Clare plotting route around bottleneck
A successful summer has left Clare with a fixtures headache and something has to give
LAST Tuesday night, Clare County Board held an emergency meeting to deal with the serious backlog of games that has mounted in front of them.
They should have paid heed to the advice Cratloe football manager Colm Collins gave them a few months back. Last February, in an interview with the Clare Champion, he urged all clubs to rip up the 2013 master fixture list and start again to avoid a crisis.
Collins is the father of Clare hurling forward, Podge, and word is he will soon replace Mick O'Dwyer as the county's senior football manager. Having devoted so much of his life to club football, he will now have to deal with the issues that every club and inter-county manager clash on – access to players and the chance to fulfil regular games.
In that newspaper interview he asked for one round of the senior hurling and football championships to be played before May, or else face the prospect of not having representation in the Munster club competitions. His advice was ignored and that's exactly what the county faces now.
Cratloe, a dual club, were themselves hit badly with a fixture pile-up in 2012. They had five players on the All-Ireland-winning Clare under 21 hurling panel and most of these ended up playing three club championship games in eight days as winter set in.
"The same thing could possibly occur this year," Collins warned. "We've made it clear as a club that we're not going to bail them (county board) out. They made the mistake themselves the first year. If they're not going to correct it, they're not going to be bailed out."
Conceding that the fixtures issue is always a difficult proposition, he called for a format change, claiming that no allowance had been made in the master list for draws, or for county teams reaching the latter stages of their respective All-Ireland series.
"The football championship starts in August and if you're a dual club, you could be playing every weekend up to the county final. There isn't a hope if any dual club is doing well that we're going to have Munster club representatives. It's just not going to happen. It's unbelievable to me that the football isn't played in May. They're going to compress all of the football and most of the hurling championship into two-and-a-half months."
To the outsider, everything is going swimmingly in Clare hurling. No other county appears to boast the rich promise of youth they do. But there's a flip side too – they are struggling with an overloaded fixture schedule.
It hasn't helped either that 14 of the senior hurling team which is preparing for the replay of the All-Ireland final on Saturday week were also involved with the successful under 21 team yesterday evening.
This means just one round of club championship fixtures has been played. And so, when the clubs and county executive gathered on Tuesday night, there was only one thing on the agenda – firefighting.
"From the outside it doesn't look good," admits PRO Seán O'Halloran. "We have to learn from this in the future and we will. It's September, only one round has been played, and we're going to have to depend on co-operation from our clubs to help us through this. But we'll get that help."
But, as Collins pointed out in the spring, the lesson should have been learned last year. The meeting contained little or no dissent but who was going to rock the boat given the year Clare hurling is having?
There were two or three voices seeking reassurance that Clare would have representation in the Munster championship at the end of the year, but few were in the mood to delve any deeper. Instead, they were happy to accept that every effort is being made to ensure they have a representative in the Munster series.
"No date has been set in stone for either senior county final," O'Halloran adds, "but it's still very much possible to complete the Clare senior hurling championship in time for the winners to participate in the Munster championship. It will depend on which clubs progress to the concluding stages and it might also require some dual clubs playing every five days, or two games in nine days."
County secretary Pat Fitzgerald fears that having their business completed in time to compete in Munster will be very tight, but their chances are greatly enhanced by last week's decision to revert to last year's relegation format. Five teams were due to be relegated at the end of this campaign but instead it has now been decided that only one team will drop down.
"The board, the clubs and the dual clubs are following one line of thinking," said O'Halloran. "We have teams that could win Munster championships. Postponing the five-team relegation to next year will ease the burden on us, we will put the Clare championship to bed earlier, play games in quick succession and we're also helped by the fact that we're due to meet the Cork winners in the Munster hurling series. They are in a similar position to us so we may get a week's grace from the provincial council.
"Down the line, though, we'll need a tighter senior championship with more meaningful matches and we'll reduce our format from 20 teams to 15. That's coming. We also realise we'll have to start our domestic games earlier next year; that was mentioned several times at the meeting, and in the future we'll try to get at least two or three rounds played in earlier months."
Something will have to give for that to happen. More inter-county players, across all grades and especially those who are not really in contention for a starting 15 place, will have to be released for league games and they might follow the Kilkenny route where the domestic championship takes place throughout the Leinster and All-Ireland series.
It's a scenario that players in all counties face. Subs well down the pecking order are being left with just five or six meaningful games per season and that cannot be sustained as they struggle to get game time with the county team and are effectively frozen out of club action.
On the same night that the Clare board was in session, Donegal football clubs were also in discussions to sort their own problems. In the end, they took the extraordinary decision not to even start their 2014 championship until after their county team exits the Ulster and All-Ireland championships.
That decision, by a margin of 20-6, was essentially made to keep Jim McGuinness in charge for another season. A week earlier, McGuinness had met the clubs and requested that one round of the championship be played in late April or early May and then parked until Donegal's campaign was over. However, the grassroot delegates were not happy with that and decided to postpone the whole championship until after their exit. McGuinness also asked for league games to be played on one allotted day rather than spread over a weekend. That was agreed too and McGuinness will be in charge next year.
It's rare that compromise is met, though. The Kildare clubs' ongoing battle to get access to their best players and have regular and frequent games was part of the reason Kieran McGeeney was ousted. There were two complaints – the poor form of the senior team these past two seasons and endless problems with fixtures as the domestic campaign was more or less put on hold to facilitate the county side.
There have been cases of county managers asking senior county panelists not to play in their club minor or under 21 championship because they have a National League game looming. More pressure and demands are being placed on the county player.
Perhaps they should all study Kilkenny. True, they may only have eyes for hurling, but in winning nine All-Ireland senior, four All-Ireland under 21 and four All-Ireland minor titles since 2000, while simultaneously combining competitive and regular club championship matches, the Cats have shown that co-habitation between clubs and county is possible. Provided the will is there.