John Fogarty: College players caught in the January crossfire

John Fogarty: College players caught in the January crossfire
UL’s Limerick star Kyle Hayes and DCU’s Wexford stalwart Rory O’Connor battle for possession during their Fitzgibbon Cup tie. Picture: Moya Nolan.

If the recent stories of players from middle-tier football counties quitting the inter-county scene have told us that losing is no fun, tales from the clubs and colleges inform us winning isn’t always a picnic either.

As they look set to duel this Sunday, Brendan Maher and TJ Reid have spoken of what they and their Borris-Ileigh and Ballyhale Shamrocks colleagues gave up to get where they are. Not that they would give it up for anything in the world but Christmas was different and not in a good way.

Reading UCC manager Billy Morgan’s comments after they beat NUIG on Sunday, you’d swear he wasn’t victorious.

“They start this competition and we’re not open until next week. We had no preparation whatsoever over Christmas,” he remarked before adding,

It is becoming an elite association and they are just catering for inter-county, while clubs, third-level, and second-level are all suffering.

To suggest the GAA got off easy with the lash of Morgan’s tongue would sound silly but you can imagine just how animated the late John Corcoran and Dave Billings would have been about how their beloved UCC and UCD have been treated as a result of the Sigerson Cup being shoehorned into an 18-day January blitz.

At least for Kieran Molloy’s sake he isn’t again the poster boy for all things wrong with the fixtures calendar. Had NUIG progressed to a Sigerson Cup quarter-final, he would have another club v county clash this coming weekend. That he avoided such thanks to Morgan’s UCC was far from ideal and Molloy is certainly an exception but there will be relief among GAA authorities that he doesn’t again have to go to great lengths to play.

Few forget how he was whisked to Dublin from Tullamore two years ago to line out for his university in a Sigerson Cup final having just contributed to Corofin’s All-Ireland semi-final win over Moorefield. Then last year he lined out for Corofin as they saw off Gaoth Dobhair at the same stage a day before doing the same for NUIG as they were again dismissed by UCC. And yet Molloy was only able to play a bit-part role for his college in Dangan at the weekend, coming on at half-time.

The great irony is the Sigerson Cup was moved to avoid overlaps between competitions, namely anything with the league, although the staging of U20 inter-county development leagues this month as a precursor to the ridiculous decision to return the grade’s championship to spring flies in the face of that.

As, in a way, does the McKenna Cup-Sigerson clash which prompted Donegal to pull out of Ulster’s pre-season competition.

Between Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups, All-Ireland intermediate and junior club football semi-finals and pre-season inter-county fixtures, there were 28 games played last weekend.

Add on the 13 U20 developmental league matches, and it was a booming weekend for the GAA. No problem there, if it wasn’t even the middle of January.

Exactly who decided to switch the premier third level competitions to such a concentrated timespan at a pretty inconvenient time of year is unclear.

The Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) insisted it was the association’s Higher Education body that made the decision to condense the Sigerson Cup into 18 days.

However, before Christmas, GAA president John Horan said of the Sigerson Cup being moved to January:

“This is kind of an attempt by us through the fixtures reviews committee to spread out the season.

It’s to reduce the pressure on players and to give us greater opportunity for facilitating inter-county, and when you think about it when it was in January there were clashes with club championship and inter-county league and all that, so the Sigerson should be over before the National League starts.

There is sense in that but it’s the start date of the third level competitions that’s the issue.

The CCCC before proposed the competitions to begin and end in November, which wouldn’t be perfect either given there would be more clashes with club fixtures but slightly more preferable to what is the case now.

What seems a far more holistic approach is proposed by the talent academy and player development committee.

Headed up by Carlow IT lecturer and former Kilkenny coach Mick Dempsey and featuring tuned-in figures like Brian Cuthbert, they are calling for a more staggered October to January schedule for the third level competitions.

Commensurate with the academic year as opposed to the calendar one, it would provide welcome wiggle room to the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cups that are feeling anything but love right now.

“A definite tension exists between the third level and inter-county game,” the committee’s report read.

"As alluded by the Economic and Social Research Institute, this tension is ratcheted annually over the period of the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon competitions."

Hoping to treat the cause, the GAA may have instead addressed a symptom.

Changing times for Brolly and Farrell

Volte faces are so in right now. Three years after distancing himself from the Dublin senior football manager’s role (“I think the commitment is too great”), Dessie Farrell took over from Jim Gavin last month.

Asked about that comment at his first press briefing on Friday, he said: “I think it’s timing, probably. That’s probably three years ago now or whatever. I think you always have to be very respectful of the incumbents at the time and they don’t need to have someone looking over their shoulder.

I think that, out of respect to the group that was there and the management team, it wasn’t my place to be saying that I might want to be looking at the job in the near future or something.

Later on Friday, it was correctly reported that an old adversary of Farrell’s, Joe Brolly, would join Eir Sport for the upcoming league as a pundit.

As upsetting as his exit from RTÉ has been for him, it is a remarkable u-turn for a commentator so vehemently opposed to GAA games, league or Championship, being shown on pay-per-view TV.

In 2015, Jose Mourinho said he could never manage Tottenham, only to be appointed two months ago. Explaining his change of mind, he grinned:

“That was before Chelsea sacked me.” It was a perfect answer and as Mike Tyson once said: “Everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face.”

However, the same defence won’t work for Brolly considering he was so intrinsically linked to the free-to-air campaign.

Bearing in mind their troubled history in relation to the GPA but his fondness for this Dublin team, how Brolly regards Farrell’s reign will be at the least interesting but, in the context of recent developments, subject to change.

‘Golden goal’ may be fairer option to settle matches

Considering he’s a big Manchester United fan, as is his selector John Concannon, new Galway manager Pádraic Joyce’s opposition to penalty shoot-outs wasn’t said lightly.

Although Galway had again humbled Mayo in Castlebar, the means wasn’t to his liking.

It’s a funny way to sort a game out,” he said. “I wouldn’t be a huge fan of it. Fair play to the 10 players who took the penalties, and the two goalkeepers. Look, penalty-taking, for me, is for a different sport, not for our sport.

Joyce didn’t provide an alternative but the GAA’s decision to switch last year from free-taking to penalties for “result on the day” football and hurling games was understandable. It is a far more exciting way of bringing a game to a conclusion.

Simply because of the better conversion rate, free shoot-outs were more suitable for hurling although we’re reminded of Brian Cody’s unimpressed reaction to that format after losing out in it to Wexford in a Walsh Cup final two years ago.

From yellow and red cards to the new advanced mark, the GAA has been doing plenty of borrowing over the years and it can hardly be criticised for introducing more “result on the day” games to alleviate its fixtures difficulties.

If, as Joyce believes, penalty shoot-outs are foreign and additional periods of extra-time are not in the best interest of player welfare, the GAA might consider its own sudden death variation. Soccer’s jettisoned golden goal would be another steal but could be a fairer option.

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