Friday 23 February 2018

Tackling the plague that has thousands of players frustrated

The Club Players' Association faces an uphill task to solve a raft of fixtures problems

Declan Brennan: ‘We don’t have all the answers’. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Declan Brennan: ‘We don’t have all the answers’. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Eye-popping stories of frustration over fixtures schedules are legion, and when the Club Players' Association is launched, in the next couple of weeks, it won't want for material evidence to support the legitimacy of its cause. When Tommy Kenoy recently raised the plight of his own club, Kilmore, having to play two important matches within 24 hours, he received a call from a club man in Limerick who recited a personal experience which received national attention two years ago.

Hammy Dawson from St Patrick's in Limerick carried out a sit-down protest on a pitch in Ballybrown to try to disrupt a City junior hurling A final between Patrickswell and Crecora in 2014. Some Gardaí arrived and advised him to leave so the match could proceed but he had made his point. Dawson's desperation was down to his own club being forced to give a walkover in the semi-final of the competition to Crecora the previous weekend when several of their players were tied up in county football matches.

"We asked for a postponement, offered to play (another date) but they wouldn't hear of it," he said, directing his ire at the City Division board. "We were then forced into giving a walkover. Fixing that game made no sense but refusing to reschedule was worse - it showed no respect for either hurling or football, certainly showed no respect for this club or for the players involved."

His club's woes didn't end there. Last month St Patrick's had to concede the final of the Junior A City hurling championship, having failed in a bid to get the game postponed. Thirteen of their players were involved in a senior football quarter-final the day before. Faced with that dilemma, the club felt obliged to give a walkover in the hurling final to Na Piarsaigh on the Sunday.

Many other clubs have had similar experiences and will continue to do so unless some remedies are found. The man most centrally associated with the impending players' association, Declan Brennan, doesn't need to be told, but testimonies have been flying in from clubs all over the country to illustrate a universal plague. He has first-hand experience of the difficulties as a player and mentor, at county, club and university level, through ties to Clontibret, Monaghan and DCU, among others. If he had not moved on it, then it would have come from someplace else.

The GAA's proposals to reform the senior inter-county football championships are motivated in no small part by a desire to improve the playing environment for club players, by shortening the inter-county season, and reduce the bunching of club fixtures when it's finished. Brennan is reluctant to reveal at this stage how those proposals fit into the CPA's vision or what proposals they may produce of their own. "In due course we will comment on the GAA's proposals but, listen, there are positive things in it," said Brennan, "like extra-time replacing replays, but does it go far enough?"

With Brennan keen to emphasise a path of non-confrontation, any reform requires that something has to give. The club players' association will, however, face none of the hostility and suspicion which beset the GPA in 1999. The group also will carry a huge mandate from club interests desperate for the provision of a more dependable fixtures list and more time off when their season ends. Brennan says they plan to set up formal structures in each county.

"I fully understand the frustration," says GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail of the issues facing clubs. "I share it. I absolutely share it. I see it. I have never hid away but I am more interested in solutions. And clubs have to be more pro-active." He describes the GAA's own championship proposals and related issues as being "as defining a moment for the GAA as has come for a long time".

Even with the pressure from county competitions, the GAA realises that some county boards have not been running their fixtures competently and that needs to be addressed. Last year Portlaoise played in the Leinster club championship a day after winning the county final, which had gone to a replay. In Waterford, Stradbally had a similar ordeal, having to play Nemo Rangers a day after winning the county final. Former Meath player Anthony Moyles revealed recently that there was a 17-week delay between senior championship rounds in his county, then three rounds played in 15 days.

"I have said, when I came in, and still say, the current system is unfair and unjust for clubs," says Ó Fearghail. "We are victims of our own success. Whereas our club championships once stopped at county level we now have clubs going into provincial and All-Ireland level. In 2001 we brought in the qualifiers and now have a five-month inter-county championship, and it is too long.

"I asked for county submissions on a revised championship format, we got 19 and none of them gained any kind of traction or support, but we did establish some principles: that the provincial championships needed to be retained and that the clubs need to be taken into account.

"This is the only show in town as far as I am concerned, the proposals for the revised format of the All-Ireland championship. It is not an absolute solution but this meets the needs of the clubs. I can't see how anyone would not be okay with this and see how it would not improve the welfare of clubs."

Kenoy says progress will only be achieved by a bottom-up approach, as evidenced by previous successful reform movements in landmark decisions like the opening up of Croke Park and the lifting of the Ban in 1971.

No issue has been more about clubs, however, than this one. The challenge for the club players' group will be in activating that support base and politicising a constituency which has tended to be poorly represented traditionally, due to a reluctance to utilise avenues open to them.

"I am involved in coaching and management this 25 years," says Brennan. "I have seen all aspects from schools, juveniles, right up to minors, inter-county, (so) I am in a good position to voice opinion on what is happening the club player at the moment. It is just the frustration watching what is going on. You only have to look at Dublin there, lads playing a week after the All-Ireland final, and then lads are expected to play third level right after the county season ends. It can be very demoralising."

Brennan realises that the current environment cannot be sustained "mentally or physically" and says he has quit counting the number of responses from club sources around the country over recent weeks. "There are a lot of raw people out there who are very frustrated and have the chance now to voice their opinions. It is not physically possible to reply to every email but we will do it in due course.

"As a group we might not have all the answers. If we get changes made that is progress. The reality is it has come to a head. We are looking at what is realistic and what is not and we will have proposals but we don't have any particular agenda. The calendar is placing unrealistic demands on players.

The GAA's proposals would help alleviate some of the problems created by a long inter-county season. Meath finished their inter-county football championship programme this year on July 9; if the new proposals were in place they would have had an extra four weeks to dedicate to club activity. Their county final takes place this afternoon. A similar saving of four weeks would have applied to Westmeath, who also have their county final this afternoon. The Tipperary football final is also taking place. Under the current GAA proposals they could have had an extra three weeks for club activity.

"Having said all of that," says Ó Fearghail, "there are some counties not fulfilling their fixtures programme. And it is very hard to see why. A lot of counties are very good at it, but I was in a county two days ago and they had a junior B match back in July and didn't have another one until October. And they were out of the inter-county championship in August. So there is also a need for good practice."

As to the challenge he and his colleagues face in the weeks, months and year ahead, Brennan uses a more familiar analogy. "I am taking on a junior team that is trying to win an intermediate championship and go on and win a senior championship. I know that."

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