Sport GAA

Monday 10 December 2018

Martin Breheny: Autumn start to leagues is an idea worth re-evaluating

Fixture schedule is so overloaded at this time of year that the pressure has to be released

Dublin’s Ciaran Whelan and Ciaran McManus of Offaly in action during a November league clash back in 1998. Photo: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE
Dublin’s Ciaran Whelan and Ciaran McManus of Offaly in action during a November league clash back in 1998. Photo: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

I recall it for two reasons. First, there was the frantic dash from Birr to Tullamore in the driving rain and howling winds, then there was the sight of an 18-year-old Leaving Cert student from St Kieran's, Kilkenny making his senior inter-county debut in conditions more conducive to mud-wrestling than hurling.

Still, the show went on. St Brendan's Park in Birr was deemed unplayable after a night and morning of torrential rain and bitter cold but instead of postponing the Offaly-Kilkenny league game, it was switched to O'Connor Park in Tullamore.

Both camps had doubts about whether that pitch was playable either, but the game went ahead anyway on a day when DJ Carey had his first outing for Kilkenny, not as forward but in goal.

It was a brief experiment before he was released to his more natural habitat, where he spent many years roaming attacking prairies and feasting on weary defenders.

Carey's debut - Kilkenny won and he conceded one goal - wasn't the big story that day. The lousy weather had made mockery of attempts to play hurling at all the other league venues too so there was widespread criticism of the fixture-makers for starting the hurling season so early.

Early? It was February 19! By the same date this year, every county will have played three of five divisional Allianz League games. In addition, they will have come through various pre-season tournaments.

By next Sunday week, Kilkenny and Wexford will each have had seven inter-county games since the start of January, with several others on five and six.

Miserable

Carey's debut on that miserable day in Tullamore was in 1989. Fixture-makers were under pressure back then to delay the launch of the hurling season for as long as possible for the entirely logical reason that the game needs good conditions.

All these years later, provincial councils are starting pre-season hurling competitions five days after Christmas and Croke Park's fixture makers brought the league launch forward to the last weekend in January.

As it happened, the weather was good and last weekend wasn't too bad either, provided you are prepared to ignore the cold, which left players wildly flapping their arms in an attempt to keep their hands warm on Saturday night.

However talented a player is, he can't perform at anything like his best with freezing fingers. Nor will the game prosper on heavy going. In fairness, the standard of surfaces has improved substantially but they can't defy nature, which means they are slow and sticky at this time of year. Everyone knows that, but the league started in January anyway and will have the divisional programme completed by March 4. The Division 1 final will be played before the clocks are switched to summer time.

It makes no sense, yet it appears certain to be the norm from now on. It's illogical too to squeeze the football league almost as tightly as hurling in order to leave all of April free of inter-county activity.

And then there's the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cup competitions, shoehorned into the fixtures programme during the busiest time of the year, and adding to the heavy pressure on young players who have college and county masters.

This year's fixture list - comprised of a hectic first three months, a blank April/early May, a frenetic late/May-June-July, a scaled back August and a one-match September - is so flawed that someone intent on sabotaging the GAA could not have done a better job.

It's most unlikely that if every member of the Association were asked to draw up a schedule, not one would come up with the current one.

Yet, when various plans and proposals are filtered through the system, it spits out a schedule that fails the common sense test. The latest model is worse than what went before as it front-loads far too much action into the first three months and pulls down the curtain far earlier than is wise from a promotional perspective.

"We're in the first days of spring but it doesn't feel like it," remarked Tipperary manager Michael Ryan after his team's win over Waterford last Saturday night.

And then came remarks which succinctly summed up the phoney nature of what's going on at present.

"Will this (game with Waterford) count in the latter stages of the league? No. Will it count in the Munster Championship? No. But, for here and now, it's a good work-out," he said. So what's to be done? On the basis that it's unfair to criticise without suggesting an alternative, here's a thought. Why not revert to starting the leagues in autumn which was case up to second half of the 1990s in hurling and into the new Millennium in football?

No, it wouldn't damage the clubs, which will be the first argument against it. An earlier finish to the All-Ireland championships will (or at least it should) mean earlier finishes to local programmes, after which only one senior club per county will have major commitments. Even then, they reduce rapidly as clubs are eliminated from the provincial campaigns.

Why not play three or four rounds of the leagues between the third week in October and the end of November? It would open the way for later starts in the New Year and also make life much easier for players involved with counties and colleges. At the very least, it would end the crazy situation where some third-level students are faced with six games in 12 days.

Dublin's warm-up act beating some main events

Played 2; Won 2. Top of the table on scoring difference (+12) ahead of Galway (+5) and Kerry (+4). Not bad for a squad still in warm-up mode.

"We're just back and, in some ways, we're in our pre-season," said Jim Gavin after Dublin's win over Tyrone last Saturday night.

He wouldn't have meant to disparage either Tyrone or Kildare, whom they beat the week before, but his comment wouldn't have gone unnoticed anywhere. If the Dublin squad are seven points better than their main Leinster rivals and five points ahead of the Ulster champions while still blowing away the winter cobwebs and without playing in a pre-season competition, it's not exactly encouraging for rivals.

Still, history shows that the fall of some great empires often came in unforeseen circumstances. The markets are certainly taking no chances with Dublin, having cut their league odds to 4/9, followed by Kerry 7/2, Galway 8/1 and Mayo 12/1. Kildare (1/3) and Donegal (8/13) are relegation favourites.

Pre-Christmas finish for club campaigns is fairer for all

Neither Derry footballers nor hurlers have taken even one point from the opening two rounds of the Allianz Leagues, leaving both teams in the relegation zone in their respective divisions.

It's especially grim for the footballers, who have dropped from being Division 1 finalists in 2014 - they were beaten by Dublin - to a precarious situation which leaves them at real risk of being in Division 4 next year. While all this is going on, Slaughtneil, Derry football and hurling champions, are preparing for the All-Ireland club semi-finals.

Slaughtneil's achievements in both codes have been quite remarkable in recent years and the best may be yet to come.

resources Yet, ironically, the better they do, the more it impacts on Derry teams since several of their players are of inter-county standard. Obviously, other counties - Dublin, Limerick, Galway (hurling) and Cork, Galway, Kildare (football) - are missing players from their county champions too but they all have deeper playing resources than Derry and can absorb the losses more easily.

It again brings into focus how delaying the club semi-finals and finals until February/March hits smaller counties, in particular, when their champions do well.

All-Ireland club finals should be played pre-Christmas, leaving counties with full squads in the New Year.

As for St Patrick's Day, the traditional date for the club finals, it shouldn't be too difficult to find alternative attractions.

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