Pat Spillane: The fixture schedule our elite young footballers and hurlers endure is tantamount to abuse
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Issues such as the escalating cost of training inter-county teams and the ongoing Club v County saga have preoccupied the thoughts of many GAA commentators in recent weeks.
These issues need to be addressed, but in my humble opinion too many people are ignoring the elephant in the room.
By far the biggest issue facing the GAA right now is the abuse – and I use that word deliberately – of our elite young footballers and hurlers.
This select bunch are being forced to perform an impossible juggling act given their dual commitments to county and college – not to mention training, going to lectures and perhaps hold down a part-time job.
Being pulled hither and thither never has a good outcome.
Take the cases of David Clifford, Sean O’Shea and Gavin Crowley, who played two league games for Kerry, as well as a Sigerson Cup match in the space of a week recently.
It’s not just the actual games –it’s the journeys involved; Clifford’s Sigerson Cup game was in Belfast, which meant a 570-mile round trip.
All three are now injured – they missed last week’s Sigerson Cup quarter-finals and won’t feature for Kerry against Monaghan today. Clifford’s case is particularly disconcerting as he is just 19 and dipping his toe into senior inter-county football.
It’s not just the Kerry players who are impacted by this mess.
Galway’s Damien Comer and Peter Cooke have played six games – three for Galway and three in the Sigerson – in the space of 21 days.
Clare’s Ciaran Russell played six games in 12 days between January 23 and February 4, two Sigerson Cups and two Fitzgibbon Cup games with the University of Limerick, as well as two league matches.
I could go on and on; there are endless examples of this utter madness.
In order to get a better feel of what’s happening on the ground, I spoke to three coaches in the last week – one managed a team in the Sigerson Cup this season, another is a former inter-county manager who is now managing a club team, while the third looks after a school team.
As I suspected, the situation is totally chaotic. The Sigerson manager had no access to his inter-county players for even ONE collective training session.
One inter-county manager insisted the college players travel home for midweek training, which involved leaving their base at 4pm in the afternoon and not returning until after midnight.
He tried to organise a get-together of the squad over the Christmas holiday, but this ran aground as well because the manager of an U-20 inter-county squad refused him access to the players.
Why? They were training with the U-20 squad – six-and-a-half months before the competition was due to start. You couldn’t make it up.
Not surprisingly, this particular university team failed to fulfil their potential in the Sigerson. On match day the players were like zombies, according to the manager. They were out on their feet and unable to play to their potential.
The school’s coach experienced problems getting his star player released from an U-20 squad before Christmas as he was undergoing a training programme with the county squad.
At the time he was 16 years of age; he was playing with his school and studying for his Leaving Certificate. Now this is exactly the madness I warned would happen when the GAA made the ill-judged decision to introduce U-20 and U-17 inter county championships. Youngsters, as young as 15, will now be exposed to over-the-top training regimes.
The club manager provided me with a worrying insight into the life of one of his star players – a university student and a member of a county squad.
The manager is resigned to the fact that he will never see the player at a club training session; neither will he play in any club league games.
His availability for club activity is apparently determined by the county team physiotherapist. The team manager is nigh on impossible to contact.
However, what really worried my contact was how the player’s attitude had changed since he linked up with the county squad.
Naturally he was delighted to be involved, but he was no longer the happy-go-lucky lad he once was.
All the fun seems to have gone out of the game for him. Everything about football has become a chore and a sacrifice. He looks, and probably is, exhausted.
Last week he was trying to pluck up the courage to ask his inter-county manager whether it would be okay to go out and have a few drinks with his house mates as it was rag week in his college.
Joe Brolly once described inter-county players as being like “indentured slaves”. For once I’m in agreement with him.
It has to be acknowledged that some county managers are not as dictatorial as others and do allow their players to train with their college teams at this time of the year.
We have to stop flogging our young players and let them enjoy life. The only practical way to do this is to address the fixtures schedules – they cannot serve two masters at this time of the year.