Sport GAA

Wednesday 23 October 2019

'The great club con job' - finals as late as ever despite shorter county season

Scotstown captain Darren Hughes lifts the Duffy Cup after the Monaghan SFC final, one of few to be played despite the inter-county season being finished earlier than normal. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick/Sportsfile
Scotstown captain Darren Hughes lifts the Duffy Cup after the Monaghan SFC final, one of few to be played despite the inter-county season being finished earlier than normal. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Scotstown won the Monaghan senior football title last Sunday, a success which came as no big surprise since they had also won the previous three.

Darren Hughes captained the team, fellow county men Conor McCarthy, Shane Carey and Rory Beggan scored 1-8 of their 1-13 total in a three-point win over Ballybay. Former GAA director-general Páraic Duffy was one of the selectors alongside manager Kieran Donnelly.

At face value, it looks like just another routine county final, one of several dozen being played in various grades all over the county during this month.

Delve a little deeper, however, and something very interesting emerges. Monaghan are one of only four counties who have played their county football club finals so far, the others being Carlow, Longford and Fermanagh.

Former Árd-Stiúrthóir Páraic Duffy who helped to bring in the new calendar. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick/Sportsfile
Former Árd-Stiúrthóir Páraic Duffy who helped to bring in the new calendar. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick/Sportsfile

The pace quickens this weekend and will continue over the next few Sundays, but the fact that so many counties are completing their senior championships in the second half of October indicates how the balance of the playing season has tilted. And not for the better either.

Despite most of April having been left free for club activity and the All-Ireland finals played by the first Sunday in September, county finals are running later than usual. The disturbing pattern makes Monaghan a very interesting case.

They weren't eliminated from the All-Ireland championship until August 12, when they lost the semi-final to Tyrone, yet had their club programme sufficiently well-structured to be in a position to play the county final eight weeks later.

That's in marked contrast to so many others, whose All-Ireland race was run much earlier. Derry, Meath, Limerick, Westmeath, Antrim, Wicklow and Wexford were all eliminated on the weekend of June 9/10, yet none of them have played their county final yet.

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The same applies to Sligo, Louth, Down, Offaly, Waterford and Tipperary, all of whom were knocked out of the qualifiers on the weekend of June 23/24 and to Mayo, Cavan, Clare, Leitrim (June 30), Cork and Armagh (July 7).

In hurling, Offaly and Waterford are the only two of the ten counties who competed for the Liam MacCarthy Cup this year who have played their championship finals. There are still 12 clubs in contention for the Galway championship, which stages four preliminary quarter-finals tomorrow.

CPA officers Anthony Moyles and Michéal Briody. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
CPA officers Anthony Moyles and Michéal Briody. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

So how did Monaghan manage to run off their club football programme so efficiently in a season when they had nine (two Ulster, three qualifier, three 'Super 8s', one semi-final) championship games?

Basically, it comes down to good organisation and a sensible approach by clubs. In addition to completing their county championship by October 7, their ten senior clubs have played 17 of 18 league games.

The league is structured in such a way that it's not unduly disrupted by the county scene. Games are given different values, depending on whether county players are involved. When they are available, it's five points for a win and two points for a draw. Without them, a win earns two points and a draw one point.

Frustrated

That differentiation ensures that the club scene remains active during the inter-county season, something that does not happen in many counties.

That, in turn, leaves club players deeply frustrated. Indeed, it led to the formation of the Club Players' Association (CPA), the umbrella group chaired by Micheál Briody that's lobbying for a better fixtures' deal for the 98pc of players who are not on county panels.

The reality is that, in many cases, the club problem is caused by a lack of rigorous fixtures' planning and control.

In fairness to some counties - Wexford being the most obvious example - a high proportion of dual clubs makes it more difficult to streamline the schedules.

However, the majority do not have that difficulty, but still don't finish their championship until the second half of October.

That didn't always apply. Indeed, it was quite common for many county finals to be played on the Sunday between the All-Ireland hurling and football finals.

One of the arguments made against the introduction of the qualifiers in the football championship was that it would damage the club scene.

Yet, in 2001, the first year the qualifiers were played, 15 county football finals were played on September 16. By October 6, a total of 24 had been completed, 20 more than this year. So why the difference now?

One contributory factor is the growth in 'round robin' formats which require additional games and weekends. In some cases, there are six teams in groups, giving each club five games before knockout kicks in.

Nobody is suggesting that counties revert to straight knockout, but a system similar to the county scene, where every county is guaranteed at least two championship games, would greatly streamline the schedules.

And, as Monaghan have proved, it's possible to run off a league, where county players don't play every game, without distorting the overall balance.

The inter-county calendar for next season is being put together now and the indications are that it will be much the same as this year. But to what purpose?

The hurling and football leagues will again be shoehorned into a two-month period, prior to leaving April largely free of inter-county activity.

Moving the All-Ireland finals forward by two weeks results in greater cramming without any apparent gain. With most of this year's club championships still to be completed, even in counties whose All-Ireland run ended four months ago, it's evident that something is going wrong.

The increasing number of players who head to the US for the summer is a definite contributor as clubs are unwilling to play championship games without them.

Of course, the adventure-seekers will point to the lack of a guaranteed fixtures' calendar in the summer as a factor in their decision to try a different way of life for a few months.

Tightening the inter-county programme has clearly made no difference to the club scene this year. It may be the case that it will take a season or two for the benefits to accrue but, in the meantime, the GAA are handing over priceless promotion time to other sports with absolutely no guarantee it will ever help the club scene.

Dropping September as All-Ireland final month is a major gamble from a promotional viewpoint.

Effectively, the GAA exits the big stage at the very time that soccer and rugby are cranking up their seasons.

It would be risky at the best of times but might have been worth it if there were obvious benefits for the club game. There isn't, no more than there was in starting the qualifiers on the second weekend in June.

The late completion of so many county championships points to a level of dysfunction that reflects badly on local fixture-makers and indeed on clubs who ultimately have the power to change things. If Monaghan can run their programmes so efficiently, why can't others?

Those who favour completing the All-Ireland club championships before Christmas will be disheartened by developments in the first season of a shorter inter-county programme.

If most county finals are still to be played what chance is there of ever finishing the All-Ireland series before mid-December?

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