Martin Breheny: 'Let the madness begin - club chaos while over 93pc of county games finished by end of June'
It's the GAA's great fixtures conundrum and it's coming their way again this year amid rising anger in the club game over the lack of games for long periods.
The Club Players' Association (CPA), which was launched two years ago yesterday, have been agitating for a complete overhaul of a fixtures programme that they claim is designed to heavily favour the inter-county game.
Stories of club players left without games for months - usually in summer - emerge from various counties every year, prompting a level of discontent that's heading towards mutiny. Despite its massive public appeal and revenue-generating capacity, the inter-county game is being portrayed as a cannibal with an insatiable appetite, feeding off the rest of the Association right through the year.
That's despite the reality that the inter-county programme is concentrated into particular time bands, which, in theory, should leave plenty room for club activity. That isn't the case, of course, as most inter-county players are not allowed anywhere near their clubs during the All-Ireland championships.
By the end of next March, almost two-thirds of the year's inter-county hurling and football games will be played, after which April will be left free for club activity. It might reasonably be expected that if only one-third of the county programme remains to be played after March 31, a harmonious partnership with the club game could be worked out.
Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case over recent years in particular.
One-third of this year's games will be played in May-June-July, leaving only seven in August and one (All-Ireland football final) in September. And with the first Sunday in September falling on the 1st (football final day), four weekends remain free for club games.
More than three-quarters of all games will be completed by the end of May, with over 93 per cent played by the end of June. The month-by-month breakdown of county action suggests that club action should not be experiencing major problems but, if anything, the situation appears to be getting worse.
Granted, clubs can't expect to see much of their county players in January-February-March when the Allianz Leagues are squeezed through far more quickly than used to be the case. In addition, the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cups are also played in this period, adding further to the demands on third-level college students.
However, it's what happens after March that's causing the biggest angst for clubs. April should be a hectic month for them, but based on what happened last year, they didn't benefit as much as anticipated.
Some counties started their championships in April but most opted against it on the basis that because of the inter-county campaigns, there could be a long delay before action resumed. Instead, they waited until their county teams were eliminated from the All-Ireland race.
Even then, many didn't start local championships until several weeks later, leading to the vast majority of county finals being played in October. That's in marked contrast to even a decade ago when the Sunday between the All-Ireland hurling and football finals was crammed with county finals. Inevitably, county managers are blamed for demanding total access to all the players on their squad before, and during, the provincial and All-Ireland series.
Of course, they will argue that if a county is serious about doing the best it can in the championship, they need to have the players totally focused on the challenge, rather than going back to their clubs.
It's an understandable viewpoint, but there was anecdotal evidence last year of county managers demanding access to players in April, despite its 'club-only' tag.
Also, several county squads embarked on extended training weekends - either at home or overseas - in direct contravention of rule. Despite that, the GAA showed little appetite to act on the deliberate breaches, waiting months before finally sanctioning a few counties.
Others escaped without punishment, which sent out the clear message that even the most contrived explanation will be accepted. No doubt, some counties are planning to break the rule again this year, convinced they can get away with it.
The decision to shoehorn the national leagues between the end of January and the end of March was taken with clubs in mind, but it made little difference last year.
The GAA have persisted with it again this season, hoping no doubt that schedules, which leave little room for disruption, won't be as badly hit as last year when bad weather in March led to the Division 4 football programme not being completed and the Division 1 hurling final being played a week later than planned.