these new proposals in football and hurling as I see only further harm to clubs coming from them. There was great joy among those who were pushing these proposals last week at the Special Congress.

It was a double victory with the 'Super 8' in football and a new hurling format.

Those with the smiling faces should be careful what they wish for.

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