Club v County: How this year’s championships might provide the catalyst for change

It may have taken a global health crisis and the complete cessation of sport for three months, but maybe the GAA might emerge from its hibernation with a feasible solution to its perennial fixtures problem. Or at the very least, something vaguely resembling a feasible solution. Since the GAA announced its decision to run off the club season from the last day of July until October 11th, prior the resumption of inter-county action, county boards around the country have been frantically trying to put some sort of viable championship structure in place. Appeasing all stakeholders is no easy task. While the window is unquestionably tight, eleven weeks at most, it nonetheless offers a novel opportunity to complete a club season, from start to finish, without inter-county disruption.

When the ‘club month’ for April was introduced two years ago as part of the GAA’s master fixture plan, it aimed to alleviate the plight of the country’s club players, a sizeable cohort which has been cast into darkness in recent years by the allure of inter-county game. In accordance with the doctrine of most inter-county managers, no man can serve two masters and one’s loyalty must be undivided. While ‘club month’ was pitched as a resolution to the chaotic calendar, in practice, the initiative offered little more than lip-service to the GAA’s core populace, further dividing the fragmented club season and failing to resolve the months of inactivity at a local level.

Last year, for example, Fermoy stunned Castlehaven in the opening round of the Senior Club Football Championship in early April. However, any momentum that they may have gained from that seismic victory had all but dissipated by the time they took to the field to play the Ilen Rovers in the next round at the end of August, 147 days later. Similarly, Sarsfields, in the Senior Hurling Championship, played their first championship match on the 19th of April. Their second came 134 days later, on the 31st of August.

These are but two examples, as each year, club players at every level of the game are forced to satiate themselves on relatively unimportant league games throughout the summer months, held hostage to the fortunes of their inter-county peers. While the format of the club championships in Cork was altered last year to allow for extra games (before the current crisis firmly obliterated those restructures), the modifications did little to address the problems as mentioned above.

The inaugural staging of the new-fangled senior and intermediate championships should have commenced in April. Encompassing a round-robin format, it still necessitates club players to undergo pre-season training throughout the miserable early months of the year in order to prime themselves for a solitary championship game in April. By the time the second round of championship games comes around in August, most clubs would in all likelihood have been in training for the best part of six months.

The inter-county season in its current guise, comprising pre-season competitions, leagues and championships, almost exclusively occupies two thirds of the calendar year. The Cork hurlers and footballers began their 2020 seasons at the back-end of 2019, with respective victories over Kerry either side of Christmas. Their ultimate goal, before all plans went out the window, was to still be involved eight months later, in Croke Park in mid-August. When you consider that the majority of games up until May are essentially meaningless, one has to question the validity of such an elongated season.

For instance, the Cork hurlers began their campaign in the pre-season Munster Senior Hurling League, in order to prepare themselves for the actual league, which just so happened to contain four of their five Munster neighbours. All of which was in preparation for the Munster Championship, which of course, is in itself a league, against those very same counties. Can anyone honestly contend that there isn’t fat to be trimmed somewhere along the line here?

Without delving too far into the debate on championship re-structuring, it is worth arguing that the All-Ireland finals, in both codes, could easily be played before the August Bank Holiday weekend. By scrapping the worthless pre-season competitions and the superfluous league add-ons, such as quarter-finals and semi-finals, the lead-up to championship could too be condensed into just over two months. This would allow for a complete moratorium on GAA action in January and act a definitive end point to the season. It would also permit third-level teams to avail of exclusive access to players for the month of February.

At the start of the year, GAA director Tom Ryan warned against the ever-increasing level of spending on inter-county teams as the 2019 total rose to almost €30 million. Last year, Cork’s team expenses rose to €107k (70% of which was absorbed by the senior teams), an alarming figure for an amateur organisation in an already precarious financial position. One doesn’t require a degree in accounting to deduce that shortening the inter-county season from eight months to five would assuage a lot of the financial burden on cash-strapped county boards.

The club scene would also benefit greatly from such reform. If All-Ireland finals were fixed for the end of July, club championship fixtures could be firmly set in stone, running from August through to October (the county finals are generally played in October anyway), with provincial and national competitions concluding before Christmas. Under the new club championship formats, the winning team, in both hurling and football, has to play seven games, at a maximum. Three months would provide ample time, without inter-county interference, to run off these games, even making allowances for the dual commitments of some clubs.

With concrete club championship fixture-lists available to players at the start of each year, holidays, J1’s, weddings and other life events can be planned in advance. Essentially, like in soccer or rugby, club players would regain control of their own lives. Club league games too, could wait until the clocks go back, before being run off over four months in conjunction with the inter-county season. The appeal of pre-season training for club players would certainly be far more enticing if it began in March as opposed to late January. Sure, club teams would be shorn of their most valuable players throughout the league but is that really much different to the current situation?

A separated club and county season has been mooted many times before. As far back as 2017, a radical report entitled ‘Towards 2034 – the 150th anniversary of the GAA’, envisioning what the organisation might look like in 2034 and proposed that the two seasons should be distinctly scheduled ‘in order to enhance the playing experience of club players’. The doyen of hurling, Brian Cody has also advocated a segregation of club and county, as has Joe Brolly on countless occasions.

If nothing else, the Covid cloud may have bestowed frustrated club players with a silver lining, by forcing the hand of the GAA and acting as the catalyst for meaningful and lasting change. Although I wouldn’t hold my breath on that front. Recent reports of the Cork senior hurlers meeting with county board officials to express their dissatisfaction with the proposed county championship format has demonstrated that the tail will not be deterred from its efforts to wag the dog.

Whatever happens this year, concessions will have to be made on both sides of the divide. What happens next year, and the years after that, will be far more telling. The segregation of club and county championships is not without its flaws, but it can’t be any worse than what we have at present.

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