Irish Examiner columnist Oisín McConville didn’t need to call any whistleblower hotline to reveal a county had been training before Croke Park said on Friday that they could no longer turn a blind eye.
McConville, managing Monaghan’s Inniskeen Grattans, told the RTÉ GAA podcast on Friday: “I have had more conversations with (Monaghan manager) Seamus McEnaney in the last couple of weeks than I ever have, and I think it’s been more amicable because I think it has to be.
“A lot of the rhetoric I have heard around the country is there is a serious problem between inter-county managers and clubs. I’ve found it’s sort of flipped on its head in that the lines of communication have been open. Reading the (Irish Examiner) article Mike Quirke wrote and I know Mike quite well, I’m going to have to ring him and tell him he needs to get training quickly because everybody else is training.”
This column’s previous experience of telling Croke Park that a county was doing something they shouldn’t have been doing wouldn’t fill you with hope that there will be punishment.
Having said that, there was a genuine attempt made to punish those who broke the training camp rule two years ago, only for three of the 10 who were asked to explain themselves to be found guilty.
Possibly burnt by that, maybe that is why the GAA initially believed a soft-handed approach to ensuring the club window was the wisest course of action.
Maybe they felt the absence of insurance before September 14 would have been enough to put off counties. But no sooner had they insisted there would be no sanctions their stance was deemed flimsy by the teams that continued to dismiss it.
Croke Park’s decision to overlap the official start of inter-county training in mid-September with the end of the club window of October 11 was asking for trouble. It was too rigid a cut-off point and more like the unsophisticated winter training ban that was broken time and again during the late 2000s and early 2010s.
We see some sense in the argument that by insisting on September 14 the GAA prevented counties from finishing up their championships early to make way for inter-county preparations. At the same time, it was a convenient means of reducing the costs of readying inter-county teams.
Money has hardly been mentioned in the club versus county discourse these last few weeks but it most certainly is a central factor.
Despite the lockdown, Clare GAA treasurer Michael Gallagher last week spoke of the county board potentially going bust if inter-county team expenditure continues the way it is going.
Two years ago, current Munster GAA treasurer Dermot “Weeshie” Lynch, then Kerry treasurer in his 10th and final year, warned of the culture of spending on county teams.
“A train has left and it’s coming down the tracks unless we do something about it,” he warned. “There is no county board sitting down at the moment trying to control their costs. They are throwing everything at their inter-county teams. There is no let-up on the spend hoping to balance it on the other side and there is a place called ‘stop’ there because there is only so much you can bring in.”
Although they may stop now after Friday’s decision to crack down on counties who come together, the lack of cashflow hasn’t prevented them from training. It is hardly surprising that those counties who are most vocal about the club window being respected are those without money. As one inter-county management figure told us, their board would have no issue if they came back training in late September, never mind September 14.
But how much of that attitude to be first up and best dressed is propagated by on high? Lynch raised that point in 2018:
“You can look at every word but the one that keeps coming out at you is professionalism and everything we’re doing is professional. Croke Park wants us to carry ourselves well as inter-county teams, they want us to act professional at all times, they want us in interviews afterwards to be courteous, they want them to be articulate, it’s all professional, professional, professional. There’s Sky, there’s Eir Sport but the one thing they’re saying is that we’re still a voluntary organisation.”
September 14 was a cost-saving exercise as much as anything else but it has now become a existential line in the sand.
It shouldn’t have had to come to this; the GAA needn’t have been so reactionary and sensitive as they were to contravention and criticism last week.
Providing the earliest date at which county finals could take place would have been an idea.
It would have made it much easier to allow county players to return to training once their club championship commitments were over, which remains a sensible move.
Instead, Croke Park have been dragged into a battle not just to save clubs but face and money.
Don’t push clubs away from weekends
Expect a slew of streaming announcements to be made by county boards in the coming weeks as they attempt to claw back gate receipt money they will lose this year. In a time of necessity, such innovation should be applauded even though there will inevitably be cribbing about having to pay subscriptions to watch matches. Simply put, without such income many boards won’t be able to turn on the tap to wash their faces never mind scrub them.
The difficulty for counties is the agreement that the GAA has in place with broadcasters that no matches can be streamed at the same time as a game is being televised live on TV.
That stipulation hasn’t stopped counties like Mayo previously showing live games on their own monetised online TV platform, as much as that behaviour has been frowned upon by central GAA authorities.
You would like to think Croke Park would give the go-ahead to counties to broadcast matches when they so wish.
On the first weekend of the club window, TG4 are showing Dublin and Wexford SHC games (Ballyboden St Enda’s-Kilmacud Crokes on Sunday, July 19 and two days before Oulart-the-Ballagh and St Martin’s). Two tasty games on a relatively quiet opening few days but the pick grows from the following weekend.
Thursdays and Friday championship fixtures are already populating club schedules as clubs are showing a flexibility that isn’t replicated at county level.
Asked if Friday fixtures were a runner for the inter-county championships, GAA director of player, club and games administration Feargal McGill said: “We won’t be having Friday night fixtures for the very simple reason that we remain a volunteer association.”
Hopefully, clubs aren’t pushed away from weekends because of contractual obligations.
Retirement of two kinds as Shane Dowling and Daniel St Ledger exit stage
In the space of three days, and over four months away from a ball being pucked or kicked in the Championship, the inter-county scene lost two of its most impressive players to retirement.
The premature end to Shane Dowling’s career with Limerick was poignant and made even more so by how he articulated that sadness.
As outspoken as he is, it wasn’t surprising that he found the words to convey his thoughts, but as one of the most fun-loving players around the contrast in his demeanour last week when confirming his exit was stark.
Dowling is one of purest strikers of the ball, his free-taking technique a thing of beauty, and his ability to manufacture scores with low percentage opportunities (the almost drop shot goal v Tipperary 2014, the one-handed point v Kilkenny later that year, the overhead point against the Cats and then the goals in the 2018 All-Ireland semi-finals and finals) make him one of the greatest stickmen of his generation.
Dowling would probably look at Daniel St Ledger and think thst even though the Carlow stalwart won little in the way of silverware he was the lucky one, able to call time on his career after 13 years, five seasons more than the Na Piarsaigh man.
St Ledger might argue he would have preferred more of his time to have been on Broadway like Dowling but the dedication that was shown by the Kildavin/Clonegal man, given his Championship debut was a 20-point defeat to Meath in 2009, stands to his character.
Regardless of fortune or duration, both Dowling and St Ledger served their counties sterlingly.