This week’s buzzword has been fixtures. And it will be the same in Central Council tomorrow as the 2020 fixtures calendar is confirmed and the fixtures task force provide them with a briefing.
The need to fix them spawned the creation of the Club Players Association, a body Dara Ó Cinnéide has a lot of time for, but he wonders if issues with delivering an adequate programme of games and striking a better balance between club and county is really a problem but more of a symptom of a society that’s transforming himself.
Kerry, he says, will always be Kerry because of tradition and the value placed in the jersey prevails but for those developing sides the challenge is only made greater by a growing indifference about playing county.
“I don’t know what it takes to bring a team that’s languishing on 16, 17, 18 or 19 in the rankings up to where they want to be. Jim McGuinness had a revolution and we all knew that Donegal were underachieving.
“Carlow Rising, what was it really? It was a good summer or two that lifted a county’s population and made people feel good about football but how do you make that longer lasting?
“I hope I don’t sound patronising but I always used Tinryland as an example and being blown away by the passion they have for the games. How come Carlow haven’t been better at county level? I don’t have the answer.
“The tradition is there in Kerry and it’s prestigious to play football for the county and young lads still aspire and it’s harder to walk away from Kerry without losing some peer status. The fixtures are being blamed for all ailments but I think it’s a bit more nuanced than that.
“How do you make a footballer in a county like Wicklow or Leitrim want to win the Tommy Murphy Cup? I feel like I’m talking down to them but how do you get them to accept the principle that Leitrim aren’t going to beat Galway?”
The 2004 All-Ireland SFC winning captain was on the committee that established the previous second tier when Division 4 counties, unless they reached their respective provincial finals, were removed from the qualifiers into the Tommy Murphy Cup.
Seeing that model revived next year doesn’t surprise Ó Cinnéide although he is happy to see that the Tier 2 winners will earn full Sam Maguire Cup status the following year.
“We all accept it in our own counties at club level. For my own club An Ghaeltacht, it was a bit of an embarrassment to be pitted as intermediate champions against senior teams in 2018. We found our level and it was intermediate and we’re back down there again this year.
“We’re playing Dingle on Sunday week and they should be beating us but I believe that we’re going to beat them. Gary Brennan, who’s an absolutely honourable guy, I was at a summer school this year when he was talking about the GAA and he railed against the second tier. I think the world of him as a footballer but I couldn’t have disagreed with him more.
“My club, who I love more than Kerry, are a second tier club and I have to accept that. That doesn’t mean I’m shutting the door on future generation of Gaeltacht footballers who might get a good bunch and progress to a level like us 20 years ago when we were winning county titles. They are the mini-miracles.”
Splitting the All-Ireland SFC reflects a reality, Ó Cinnéide argues. “Some teams are always going to be stronger than others. It’s an awful snobby thing to say but that’s the reality as I perceive it.
“I hear Turlough O’Brien’s views in Carlow and those of my friends up the country but at the end of the day what is it you want out of the game at inter-county level?
“The one big thing the GAA haven’t grasped is the provincial championships aren’t being condensed and aren’t being treated with the lack of respect that they probably deserve at this stage.”
A selector with his club An Ghaeltacht, Ó Cinnéide admits to getting more of a kick out of the club scene these days than watching county. He wonders if those playing at the highest grade are missing out on things as fraternal as the Sigerson Cup, which he is disappointed to see squeezed into January.
“Tomás (Ó Sé) tells me that’s not happening in UCC because managers are only releasing players for matches and I lament that. I sound like a misplaced romantic now and that’s probably why I’ve lost interest in the county game. I just find it boring. I love watching Dublin, I’ll always love watching Kerry and I’ll watch every game of the rest but I much prefer watching club games.
“I hope county lads are enjoying it but I’m wondering if we are shutting the door on lads who want to enjoy Sigerson and then at the age of 23 or 24 want to become a county player. The Sigerson experience is huge and it’s not being afforded respect anymore.
“In my four years in UL, we didn’t win a Sigerson unfortunately but the bond is still there at 44 years of age.
“We still have reunions and a WhatsApp group and it’s a lot tighter than my ex-county mates.
“I do think any footballer who doesn’t have that is missing something and anything damaging that is lamentable.”