“Club good, county bad.”
That about sums up the argument put forward by Captain Cavemen these last few weeks. No room for nuance about how the GAA’s revised calendar could be improved, just the bludgeon.
There is frustration with how the club has been marginalised and the county has been prioritised at its expense. However, prior to the lockdown there appeared to be movement towards real change in reshaping the GAA calendar.
That was undoubtedly aided by the Club Players Association (CPA) focusing minds by removing themselves from the fixtures review committee.
However, there seemed to be genuine support from Croke Park for radical
reform whether it was in reshaping the provinces into conferences or flipping the league format to the summer. Both could provide 15 club-only weekends from April to October when the number in a regular season is 12 having been five in 2005.
As righteous as a lot of the exasperation about the plight of the club is, it has clouded judgement of late.
Some seem fully intent on squaring it up against county when they are far more complementary than they would like to think.
Describing it as “populist propaganda” over the weekend, Derek McGrath effectively summed up the loose and disparaging commentary about the county scene.
McGrath also mentioned certainty about fixtures. It is the one common ground shared by the club and club/county player. The lack of it this year has understandably been upsetting for many and undoubtedly coloured opinions.
The usual suspects have been rounded up and put in an identity parade. The Gaelic Players Association (GPA) have been told to show leadership and instruct their members not to train prior to
September 14 when in fact what is being demanded of them is to do the job of the GAA.
From the outset of his presidency, John Horan made it clear new rules regarding matters such as payments would not engender change.
“What rule were you going to apply where somebody goes down the roads and gets the local publican to look after the man who looks after the hurling team,” he said in February 2018. “To police that? You might as well accept it. Rules just aren’t going to work. We’ve got to get people to buy into an ethos and a value within the organisation.”
On Friday, Horan again stated the GAA would not be penalising counties who breach the September 14 start date for training. The deterrent they have put in place is the absence of insurance but that won’t stop counties training on pitches or in resorts, which have public liability cover. Fota Island, Carton House, Breaffy House Hotel, Johnstown Estate and ALSAA Sports Club are options to name but a few.
In the form of a rule change, the CPA are calling for Croke Park to crack down heavy on counties who trespass in the club window but given Horan’s comments that request is unlikely to be granted. If county boards are going to allow their championships be sabotaged from within then it may take a club to take a stand and embarrass them.
However, the September 14 date is far too cut and dried — one size does not fit all as the autonomy of counties has clearly been illustrated in scheduling county finals ranging five weeks in difference from August 30 (Waterford) to October 11 (Derry). The GPA’s idea about allowing players return to county training after their clubs have exited the championship is more subtle and in tune with the phased inter-county training moratorium that has evolved from strict and routinely contravened start dates in the late 2000s.
It’s decidedly more realistic than directing players not to train with county set-ups before September 14. Not only does that suggestion fail to consider that there is a Championship at stake later in the year where in football becoming knockout the stakes have got higher, it doesn’t take into account the vulnerability of young players.
We hit upon that recently speaking to Paul Browne about Limerick’s horrible 2010 season and what it was like to play on despite the strike. Just 20 at the time, Browne wasn’t going to say boo to a goose. “I was only a young fella, only in the door. I just didn’t feel comfortable taking a stance like that so I tried to keep my head down.”
The GAA season is loaded in favour of the county scene but then it is the organisation’s biggest promotional and development tool. It is also the GAA’s primary revenue generator. Those are not our words but those of the CPA in a joint statement with the GPA last December. Aside from seven points about fixtures reform, that was one of two key principles agreed by the bodies, the other being that the club is “the
primary basic unit”.
The club is indeed the essence of the Association. It is where it is at its most authentic but it shouldn’t be used as a weapon. To do so is primitive.
Last year, Croke Park hosted 18 of the 99 Championship games. Of the 48 fixtures between the Sam Maguire -31) and Liam MacCarthy Cups (17) and considering social distancing restrictions, as many as half of them could go to GAA HQ to ensure as many people get to see the games as possible.
Already there are questions about the suitability of Ballybofey’s MacCumhaill Park for the Donegal-Tyrone Ulster quarter-final where the large terrace areas make social distancing impossible. Whether Donegal take a Newbridge or Nowhere stance remains to be seen.
News of that possibility comes on the back of reports the Ulster and Connacht SFC finals could be switched to Croke Park. While Munster have ruled out moving games there and indeed the question could be asked if all four senior hurling matches could be played there.
Speaking to the Nenagh Guardian, provincial vice-chairman Ger Ryan said: “If there is a big disparity between what you could hold in the province and what you could hold in Croke Park, should we go there for a Munster Hurling final or a Cork v Kerry football semi-final? If you could get 20,000 at Croke Park, why hold it in Thurles, Limerick or Cork with 5,000?”
The rough rule of thumb for judging such things right now is to divide the amount of seating by four (based on two metre social distancing) and Páirc Uí Chaoimh has 21,000 seats, Semple Stadium 26,000, LIT Gaelic Grounds 24,000 and Fitzgerald Stadium just 9,000.
Croke Park’s Covid capacity numbers as Tom Ryan mentioned on Friday - 26,000 at the moment, which “wouldn’t go far north of 30,000” should social distancing be reduced to one metre - are believed to include temporary seats on Hill 16. The only question is not when they are installed but what colour they will be? Blue?
Keep your friends close and your enemies closer certainly rings true among inter-county teams where Jack McCaffrey’s rumoured departure from Dublin was doing the rounds in rival camps days before it was reported on Saturday evening.
It doesn’t matter how fortified Dublin as a group has become in recent years, Gaelic football is a small world and hurling even smaller. Failed doping tests, managers switching to other counties, even positive Covid-19 tests don’t take long to be disseminated.
An exit like McCaffrey was going to be too big to keep quiet never mind doing so for four months before they are in competitive action again. Such is the awesomeness of his football that his absence should not only be felt in Dublin but outside it too. Four All-Stars and five All-Irelands is one thing but to be shortlisted thrice for footballer of the year after picking up young footballer in his debut season is an incredible but wholly deserving commendation of his career.
Should Dublin win a sixth consecutive All-Ireland, we will miss his frank and open interviews the morning after finals. In those sitdown chats with the media the last two Septembers, he has been as entertaining as he is on the field.
In those conversations as he showed in 2016 when he stepped away for a season, McCaffrey always gave the impression that inter-county football, while big for him, was never the be-all and end-all. For him to know that he can turn it back on should he wish to return next year must give him comfort but Dessie Farrell won’t be feeling much of that right now.