Ulster must stand up for its valuable club competitions

It’s not just Unionists who have a deep-rooted pride in their northern identity. Ulster Gaels also possess a loyalty to their province which simply doesn’t exist in the other green fields.

Ulster must stand up for its valuable club competitions

Consider some of the organisations and events which exist in Ulster GAA circles.

There is the Ulster GAA Writers’ Association. There is no corresponding body in Leinster, Connacht or Munster. The same applies to The Ulster Colleges’ All Star Awards and The Irish News Ulster All Stars.

When guest speakers and dignitaries from the south attend the gala functions staged by these various groups, their reaction is always the same.

They look at the huge crowds. They note the sponsorship from blue chip companies and are routinely gob-smacked.

Not only does Ulster have a host of unique bodies and awards nights, it also has a set of club competitions which are not replicated in the south. The Paul McGirr Tournament run by the Dromore club in Tyrone is the de facto Ulster Club U16 Championship. St Paul’s in West Belfast hosts a competition widely acknowledged as the Ulster Club U18 Championship. More recently, Creggan in Antrim set up a competition which acts as the Ulster Club U21 Championship.

These competitions have become extremely prestigious. Which club doesn’t want their underage team to be crowned as the best in Ulster? Even if the competition doesn’t extend to an All-Ireland series, an Ulster title still carries huge cache.

It seems, however, that Ulster’s various underage competitions are facing a serious threat. A report by the Minor Review Workshop has identified the conflict that is being caused by these competitions. The Paul McGirr Tournament overlaps with four Ulster Colleges competitions which are run for the same age-group. The St Paul’s competition clashes with the MacRory Cup and the MacLarnon Cup. The Creggan U21 tournament forces players to make choices between county U21 squads and university teams. Something has to give.

The Minor Review Workshop found that 81% of its respondents had been pressurised by managers not to train or play for another team. The demands placed by such an intense schedule will inevitability increase the risk of injury due to over-training and insufficient recovery time. The concerns highlighted by the Minor Review Workshop are entirely valid, and if their recommendations are accepted at this year’s Annual Congress, the future of these various tournaments will be in considerable jeopardy. Chris Brown, chairman of St Paul’s, already reckons his club is “fighting a losing battle”.

As a member of Watty Graham’s Glen, I can talk from first hand experience on this issue. Last month, Glen won the St Paul’s Minor Tournament for the fourth year in a row. Our U21s are currently involved in the competition at Creggan. For the last three years, I have helped with our club’s U16 team. In 2013, we won the Derry U16 title and progressed to the Paul McGirr Tournament, where Crossmaglen beat us in the final. That experience with our U16s highlighted both the positive and negative aspects of these competitions. The effort and pride which the host club takes in running these events cannot be underestimated. It was humbling to witness.

On arrival for our first match in Dromore, the car park steward was Ryan McMenamin: the three-time All-Ireland medallist is the manager of his club’s U16 team. The proceeds from the Paul McGirr Tournament went to a charity in Zambia. Previous donations provided support for orphans and vulnerable children. After another game, Paul McGirr’s brother, Mickey showed me plans for the next project, a business enterprise unit. Members from the club flew to Lusaka in Zambia last spring. They put the roof on the new building. Enough said.

It was a privilege to be involved in the Paul McGirr Tournament. The downside of the competition affected our players. Our U16s and minors started their core training in January. Both squads trained together in the sports hall in St Patrick’s Maghera. The final of the Paul McGirr competition was held in November. That’s a long season. The tournament lasted almost two months as quarter-finals were staged over weekends. If our players were only involved with the U16 team, it would have been fine, but some of them were playing for St Patrick’s Maghera in the Rannafast Cup and the MacRory Cup.

Our best player, Conor Glass was playing for all three teams. He was the classic example of a player who was being pulled in three different directions.

The easy way to alleviate pressure on young players is to just scrap the club competitions. If wiped from the calendar, the Ulster Colleges will have a clear window and players will not have to choose between club and school.

However, it would be unwise to immediately jump to this nuclear option. St Paul’s have shown a decent working compromise can be reached from sitting down and talking with the Ulster Colleges’ Council.

Following discussions between the two parties, St Paul’s and the Ulster Colleges reached an agreement. The Ulster Colleges said they would complete the league stages of the MacRory Cup by the end of November, thereby giving St Paul’s all of December to run their tournament. Last year, the arrangement worked perfectly. This year it wasn’t just as smooth, but at least there was recognition from both parties that changes had to be made.

If the club competitions are to survive, expediency must become the priority. Replays must be abolished. A midweek preliminary round game, and the quarter-finals, semi-finals and the final, should be played off over three successive weekends. That’s one option. But the host club, and the players who might never play at a higher level, deserve a chance for new ways to be explored.

It would be highly disrespectful if Congress immediately consigned these competitions to the bin. There is no need for such rash conduct.

It would also be hypocritical. When faced with the dilemma of changing the lucrative inter-county calendar, the GAA came up with the ultra-cautious solution of bringing the All-Ireland final forward by a week. The needs of club players clearly don’t warrant unilateral decision-making when big bucks are involved.

If the GAA is prepared to exercise extreme hesitancy dealing with the inter-county calendar, it would be entirely inconsistent to act with such haste against these club competitions.

Also, let’s not forget the orphans in St Theresa’s Parish in Lusaka. They’ll also want the Paul McGirr Tournament to remain as a firm fixture in Ulster’s GAA calendar.

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