Tradition trumps sense in age-old GAA conundrum

Aogán Ó Fearghail says he is going to be an ambassadorial President.

Tradition trumps sense in age-old GAA conundrum

But Aogán Ó Fearghail has also said that he wants to tackle the GAA’s fixture crisis.

Therein lies a slight contradiction. That’s a bit like a new US President saying that apart from invading a few countries in the Middle-East, he is going to concentrate largely on domestic issues. Put simply, you can’t tackle GAA fixtures without unleashing a mini-apocalypse. Anyone seeking to retain friends and remain popular should stay a million miles away from this extremely thorny and sensitive issue.

However, it is to Aogán Ó Fearghail’s credit that he has outlined fixtures as the main issue he will address during his three-year presidency. Yes, he is happy to be a figurehead. And yes, he will not meddle in the business of other departments. But Ó Fearghail has still outlined what looks like a small to-do list.

He wants to scrap the International Rules. He wants to retain and promote the Railway Cup. And he wants to improve the lot of the ordinary club player by confronting the GAA’s longstanding fixtures problem. It mightn’t sound like a very extensive list of goals but if Ó Fearghail succeeds in revolutionising the GAA’s fixture calendar, then he will become the most successful President since Peter Quinn.

If he revives the fortunes of the Railway Cup, he’ll be up there with Cusack. As a father whose children are actively involved in the GAA, the Ulster man appreciates the fundamental importance of playing games. He also understands the frustration that arises from a haphazard fixtures programme that comes from the ether.

Speaking at a press briefing after his election, Ó Fearghail said: “My four children all play and we never actually know when we are playing. My own club have had so many games changed and switched around. They don’t mind playing 10 Saturdays in-a-row if they know the 11th is off. County fixtures in general aren’t too bad. It’s when provincial councils come along and put their Championships on top of that, and national level in on top of that. There’s no joined-up thinking. Nobody’s talking to the other. We could improve the situation.”

With that one statement, Ó Fearghail clearly identified the key issues surrounding fixtures.

Ultimately, if the GAA is to succeed, then the games must be played on a structured and regular basis. That applies to all age groups, from juvenile to senior. The crisis facing the entire GAA is that this isn’t happening.

As Ó Fearghail observed, the main difficulty for senior clubs is caused by the provincial and All-Ireland Championships.

And contrary to popular opinion, the GAA’s perennial logjam isn’t some mind-boggling riddle that can’t be solved.

That’s nonsense. The problem is easy to identify. In its starkest terms, the GAA is allowing 2% of its playing population to dictate when the other 98% get to have a game.

The inter-county competitions just take too long. The solution is also strikingly simple. To free up more weekends for club games, the GAA must reduce the length of the inter-county calendar.

This is another no-brainer. Ó Fearghail could start with the Ulster senior football Championship. This is an eight-game competition which takes nine weeks to complete. That’s madness.

The preliminary round and a quarter-final match should be played on the same weekend. The two semi-finals should also be played on the same weekend. With the stroke of a pen, and without losing a penny of income, the Ulster Championship could be played off in six weeks. If the other provincial Championships were streamlined in the same manner, the Qualifiers could start sooner. The three-week gap between the last All-Ireland semi-final and the final could also be reviewed.

There is no rational explanation why these straightforward measures shouldn’t be adopted. The chief barrier is tradition. Because that’s the way it has always been done, GAA officials fear that the entire fabric of the organisation will collapse if they tinker with a few dates. But this rigid conformity to an elongated provincial format is no longer acceptable. The income and promotion generated by the inter-county game is great, but the leaders must remember that the GAA is a not-for-profit organisation.

The GAA is for everyone. The summer is for everyone. Priority must be given to the 98% of footballers and hurlers who spend huge chunks of June, July and August training and training and training.

Increasingly the club season only gets into full flow in October. When the days are dark and the pitches are heavy, the club man, who started training in January, is playing every 72 hours.

As a man who is deeply embedded in the GAA, Aogán Ó Fearghail will be acutely aware of the challenge facing him.

Respected and liked within the Ulster Council, he has a reputation for carrying an iron fist in a velvet glove. While he prefers consensus, if he takes a matter to his heart, he can be robust and unflinching.

When trying to solve the debacle in the Dr McKenna Cup, the Ulster Council pursued the diplomatic route. Joe Kernan was appointed as the ‘Good Will Ambassador’. Joe tried his best to broker compromises with the county managers who insisted on selecting players who were also wanted by their colleges. Joe’s best efforts came to nothing.

As Aogán Ó Fearghail will now realise, diplomacy has its limitations. There is a time to act like an ambassador. And there is a time to act like a president.

If the GAA’s next leader wants to serve the best interests of the ordinary clubman, he will need to remove that iron fist from its glove.

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