By neglecting the club player, GAA biting hand that feeds

The club, we are repeatedly informed by the great and the good of the GAA, is the ‘lifeblood of the Association’. By extension, that should mean the club championship is a competition which is truly treasured by the trusted leaders who espouse this rhetoric.

The reality of the situation is somewhat different. The club championship doesn’t generate the big bucks. It’s the provincial championships and the All-Ireland series which net the mega-million sponsorship deals.

In the GAA, talk is cheap, it takes money to get a decision made. And when it comes to establishing their priorities, the GAA has a tendency to follow the cash. This isn’t a lazy, clichéd accusation that’s been trotted out to please the gallery. Look at the evidence.

Consider the havoc caused to the club competitions in Tyrone and Cork after the recent draws in the Ulster SFC and Munster SHC. A few years ago, county board officials passed a motion at Congress which introduced extra-time for first round provincial championship games.

The rationale made perfect sense. Replays deleted another weekend when club games could be played. But replays are money spinners which bring in lots of cash. The new system was quickly overturned. Replays returned. To hell with club games! It’s also worth remembering that it’s county board officials at Congress who support these changes which shaft club players.

The notion that the GAA is run by an autocratic leadership at Croke Park is so far off the mark it’s laughable. Páraic Duffy, the GAA’s director-general, was in favour of extra-time being played in first round games. But in the GAA, there can often be a significant gap between perception and reality.

The controversy which surrounded Donegal’s decision to suspend their club championship until the county team was knocked out of the All-Ireland series is an excellent example.

It was widely believed that Jim McGuinness held the county board to ransom. Annoyed that so many of his players got injured during the club championship last year, the word was McGuinness said he would quit unless the county board bowed to his demands. The actual truth was less dramatic. McGuinness didn’t insist that the club championship should be put on hold. In fact, McGuinness suggested the first round could be played in late April or early May. Donegal’s clubs supported a proposal not to play any championship games until the county team was dumped out of the All-Ireland series.

By making a public and collective decision to postpone their championship until the county team’s run came to an end, the board was only following the policy that is being practiced by the other counties in Ulster.

Indeed, it was Jim McGuinness who revealed that Donegal was the only county in Ulster that played club championship games during last year’s Ulster Championship.

Tyrone’s refusal to play any club games, and the county’s run to the All-Ireland semi-final, meant their championship was run off in a few weeks. County champions Clonoe only had a week to prepare for their game against Ballinderry.

In a bid to avoid a repeat of that scenario, the Tyrone board pushed ahead with the first round of its club championship last weekend.

However, the dilemma faced by the Tyrone board highlights the complexity of this problem.

Damned when they postponed their championship, they were damned when they played it.

Shoe-horned into the schedule after Tyrone beat Down in a replay match in Newry, clubs had virtually no access to their players in the run up to their games.

Clonoe and Errigal Ciarán have three county players apiece. Due to their commitments to the Tyrone squad, those county players haven’t played a league game with their clubs for the past month. How can you prepare for a championship fixture without playing a few games with a full team?

Donegal’s clubs refused to play an early round of thechampionship because they have learned from experience that this practice can have a very negative effect on the county league.

Once clubs are knocked out of the championship, the whole spirit and drive is instantly sucked out of the league campaign. Rather than being used as a means to prepare for the championship, the league becomes a chore.

For eight senior clubs in Tyrone (Donaghmore, Strabane, Cookstown, Moortown, Coalisland, Killyclogher, Errigal Ciarán and Eskra) their championship is now over and it will feel like a long time until next year’s competition comes around.

Following the introduction of the back door, the All-Ireland series has become a sprawling behemoth. Unable to predict when their team’s run will end, county boards have found it difficult to schedule their club championship.

Increasingly, it has made sense for counties to delay their competitions until August and September. While GAA leaders have bemoaned the lack of regular games for club players, the Association has done little to rectify the problem.

The solution is abundantly obvious; the county calendar must be shortened. The league and provincial championships can be completed quicker. The gap between the All-Ireland semi-final and final should also be reduced. If the will existed to truncate the lucrative county competitions, most clubs could enjoy a 10-week window from July to September when there would be no conflict with the county team.

But rather than making any changes to its multi-million pound championship, the GAA wants county boards to back a proposal which will force them to make the hard calls.

A proposal from the Football Review Committee to play the All-Ireland club finals in December will be discussed at the next Central Council meeting. If passed, the changes could take immediate effect.

While it’s an excellent idea which should be supported, county boards should seek some concessions.

If the All-Ireland finals are played in December, there will be no wiggle room with county and provincial championships. Fixtures will need to be played sooner.

This means county boards face difficult decisions. Decisions like Tyrone had to make last week.

That shouldn’t be necessary. If the GAA was prepared to abandon first round replays and streamline its league and championship, it would be much easier for the county boards to complete their club fixtures.

And until such times as the GAA is prepared to reduce the number of weekends devoted to county competitions, all the talk about clubs being the lifeblood of the Association should be seen for what it is – it’s cheap.

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