The common perception out there is that there’s hardly any adult club hurling or football going on and that the club never sees its county players.
Yet pick up this paper’s excellent club roundup supplement every Monday and you’ll see that’s not quite true.
Last weekend there was a full round of club hurling championship in Cork and Limerick. In football there was a full series of championship games in counties like Galway and Kildare. In Kerry, Bryan Sheehan’s South Kerry went head-to- head with Kieran Donaghy’s Austin Stacks in a county championship replay after the sides had slugged it out like every other club in the Kingdom the week before.
All around the country, there are counties that have already got at least one round of club championship in. Galway hurling has already got in four.
So, to put a slight twist on an early 1990s dance track that had sex in the title, People Are Still Playing Club. Although you can’t see them, or hear their breathing sounds, someone — even a county man — is playing club this very weekend.
What moaning you do hear loud and clear is that the club-county mix is off. A lot of the noise is justified. Right now everyone is disgruntled. Paul Galvin recently described this time of year as “purgatory”. He loved playing the league because the games came tough and hard and thick and fast. Then there was this desperate lull before championship started, and even longer again before the first real test of the summer, the Munster final.
“Ten or 12 weeks without a game of any real substance?” It’s something, he says, “I never fully got my head around.” A full month on since the championship started and we’ve yet to have a game that has fully satisfied or absorbed us. The clubs, we keep being told, haven’t seen their county players though a lot of them have. In too many cases players are trying to accommodate both and falling between the two stools.
Declan Bogue of the Belfast Telegraph recently highlighted the case of Fermanagh’s standout midfielder Eoin Donnelly.
A little over three weeks out from their first-round game against Antrim, Fermanagh played a challenge against Derry, Pete McGrath understandably wanting a game to bridge the gap between league and championship. That challenge match was on a Thursday. On the Friday Donnelly played a league game with his club. On the Sunday he played another. Not surprisingly, his fatigued hamstring gave way, meaning it was one big squeeze for him to line out on May 15.
For Bogue it was a glaring example of poor player welfare and the need for a separate club and county season. Clare captain Gary Brennan in these pages has called for something similar.
Although he has played in four of Clondegad’s six league games this year and has hurled a round of club championship for Ballyea, he feels he hasn’t enough time with them. The only time you really fall back in with the lads is when the county is out of the championship, and before you know it, the club could be too.
Paudie Butler has advanced in these pages the case for a couple of dedicated club windows in the year, like rugby creates for its international teams. Maybe have the county play the league from mid-February to early April; most club pitches early in the year can’t take much action anyway. Then let the county players back to the club for about a month. In mid-May, they go back to the county where they’re playing every second weekend, minimum. By July everyone bar the All-Ireland semi-finalists could be back with their clubs. Before August is over everyone could be back.
Everyone could win that way. The couple of the younger lads in the club could head off to America after those early few games without feeling guilty or missing out on that rite of passage, and still be back for when it really cranks up. Older players and mentors with families could plan holidays without having to postpone them on the account of a certain result of the county’s.
The wait for a championship game doesn’t have to be so insufferable. Butler has also observed: “Whatever the top team in the parish is, they’re the heartbeat of the parish. Because if they’re training, the kids will be in the field and they’re learning a way of life and this culture. If that team gets beaten early, the field can go dead.”
It’s why we never got commentators bemoaning that most county quarter-finals weren’t run off prior to August. Why let so many parish fields go so dead so early?
The club field can be occupied almost every summer evening, just not as we currently know it. In other sports, the summer, the off-season, is the time players go away and individually develop their own game. For GAA county players there is no real off-season. You might have some downtime in the winter but it’s difficult to work on that weaker foot as you contend against the biting cold, wind and rain.
But look at the weather now, how long and bright the evenings are.
More clubs could do with a change in mindset. Instead of counting down the days, they could make the days count. Back in 2012 when I was working with Mayo, there was an eight-week gap between league and championship.
Cillian O’Connor decided in that window he’d develop into a dead-eye taker of ‘45s; up to then his range from the ground didn’t extend that far. By the first round of the championship he still wasn’t quite there. But a win that day bought him another three weeks and in the Connacht final with three minutes to go he kicked a 45 to put Mayo ahead for the first time.
In the All-Ireland semi-final he kicked Mayo’s three first scores, all into Hill 16, all 45s, all because he decided to make the days count.
Club players can do something similar. Say you played a round of championship in the past fortnight and aren’t out for another two months. What a great window to identify some aspect of every player’s game. Sure wasn’t it in these eternal days as kids lads were out hitting and kicking the ball in the first place, before work and mindless collective training ate into everyone’s time and childlike enthusiasm?
As bad a rep as county managers have and as romantic a notion as there is of the club, the truth is a lot of club managers have no loftier motives. They too want their pound of flesh. They want the county player not so much for what they can do for the county player but what the county player can do for them.
So, if you’re one of those coaches now without your county players, stop bitching and start coaching. Not how to bed in a sweeper system but how to shoot.
Instead of bemoaning the absence of your current county players, produce future ones.
If you’re a club footballer, you don’t have to spend the summer kicking your heels — you can be out kicking footballs, with your weaker foot.
If you’re a club hurler, leave down the violin and get out the hurl — this is the summer you could finally point on the run off your weaker side from 50 yards.
It’s not so much the grassroots that can get forgotten over the summer as the basics can. Let the grassroots return more to the basics.
A period of supposed inactivity is a great window of opportunity.