Wednesday 21 August 2019

Martin Breheny: 'January finale to the All-Ireland club championships an insult to everyone involved'


Club hurlers will face muddy schedule to emulate Henry Shefflin’s Ballyhale. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Club hurlers will face muddy schedule to emulate Henry Shefflin’s Ballyhale. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Behave yourselves on Christmas Eve and see you for training at 8am on Christmas morning.

Somewhere out there are players who can expect to hear that instruction in the week coming up to next Christmas. It won't be delivered in jest either, but rather by a team manager whose responsibility it is to give a club the best chance of winning an All-Ireland title.

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Training on Christmas Day? With the All-Ireland semi-finals due ten or 11 days later, it's by no means as outrageous as it sounds.

Roll forward to January 4/5, the new dates for the semi-finals.

Some inter-county squads will still be on holidays, while others ease their way into pre-season competitions.

There will be no such leisurely paced returns for provincial club champions, whose All-Ireland ambitions to emulate Kevin O'Brien's Corofin in football and Henry Shefflin's Ballyhale Shamrocks in hurling will lead them into the cold, muddy fields of early January.

It's bad enough in football, but asking hurlers to play possibly the biggest games of their careers on the first weekend of January is an insult to the All-Ireland club championships.

Those who reach the finals will be in action again in the finals on January 19. Central Council decided on Saturday to end the scheduling of the senior club finals on St Patrick's Day.

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And the reasoning? "The move is part of an overall commitment to condense the fixtures calendar, create opportunities for club activity and would also allow counties in the Allianz Leagues to access players who were previously unavailable because they were playing in the All-Ireland senior club semi-finals and finals," explained a GAA statement.

All of which is fair enough, although many will regret the removal of the senior finals from their traditional St Patrick's Day setting.

They had established their own special niche, but in fairness there were drawbacks too. Clubs were forced to remain in training for up to five months after winning their county titles, while some counties were weakened by the absence of some players for most of the Allianz Leagues.

That was especially damaging on the likes of Antrim hurling, who are drawing from a relatively shallow pool. So while there is logic in taking the semi-finals and finals away from mid-February and St Patrick's Day, playing them in January is an odd move.

The longer-term aim is to complete the All-Irelands pre-Christmas so this is likely to be a temporary measure. That doesn't alter the fact that for next year, at least, games of maximum prestige and importance will be played on the first weekend of the New Year.

Players who are currently idle as their county championships remain shut down for weeks will surely remember that as they head for training before, during and after Christmas.

Central Council also decided to bring formal proposals for a Tier 2 football championship to the counties, before taking a final decision at a Special Congress on October 19.

Both involve removing all Division 3 and 4 counties from the All-Ireland qualifiers and instead re-routing them into Tier 2. Any Division 3 or Division 4 county who reach their provincial final will stay in the Sam Maguire Cup tier.

The rest will play off in Tier 2, either in a straight knockout, or with a second chance for first round losers. Counties may be paired on a geographical basis to avoid lengthy journeys.

The outright winners would be allowed into the following year's Sam Maguire Cup tier, even if they were still in Division 3 or 4.

The GAA are also promising "dedicated broadcast coverage and a marketing, promotional campaign, with a dedicated All-Star selection and tour."

It now remains to be seen how Division 3 and 4 counties react. There are certain to be some complaints over the decision to exclude those counties from the qualifiers.

However, Central Council were not prepared to allow them into the qualifiers, followed by a Tier 2 competition, on the grounds that it would lead to too many fixtures, which would have negative consequences for clubs.

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