Paddy Kelly: Cork have one hand tied behind their back but are not strait-jacketed

The April fools were the GAA clubs which believed ‘club month’ would be a ring-fenced opportunity to inject momentum back into the grassroots. Our new columnist Paddy Kelly believes the first step towards correcting the Association’s biggest headache is to hand April back to the inter-county scene. Now read on...

Paddy Kelly: Cork have one hand tied behind their back but are not strait-jacketed

So how was the GAA’s first ever club month of April for you? And will it be the last? Such has been the criticism of its purpose and implementation from all sides it would be wise to take stock and ask ourselves for whom exactly does the new fixture calendar work?

For the best part of a decade, I was like every other inter-county player who hardly played a league game for my club, showed up for training on the Tuesday of championship in early May and promptly vanished again until the Tuesday before the next round, more often than not in August. Playing alongside two of my brothers in Ballincollig meant I was acutely aware of the frustrations and unfairness the ordinary club player faced during the summer.

As 2016 concluded, the Club Players Association (CPA) emerged, giving a welcome jolt of life to the debate on the issue of club fixtures. The clear and simple mantra of “Fix the Fixtures” would have struck a chord with every member of the GAA, whether in a playing, coaching or at an administrative capacity.

It is widely accepted that the overlapping inter-county and club seasons has not worked and is becoming more unsatisfactory from a club player’s point of view. A recent poll conducted by the CPA showed that an overwhelming 89% of the 3,959 respondents would like to see designated periods for club, inter-county and college so that there is no overlap. It was, therefore, both disappointing and insulting to clubs when Páraic Duffy led a change to the inter-county championship structures without due respect given to the effects it would have on the club scene. Incremental changes to the GAA season will not solve the problem of fixtures. It will only be solved by the suits in Croke Park sitting down in one room at the same time with the Gaelic Players Association (GPA), CPA, third-level colleges and organisers of the U20 competitions.

The ‘club’ month of April in Duffy’s plan has caused great debate and confusion. The scenario for a workable club month would have required a guarantee from Croke Park that inter-county players not only play a match every weekend with their clubs, but also train twice a week for the entirety of the month. Strangely, Dublin appears to be only county to have abided by the original intentions, though that may say more about how far ahead of the chasing pack they are, but that’s for another day. I read with interest recently that new GAA president John Horan has appointed ex-Connacht Council president Mick Rock as the chairman of the new National Club Committee. I hope one of Mick’s first phone calls was to CPA chair Micheál Briody.

Over the past few months Colm O’Rourke, Joe Brolly and Mike Quirke have passionately and effectively outlined the great shortcomings and injustices that exist for the ordinary club player. In my opinion, they are doing our games and players a great service by using their national platform to highlight the inequalities that exist within the organisation and by challenging those in a position of power to back up their promises and implement satisfactory change. The CPA has clearly upped the ante in terms of gathering feedback from players in relation to future nuclear action. It is undoubtedly a road no player wants to go down but are they willing to just grin and bear another three years of split seasons and fixture uncertainty?

The bottom line is that the inter-county season needs to be further condensed (which can be done quite easily) allowing all clubs to plan for the start of their championship once their county is eliminated. The aforementioned CPA poll showed that 72% of respondents were not happy with the organisation of club fixtures in their county. I would be shocked if any of the other 28% were from dual counties. The current system where dual counties are forced to start their club championships in April to ensure completion for provincial club championships is farcical.

This year, we won the first round of SFC against Ilen Rovers on April 15. The proposed date for our next round is July 29. Just a 15-week gap! That’s presuming both Cork teams have the worst summers possible. This means we essentially have two seasons in one year. Most clubs will take a break before returning in May for a second pre-season. Can you tell me of another competition in any sport where this ludicrous situation exists? The new championship re-structure suits some counties just fine. Clubs in predominantly single-code counties can begin their leagues as late as March or April and still have time to implement a championship structure that suits the needs of players.

Take Armagh for example; this year they began their club leagues at the beginning of April and play a minimum of 14 games, finishing in early August. To ensure that the league is taken seriously and of value to clubs, teams will be seeded, based on their final league positions. A championship draw will then take place, with groups of four teams guaranteeing three championship games per team followed by straight knockout. An outstanding system and a clear and definite fixture list for club players to look forward to. This to me is as close as I’ve heard to the ideal championship structure.

Given the dual status of so many clubs in Cork, it is challenging trying to progress every competition at the same pace with dual clubs to consider, but add in the fact that some players play hurling and football with different clubs and one can appreciate the complications they face.

Some of that mess is of Cork’s own making. Nineteen clubs is a ridiculously large and odd number of clubs to be playing senior football, creating a damaging lack of competitiveness. There should be between 12 and 16 clubs operating at senior level, with the threat of relegation every year.

Compare that to the cut-and-thrust of the Kerry championship, where just eight teams compete for the senior club championship. The championship model adopted by Dublin this year is one which Cork should surely consider for 2019. The four weekends in April were taken up by two rounds of hurling and two rounds of football. The 16 senior teams were split into four groups of four, with final group game to be played after Dublin’s All-Ireland campaign ends. The top two advance to the quarter-final with the bottom four teams entering a relegation battle. (There are drawbacks to every system and the danger with this one is that a team could lose two league games in April and have only a relegation battle to prepare for).

Also in Cork, the presence of the two colleges is, in the modern era, counter-productive to the development of the game. UCC and CIT tend to be well represented by non-Cork players. Surely, our divisions — and, as a result, the county — would benefit from the local Cork players representing their own divisions instead of their colleges. In many cases, of course, players’ hands are tied due to scholarship obligations. What also deserves mention is the fact that both colleges have been very generous with their facilities to Cork teams, at both adult and underage level and an official partnership should be sought to negate the absence of an adequate centre of excellence in the short term.

It should be noted that Cork GAA has always endeavoured to keep the club championships ticking over during the summer, in contrast to the approach in other counties

where county boards bow to the demands of inter-county managers and clubs shut down completely during the best weather months of the year. In 2012, we defeated Kildare in an All-Ireland quarter-final on August 5 to set up a semi-final clash with Donegal just three weeks later on August 25. A week after that quarter-final win, there were five round-four games in the Cork football championship involving many members of that Cork team. I’m not blaming those fixtures for our defeat, but when you consider Donegal players didn’t play a single minute with their clubs that summer it does provide you with an idea of the difficult decisions facing the Cork fixture makers.

There’s been some progress. The leagues, which used conclude late in the autumn and winter, will now finish mid-July. This will eliminate teams struggling to field in dead rubbers after their championship season has concluded. I can look forward to a summer where, between the middle of May and the middle of July, we will play seven league games to add to the three already played.

The condensing of the inter-county season is a no-brainer. As a recently retired player, I know that every inter-county player would rather a shorter season. The All-Ireland football final should be played on the August Bank Holiday weekend with the hurling final a week or two before that. Surely the returning of the unsatisfactory April club month to inter-county action would be a fairer and more logical step. The arguments against such a move are predictable: Losing August and September as a shop window for our games, a loss of income from sponsorship and TV revenue, providing an advantage to rival sports. All of this is either utter nonsense or a disconnection from the GAA’s stated aims.

There’s no doubt that every club in Ireland has benefitted from the income that has trickled down from full houses in Croke Park, Thurles, et al and from the many sponsorship and TV deals the GAA has negotiated, but the state-of-the-art gyms, all-weather floodlit pitches and hurling alleys are of little comfort to clubs who are losing young adult players in their droves because of the lack of a proper playing structure. To the argument that handing over August and September is sacrilegious, I believe the opposite is true. The respect and loyalty the GAA will gain from its members and players at the grassroots level will have an incredibly powerful and positive impact on our games.

Maybe I’ve grown too cynical and moves are afoot to bring the CPA in from the cold and begin discussions to find a solution that works for everyone. The GAA hierarchy has an obligation to listen to the masses and I hope they do.

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