If the motives of Cork’s GAA executive were as advertised – to stimulate passionate debate on the state of the county championships – then the past week has been hugely energising for the grassroots.
It’s worth noting too in passing that it’s the first positive vibe to emerge from Páirc Ui Chaoimh in quite some time.
The smoke signals ahead of last night’s reconvene at the Páirc offered a reliable indicator of thinking across the county’s 160 GAA clubs.
That while the contentious Option C had much to recommend it and considerable backing, it was a leap of faith at the widest point of the river crossing when a small hop was a less risky – and conservative - alternative.
So it proved.
The proposal to play two of five championship group games in the summer without county players is undoubtedly a gamechanger for the GAA – or “out of the question”, as one delegate demanded of last night’s meeting.
In the largest GAA county in the county, it was adjudged to be too much too soon.
But for the great majority of players and their clubs, it offered schedule and structure to the summer months, the guarantee of five championship games and a rare pre-eminence in the pecking order of the Association.
That’s a lot of plusses for the constituency the GAA is built around.
It did not emerge as the preferred option for Cork clubs last night but it might not be gone away for long either.
New thinking in Cork has been stunted for long enough and the appetite for it may accelerate now to the point where the idea is revisited in two years’ time.
By that stage, perhaps another county may already have pioneered the move.
Amid all the giddy talk of radical alternatives, it’s worth remembering that this enlightened and necessary process will deliver positive change for Cork GAA.
Clubs will now be guaranteed three championship games, properly calendered via a league format, one-up one-down relegation, and most importantly of all in the context of Cork as a competitor on the national stage, a leaner grading system.
All in all, not a bad spring clean.
“It was an honour to represent Cork GAA this past week,” admitted CEO Kevin O’Donovan.
Some delegates last night believed the debate should not even have taken flight and that the current championship system should remain.
The Glen Rovers delegate Christy Ring felt the changes were so fundamental to the future of Cork hurling that the Board didn’t even have a mandate to discuss them. They belonged at convention surely, he protested.
On the other hand, Damien Irwin from the Killeagh club said 24 of the 25 members who had attended a club meeting to debate the options had voted with Option C - even though they were of the opposite mind when the proposals were launched.
“The view was that it gave the club back a bit of standing.”
Eventually Option A received 61% of the vote (136 votes), and the afore mentioned Option C over 23% (52). The barely mentioned Option B attracted only 33 votes.
Clubs will be graded on the basis of results from this season and the previous three years.
That the most left-field if seductive option has been rejected is democracy at play.
However, the intriguing intangible from last night was the degree to which the decision was informed by the views of the club players themselves.
From an admittedly small straw poll of clubs yesterday, the percentage of players involved in the club hall debates appears to have been limited, leading to the inevitable conclusion that the decision was primarily driven by administrators.
If that was the case, it’s a pity.
CEO Kevin O’Donovan sat across the table last week desperate for a debate to ignite across the county.
On that score, he can have no complaints. Everyone, and her mother, seems to have had their say, some enlightening, others too partisan by half.
By yesterday, the feedback from the plethora of club meetings held on Monday night indicated that Option A or Option C were the preferred horses in the race. Evidently, the bush telegraph was accurate.
The GPA, representing the inter-county tier of the GAA, saw the need to involve itself in the Cork conundrum as if the influence of a very small percentage of the elite players on the club structure wasn’t disproportionately large already.
“It is not fair or sensible that the opportunity for GPA members to represent their clubs could be taken out of their hands as part of a proposed restructuring of the Championship,” it remarked at the weekend.
In isolation it’s a reasonable point, but it’s also a special interest view that neither the executive in Cork, or the clubs voting last night, enjoyed the one-eyed comfort of.
Let’s be honest here. For the purpose of the opinion pollsters, every inter-county player in the GAA will insist he wants to play every club game possible, but, in reality, the demands on the top tier of the GAA make that a logistical and physical hazard.
We are entering the realm of guesswork, of course, when we begin to voir dire the actual desire of inter-county players to play simultaneously with their club, but it’s reasonable to suggest that at the peak of their careers, some find it an encumbrance, not least as they are so often cast as the meat in a pretty lumpy sandwich.
If they are occasionally guilty of looking after number one, it’s wholly understandable.
I’ve seen first-hand the physical and psychological price to be paid by a county ‘star’ for serving too many masters.
The club physio can show you the receipts but that doesn’t begin to put an estimate on the real cost.
A rough calculation, based on experience, would indicate that county players make about 60% of the games their clubs wish them to tog out for. Or about the same percentage Option C envisaged in a five-game context.
The extent to which clubs were sandwiched between a rock and a hard place on this debate depended on how many inter-county players they’ve nurtured through to Broadway.
Douglas is a dual club sprinkled with inter-county players – many in the club would argue to their cost - and they were firm in the view that asking them, or indeed any club to line out without the players that are “looked up to by the young hurlers and footballers and supporters of the club” is simply not right.
The corner reserved for those concerned only with what’s best for Cork GAA as a whole was sparsely populated this week.
The primal instinct of ‘what’s best for me’ beguiles us all. Hence senior clubs like St Finbarr’s, Douglas, Glen Rovers/St Nicks, or others with heavy inter-county representation, understandably railed against the idea of their Cork players being unavailable for 40% of the group phase of the championship.
“We spoke to our inter-county players and to say they were fuming at the prospect of not being able to play championship with the club would be an understatement,” said St Finbarr’s delegate Denis Harrington.
Others rejected Option C on the basis that it could stymie the ambition of their own nascent talents to reach for the stars, others voiced concerns where Option C ultimately leads.
Most, though, felt it fundamentally wrong that they be asked to play championship without their frontliners.
How many clubs opted for Option A – three group games, one in April, two in August – as the safer of two progressive options?
It is still better than the present half-baked scenario but it does not answer the summer of inactivity for the vast majority of club players who prepare assiduously through the winter and spring for championship.
It still means, in effect, a split campaign with two pre-seasons.
There is no perfect solution. Change comes in tiny increments in the GAA.
But at least the debate is underway and live.
And everyone will still be in the championship come August.