When April was unveiled as the ‘month of the club’ with positive intentions a couple of years ago, it was always likely to turn into something of an uncomfortable union; like a sort of arranged GAA marriage between the club groom and his inter-county bride, given the proximity of so many provincial championship games in early May to their shotgun wedding.
How did April work out for your club? Like most things in the association, I’d imagine it would be a difficult task to reach a consensus.
The practical workings and nuts and bolts are important here, and I’m conscious that there is a wide spectrum of opinion — some club players may have felt they got great value out of April while many others will not share that sentiment.
In Kerry, through my capacity managing my club Kerins O’Rahillys, there really was very little for us to complain about.
We had three group games in the senior club championship on consecutive weekends, and despite our inter-county players being injured and unavailable to us, clubs in general had very good access to their players, which was a welcome change.
The county men trained every Tuesday night with the Kerry squad during April and were free to work away with the club for the rest of the week.
Those county sessions seemed to be just about keeping track of injuries and having lads ticking over, more so than flogging them with hard work.
While having access to players for a Thursday night club training session and game at the weekend, mightn’t seem like earth-shattering stuff, it makes a significant difference when you’re trying to prepare a team and looking to incorporate a few bodies back into the mix with some tactical adjustments.
It also offers players the opportunity to step out of the pressure-filled inter-county bubble for a few weeks and recharge the batteries ahead of the long championship grind ahead.
Mental freshness is as vital as any physical conditioning and the club environment can serve as a rejuvenating influence for players who’ve been flat out since last November and have just finished an intense Allianz League campaign.
Their presence can also help to breath life into their local community by allowing them to plug themselves back into their club for the month.
In general, it couldn’t have worked out much better in Kerry; access to players for some training sessions and meaningful games at the weekend for the whole month is positive for everybody involved in the club game.
The senior competition culminated with Austin Stacks beating Dr Crokes in the final on Sunday afternoon, with the intermediate and junior competitions due to wrap up next weekend.
Of course, context is important here and there are obvious reasons why Kerry can take such ‘luxuries’ by releasing players back to their club for much of April.
Firstly, in the absence of countywide club hurling demands, the fact that you are really only concentrating on Gaelic football takes huge pressure off the fixture makers.
Secondly, the county football team won’t see action in the Munster championship until June 1, and realistically, given the struggles of the rest of the sides in the province and the recent history of the competition, it’ll probably be August and the Super 8s before they play their next dangerous opponent.
Having that kind of certainty about a probable path to August allows the likes of Kerry and Dublin the latitude to afford their players the chance to return to their clubs for a chunk of their championship preparation safe in the knowledge that it won’t scupper their chances of provincial silverware.
I’ve written previously about the structure for senior clubs in Kerry; divisional league competitions start in early February and run up to the beginning of the county league around St Patrick’s weekend, of which there are two rounds played before the club championships in April. The county league resumes in May for another nine rounds until the senior county championship throws in during September. Every club gets in excess of 20 games throughout the year — the majority of which are highly competitive.
Your entire season is mapped out for you and players have complete certainty about dates, games, and competitions, and can plan their life accordingly.
For intermediate and junior clubs who don’t have the September showpiece to prepare for, the quality of the county leagues still offers regular competitive football right through the summer months to keep players engaged until their local divisional championship bring the curtain down on the season.
April may not mean the same in terms of club action for clubs the likes of Mayo or Tyrone for example.
In Connacht and Ulster, the provincial championship remains a meaningful competition to win and while New York may not prove to be the toughest of tests for Division One league champions Mayo next Sunday, it’s still an early outing on May 5.
It’s the same with Tyrone in the arm wrestle of the Ulster championship, when they open their campaign only a week later against Derry on May 12.
There’s an obvious inequality of competition across the different provinces, and that has a knock-on effect on the successful allocation of April to the club scene.
If you are James Horan or Mickey Harte, you are much more constrained by time pressures than Peter Keane or Jim Gavin.
It would be a fascinating study to accurately compile the data from every county when April is in the books; how much access did clubs have to their county players? How many games were actually played? How many club training sessions were they available for if any?
Everybody knows the system is broken and April may well be just be a smokescreen — a band-aid over a bad fracture.
The time for a blank national fixtures canvass and cooperative talks with all the key stakeholders is long overdue, but for now at least, this marriage is all we have, and in some counties at least, a club-centred April is better than the alternative of a complete divorce.