Tuesday 22 January 2019

John Greene: Ill-fated fixtures plan revealed as an Irish solution to the wrong Irish problem


The GAA's Feargal McGill. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
The GAA's Feargal McGill. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

John Greene

And so it came to pass. The folly of the GAA's new fixtures masterplan has been laid bare by the hardly-surprising news that the majority of county boards have opted to turn their backs on it.

Last week, two newspapers did a trawl to find out how many counties are planning to play championship games this month because April has been left free for club action as part of the GAA's revamp of its calendar. In all, 20 counties have opted not to commence their club championships - including all nine Ulster counties.

In reality, as revealed by both The Irish Times and the Irish Examiner on Friday, counties who are playing some club championship games this month have traditionally done so anyway. Most of the rest have stuck to their guns and opted to run their championships more or less the same as they have in previous years. Which begs the question: Why was there such overwhelming support for the new schedule among so many counties who had no intention of adhering to it?

This exposes the maddening hypocrisy at the heart of some of the GAA's decision-making. The change was voted in by counties who have now simply chosen to ignore it. An Irish solution to an Irish problem.

Speaking to The Irish Times, the GAA's Feargal McGill said that he didn't "expect counties to maximise the use of April straight away". In other words, the GAA pushed hard for a change they didn't expect to have an immediate benefit.

McGill said the "aim was never that this would be a club championship month, but one with heavy club activity involving county players". He added: "It's up to each county after that to use these weeks. For some counties, league games are of a higher value but not in others. But I'm certain that when we evaluate this there will be an increase in club activity in April. Club activity with county players."

Which is fine, but that's not how it was sold to counties or the public. And anyway, it's all a red herring. What they actually did was attempt to fix the wrong problem . . . and botched it.

The idea of a special month for clubs is daft - especially when that month is April. If the GAA had been around in Chaucer's time, he would have had a stern warning for fixture planners about "April with its sweet smelling showers".

Most club players just want meaningful games so that they can compete in - and enjoy - Gaelic football and hurling. They want those games spread across the year, say from mid-March to mid-October, and they want a reasonable idea of when those games will be played so they can plan the rest of their lives. It sounds simple, but anyone who understands the complexities of facilitating two codes in counties of various sizes and interests knows it is far from simple. But it is not impossible. All that's required is the will to do it.

The obsession with the inter-county game may have sent the GAA's revenue streams soaring over the last two decades, but in any walk of life, money brings its own problems. It leads to the erosion of values, to uneasy alliances and ultimately it will lead to a complete breakdown in the amateur ethos and community spirit which has underpinned the GAA for over 130 years.

What those who believe in the primacy of the inter-county game would have us believe is that it cannot co-exist with the club game; that an elite footballer or hurler - see how easily the word 'elite' has been allowed to slip in to the everyday vocabulary of the GAA - must be allowed to focus exclusively on being a member of a county panel because that is all that really matters.

And in order to preserve this myth, a calendar which does not stand up to any scrutiny was devised and peddled to the masses. The fact that counties gave it their blessing, and then ignored it, says it all. County boards want to keep doing their own thing, in their own way, with little care for what actually matters - providing meaningful games for players.

And so you have a situation where in, say, Meath, it is feasible that some teams will be out of the running in both the football league and championship by the third week in April, by which stage two rounds of the championship and six rounds of the league will be over, while next door in Cavan they play their second round of the league this weekend and will play their championship games in late summer.

If I was a club player in Meath after slogging it out for the last two months on pitches that were destroyed by the worst winter in decades and now facing into two rounds of championship on those same pitches, I'd be looking enviously at Cavan and elsewhere.

What this all shows is just how dysfunctional the GAA has become. Nobody has any real control. The provincial councils can do what they like; the county boards can do what they like . . . and, worst of all, most of the managers of the county teams can do what they like.

There is no good reason why the inter-county and club games cannot co-exist. The fantasy that players cannot be expected to do both has been allowed to grow and so the players are flogged to death with a ridiculous training-to-games ratio by managers, many of whom are driven not by an altruism and belief in the GAA's ethos, but by their ego and the need to justify how much they and their bloated backroom teams are costing.

The number of training sessions could be reduced, and replaced by some club games - and the creation of a proper calendar could facilitate both. Condensing the league and the championship was never going to be a solution - and that is all the more obvious now.

Managers must play ball with clubs; county boards must provide a meaningful seven-month calendar of games; provincial councils must run off their championships in an orderly fashion, and, most importantly of all, the GAA at national level must now show true leadership. There has been enough patronising platitudes about the club being the beating heart of the Association.

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