Game for a fixtures puzzle?

Every year, in the run up to Christmas, Croke Park releases its Master Fixtures for the 12 months to come and more often than not it is digested and spat out by the masses within the blink of an eye.

With the All-Ireland championships three months in the rear view mirror, the next instalments six months away in the opposite direction, it is difficult to drum up much enthusiasm for a compendium of black and white fixtures.

And yet this document is the foundation on which everything else resides and one which requires almost constant attention.

The 2013 version will be released in the very near future but notes have already been taken with the 2014 calendar year in mind.

The process begins in earnest every June, or July at the latest, when the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) draws up the first of many drafts and a monumental amount of liaising, phone calls, e-mails and meetings follow suit before the final product can be signed off nearly six months later.

Among those who will leave most fingerprints on the finished product are the CCCC chair Simon Moroney, the four provincial secretaries, the GAA’s operations manager Fergal McGill along with Pat Doherty and Bernard Smith from Croke Park’s Games Administration department.

“The first thing to do is to emphasise the central importance of it to the Association,” says McGill. “Why is it so important? It is important because you have to plan at the national level before you can plan at the provincial level and you have to plan at the provincial level before you can plan at club level.

“Let’s be honest, people plan weddings and birthdays and all sorts of other things around the GAA fixture list.”

It is only right and proper then that a body of work which will impact every parish on the island should involve the input of so many disparate blocks of the association and the more you learn of its origins the more amazing its very existence appears.

Among those who must be consulted are various other GAA committees, Ladies Football, the Camogie Association, tv broadcasters, the AFL on those years where an International Rules Series is played and, of course, the provincial councils. But the depth of complexities don’t end there. If only.

Take the Allianz League fixtures. Some of the considerations there include the need to space out hurling and football weekends and allowances for Sigerson and Fitzgibbon campaigns and, when all that is done, the pairings are generated by a ‘matrix’ in Croke Park.

Then the counties get involved. Requests for Saturday games and specific throw-in times are tweaked into the system, not to mention missives from the likes of Warwickshire and London who require very specific times and dates for obvious reasons.

“The All-Ireland draws are made in October and we can start populating the summer months after that,” McGill explains. “The four provinces make dates in consultation with each other and a key part in all of it is television. RTÉ and TV3 show 40 live games so there is a lot of liaising with them so that we can work out three games per weekend.”

It’s an unbelievably delicate ecosystem and one that is at the mercy of outside events. Some, like the foot and mouth outbreaks in 2001 and 2007, are unforeseen. Others, like the odd concert in Croke Park, can be catered for but even they spark off a butterfly effect.

Take last year’s Eucharistic Congress at HQ, which fell bang in the middle of Leinster’s provincial campaign. Not only did Leinster have to move games, their three sister bodies were forced to do likewise so that there would be no logjam or, even worse, a gap in the market in terms of games and profile.

Who knows what next year will bring but, whatever it is, it will be added to the bank of knowledge for future use.

“If we didn’t learn from our mistakes we wouldn’t be doing our job,” says McGill of an undertaking where the only guarantee is that it is impossible to keep all of the people happy all of the time.

It could hardly be otherwise what with such an overloaded and multi-layered puzzle to solve and it is hardly any wonder that McGill talks of a “great sense of achievement” when it is completed for another year. And then it starts all over again.

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