John Greene: Fixtures masterplan putting club game in jeopardy and they are running scared
The new GAA inter-county season is eight days old - or so the narrative would have us believe. The truth is that for many inter-county players, it began last November.
If there is one guaranteed consequence of starting the season earlier, it is that training will also start earlier. Perhaps the glut of games over the last eight days came as a welcome relief from the slog of training to some players, but I doubt it.
Still, how crazy is it that there were bus loads of players travelling the country's roads in awful weather last Wednesday night? For what purpose? Look at what is being asked of amateur players. In many cases, those who are working will have had to take a day off, or a half day, to play. How many of those players are working in their native county? Or even close to their native county? How many had to travel from Dublin or somewhere else to Annaduff, Knock, Hollymount, Owenbeg or any of the other match venues last Wednesday night? There were 14 games in all, in Leinster, Connacht and Ulster; 12 last Saturday, and another 20 today - that's 36 hurling and football matches in eight days.
And the frenzied nature of this early-season blitz is spreading panic. Those involved in the club scene are genuinely fearful because they can see what's coming down the tracks. They can see that this so-called new season is nonsense.
In his column in the Donegal Democrat last week, Manus Boyle wrote: "With the new football championship format kicking in this year with the Super 8 competition and a more condensed championship fixture list, the chances that inter-county managers will release club players throughout the summer months are extremely low. Soon county players will only be released to their clubs when their season is finished, and clubs will just have to live with it."
At a county board meeting in Meath last October, the then chairman of the local CCC, Peter O'Halloran, said it was hard to see how any club championship games in football and hurling could be played in the county during the summer months of May, June and July. This prompted one delegate to wonder if there were just too many club games to be played in the time available.
O'Halloran is now the county board chairman, and tomorrow night Meath clubs will discuss proposals to make what may amount to sweeping changes to their championship structures.
Counties are always tinkering with how they run their championships - which is fine, so long as it is for the right reason, like ensuring players have a proper number of meaningful games and trying to make the club scene more competitive. This is good for everyone, including the county team. Meath football has fallen behind the leading counties, and as part of any examination into why this is so, it is reasonable that the state of its club championships should be scrutinised.
But the absolute wrong reason to start changing your championship around is to accommodate the inter-county game. This is what is in danger of happening in Meath - and in many other counties - over the next few years.
The early start to the season, the changes in football and hurling and, especially, the introduction of the Super 8 have combined to unsettle the GAA's club scene.
So, one possible consequence for clubs in Meath if proposed changes are introduced is a reduction in the number of guaranteed championship games, which currently stands at a minimum of five. This is an idea which is in danger of taking hold in a lot of counties and is a reflection of the genuine fear that the club game is in jeopardy, that it is in danger of being swallowed by the inter-county game. It is also informative that one of the proposals in Meath which could lead to fewer championship games comes from the board executive.
At a time when the GAA's new masterplan has earmarked extra weekends for club activity, counties are reacting to the new schedule by actively discussing a reduction in the number of games. That is where we are really at. There is little relation between what has been put down on paper and what is actually happening.
Talk to people around the country and they do not believe that the plan to leave April free for clubs will be adhered to. With no competitive games to distract them, you can be sure that county managers will up the ante in training, and if players are allowed to play for their clubs they will likely do so in a state of near exhaustion. They may play for their club on a Sunday afternoon, but only after a strenuous two-hour training session with the county team that morning.
County managers are still dictating the rules of engagement for all players in the GAA - not just those on county panels. As historian and author Paul Rouse pointed out on Marty Morrissey's enjoyable radio programme on the GAA and culture last weekend, the Association has fixed the wrong problem.
"Is the club better off than this time last year?" asked Micheal Briody, chairman of the Club Players' Association, in the Irish Independent yesterday. "No, it is not. I guarantee you. This year is going to be carnage for the club because of the changes in inter-county football and hurling. And because at the launch of the fixtures masterplan, Paraic Duffy stood up and when asked about the month of April, he said it was up to each county board to enforce it themselves. There needs to be more direction coming from Croke Park."
Dermot Brady's outlook on county football - as told to Dermot Crowe - is a refreshing reminder of its true purpose. Brady played for 17 consecutive seasons with Longford for little or no reward but he never lost sight of what it meant to him: "You have to enjoy playing it," he said. "Like, it was not all about medals, especially when you are from Longford." It may be a quaint notion but it gets to the heart of what the GAA is supposed to be about.
Clubs are running scared. They should stop running and stand and fight for what they believe in.
Sunday Indo Sport