Tuesday 24 April 2018

Martin Breheny: Deep mid-winter madness unfair on players and for what? So that nothing happens in April!

Analysis

Managers, including the great Brian Cody, must get to grips with an
experimental calendar. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Managers, including the great Brian Cody, must get to grips with an experimental calendar. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Gales, floods, thunder and lightning, power outages. And that's before temperatures drop below freezing point.

It's not exactly conducive to the sweet art of hurling - or football - but despite that, no fewer than 14 pre-season inter-county games were scheduled across Connacht, Leinster and Ulster last night. It was the second round of fixtures in Leinster which, like Munster, began the new season last Saturday.

Crowds were small, but then that was to be expected in Christmas week. The public like to get back on the terraces but not while the remains of the Christmas turkey is still in the fridge.

It was the same last night when only the hardiest of enthusiasts turned out and, if the bitter conditions continue, the turnstiles won't be whirring next weekend either.

In fairness to the provincial councils, they are at the mercy of the gods when it comes to the weather but obviously the question arises as to why pre-season action started so early.

The answer rests in the new schedules for the Allianz Leagues, which sees football commence a week earlier than usual this year, while hurling will be three weeks ahead of previous seasons.

The early launches were necessary so that April can be left free of all inter-county activity.

That, in turn, is supposed to promote a surge of club activity, thereby easing the frustrations of so many players who have grown disillusioned with the fixture programmes across most counties.

Whether that happens remains to be seen. Already some counties have decided not to start their club championships in April, opting instead to wait until later in the year to avoid long delays between games.

So what happens in April? Presumably, club league games will be played but how many county players will be involved?

With the provincial championships starting earlier than usual, inter-county managers will want as much access as possible to the squad in April. The upshot could be a month without any inter-county action and relatively few important club games played either.

That would be of no benefit to the club game while, at the same time, removing the promotional value of the closing stages of the leagues. April is a very busy month in rugby and soccer, with several major competitions heading towards a climax. They will attract massive media attention, even more so now that the GAA have decided to leave the inter-county pitch for the entire month.

In fact, it will be the second weekend in May before the provincial championships really crank up so, in effect, there will be no inter-county action for six weeks. And for what? So that a window is provided for club activity, which most counties won't fully open.

The decision to launch the pre-season competitions five days after Christmas in Leinster and Munster was taken with the support of county boards on the basis that it would ease the load in January.

Besides, most counties have been back in training for several weeks. Still, the idea of launching the new season on December 30 and following up with another round of games four days later just doesn't look right.

By next Sunday some counties will have played three games, after which they are guaranteed only nine more outings (seven league, two championship) for the entire year.

Managers are in experimental mode so many established players were spared the delights of playing in Christmas week and on a miserable first Wednesday in January but what of the newcomers who are trying to make an impression?

How could any player be judged on his performance last night?

Also, some teams had to travel considerable distances, scarcely an ideal situation in the dangerous weather conditions.

Since the decision-makers insisted on going ahead with the April ban on inter-county games, it would have made more sense to play the pre-season competitions in November/early December.

Players involved in club competitions would miss out but since the numbers decrease rapidly week by week it wouldn't be that much of an issue.

Suggesting that inter-county action should start in November will horrify those who want it squeezed into an ever-shrinking timespan but since players are back training anyway, there's no obvious reason why games could not be played in weather conditions that are almost always better than January.

I recall covering National League games up to the second Sunday in December for many years, prior to the decision to move everything except the latter stages of the All-Ireland club championship to a calendar year.

The autumn league programme meant that it didn't resume until mid-February at the earliest. That, in turn, allowed a much later return to pre-season action. OK, so maybe there's no appetite any longer among the GAA's power-brokers for autumn league games.

Fair enough, but how can they justify squeezing the inter-county programme to such a degree that games are played in Christmas week and again last night when travelling conditions were treacherous in some parts of the country?

Irish Independent

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