Recent events prompted us to remember Rodney King’s famous 'Can’t We All Just Get Along?' plea but little did we think it would be the increasingly heated club-and-county debate – to the point, it’s becoming club-versus-county – rather than the prevalence of racial injustice and police brutality that still exists in America.
Call me naïve, or even anti-club, but I don’t believe inter-county managers are the enemy of the people or the clubs. I am writing this right now from a desk in county Clare. Neither Brian Lohan nor Colm Collins, for all their ambitions, have pulled any player from county training. Their S&C personnel in particular are continuously checking in with players but more out of a sense of care than control or interference.
There are tens of other county managers around the country just like them. A few rogue set-ups have pushed the boundaries, broke the guidelines, but call them out rather than tarnish them all with the same brush.
Because with such sweeping generalisations, the public perception now is that they’re all flaunting Covid protocols, taking players away from their clubs. Just as they’re all getting paid. That they’ve always exercised too much power. That every county manager has pulled a Jim McGuinness and delayed and blitzed off their county championship like Donegal famously did in the autumn of 2012.
That is a grossly unfair stereotype. For one, most of them aren’t getting paid.
It works the other way then. This column doesn’t believe that counties need to be training collectively now, or in July or for most of August.
Take the Irish rugby team. A fortnight out from a major tournament like the Six Nations championship, the players are still with the provinces, usually playing in a must-win sixth round of the Heineken Cup to try to ensure qualification for the knockout stages. An Andy Farrell or Joe Schmidt before him has just 12 or 13 days to prepare them for a crucial opening game that could shape their entire tournament and season. They might be full-time but that’s still a very limited number of sessions to prepare for a game of such magnitude.
In that case, we disagree with what Bernard Brogan said last Friday on 'Off The Ball'. Brogan made the argument that it takes time for players to familiarise or re-familiarise themselves with their team-mates’ movements and build (back) up that understanding, and waiting until September 14 would be too narrow a window to achieve that. We disagree. Managers should have more trust in themselves and what they can do in the sessions they have in September and October ahead of the recommencement of inter-county competitive games.
But this column would also disagree in how people have disagreed with him.
The CPA, for the most part, have been a good watchdog since their advent three years ago but their Twitter account was unnecessarily hostile in a reply to Brogan, claiming his statement was “a total disregard for all club players”.
In the very same interview, Brogan acknowledged how “the club scene is so important” and how only 98% of players play club only. He’s now one of those 98%, who the CPA purport to represent, one of their own, essentially. At no stage in the interview did he say players should be pulled away from club training.
His point wasn’t unreasonable, albeit one that all things considered for the year that was in it, would be outweighed by other arguments: In other seasons you might have a five-month lead-in to championship, but this year it’ll have to be more like other sports which just have about five or six weeks: that’s all. But the way he was just shouted down was in keeping in how increasingly shrill the CPA and the club-and-county debate in general has become.
A lot of traditionalists are forgetting that back in the era they like to romanticise, the county game went right from October to September. County finals were on the same bill as home national league games. As Brian Corcoran would put it in his book, “You were never off.” 'It' was always there. The only relief was when your county was knocked out of the Championship. But is that what people really want us to return to, a time when county footballers in a county like Fermanagh only twice played beyond mid-June from 1984 to 1998?
Michael Duignan made some very valid comments on Monday night on Off The Ball. County teams and managers need to see the bigger picture in the coming weeks and months and should be sanctioned if they’re pulling players from their clubs to collectively meet up on their own. But a lot of them are.
And the county game is not quite the juggernaut he and others make out.
The public perception is that most of the cost of running a county team goes on bloated backroom teams but that is not the case. Instead most of it goes on food and travel expenses for the players. Whether overly-stretched county boards should be the ones having to pay that bill is another argument, but no one should be begrudging that players who help generate funds for the Association – and ploughed back into its clubs – are fed and not left out of pocket.
The more sensible county managers and prudent county boards ensure that no set-up is bloated. You don’t need the nutritionist and sport psychologist and statisticians at every session or even every season: The goal with a few of those roles should be to make yourself redundant, or only to be sporadically called upon again.
And even take that famous photograph of the 23-person Dublin backroom team after the 2016 All-Ireland final. All but one of them were native Dubs. Less than a handful of them would have been paid: Physios, S&C, but that’d be it. There were also team bus drivers and kitmen in the old days and hangers-on too, only some of them wore county board blazers instead of tracksuits, while there might have been a selector or two too many as well who added or coached very little.
The county game and club game are symbiotic.
The club in turn is always there for the player. They’re the ones who help develop them, as players, as people, and who’ll still be there for them long after they’re done with the county.
What also should be remembered is that nobody owns the player. Not the club, not the county. Any games programme that is eventually decided upon by the GAA has to acknowledge that the county player must be able to play frequently for his club while recognising he can’t always play for his club: Otherwise we’re curtailing the number of games the 98% will have.
Right now this is a club window. That has to be respected by county set-ups and enforced by Croke Park; by all means, counties can consult, chat, but not congregate. Come early September, that can change in certain cases. Even Duignan acknowledged that players whose clubs have exited the championship should be free to return to the county setup before September 14.
The club is not the enemy of the county, just as the county manager is not the enemy of the club. With a bit of cop on and some leadership, they can all get along.