Thankless task of the fixture planners

Last month, GAA president Liam O’Neill was asked about the annual difficulties county boards encounter with fixtures at the latter end of the year.

His response, aimed at the media, was frank. “People have nothing else to write about at this time of year, quite frankly. There’s more focus on it, as a result.

“Fixture-planning has to be done a full year in advance if it’s going to have an effect.”

Fixture-making in the GAA is an art often unappreciated, regularly ridiculed yet incredibly important. It’s a lonely gig too: committees may be appointed in counties but more often than not it can only be done by one or two people as a singular vision is required to arrange and organise what can be the most sophisticated of matrixes.

Over recent weeks and in those ahead, these men and women sit in front of the master fixtures list issued by the GAA and working their games around them with a ridiculous need to be rigid and flexible at the same time.

Free weekends are at a premium. By rule, the Championship proper can’t start until the second week in May. The All-Ireland finals are also set in stone.

For a county with a Division 1 hurling team with designs of reaching the final, by the start of May there are 12 weekends unavailable because of inter-county purposes. Another 15 or so can be crossed off by a combination of senior and U21 Championship activities, whether it’s game or preparatory weekends. That is without taking into account the demands of the senior manager.

From the second weekend in February until the second Sunday in September, there are 34 weekends — 37 until mid-October when the provincial club competitions begin.

Time truly is of the essence. That’s why O’Neill wants to put together an all-encompassing chart of just how much the inter-county programme eats into the year.

“I think people don’t fully understand until they see these things graphically illustrated,” he said last week.

He wasn’t referring to the Football Review Committee (FRC), at whose launch he made the comments, but he might well have been considering their proposal for counties to have all their senior and intermediate championship games up to and including semi-finals concluded by the first weekend in August. It was a short-sighted call by a group that have come up with a variety of excellent ideas. Getting a high volume of games completed by that stage isn’t practical and isn’t in the best interests of clubs. There is a laudable school of thought that stresses the longer a senior team remains in the championship, the better it is for the club. If that means adding a league section of the championship or other means of involving every club until late summer, then so be it.

Asking players to train for months on end for one game isn’t acceptable. Were the FRC’s recommendation to come in, a knockout club championship would be the norm everywhere.

The most aspiring and traditional counties are finding themselves planning club games with being in Croke Park in September. That way, they’re preparing more than hoping and should they fail to reach the zenith, at least their clubs could benefit as a result. However, such ambition can lead to issues. If players have emigrated to the US for the summer on the assumption the championship has been put on hold for inter-county activity, the county board can hardly bring forward fixtures in their absence.

And yet counties who don’t factor in for success also run into problems. Clare and the Munster Council shipped criticism for Cratloe having to play a county senior final the day before their provincial semi-final. Yet Clare hadn’t foreseen a situation where they would reach an All-Ireland final, never mind winning in a replay after a qualifier run that arrested their championships in both codes.

As O’Neill said last month: “At the start of the year, Clare didn’t know they were going to have an All-Ireland series run like they had, they didn’t know they were going to have an All-Ireland final replay. So that pushed things back. It’s a dual county and their hurling was done in time to play in the championship but football was delayed longer simply because players playing football were also committed to the hurling championship. That wouldn’t happen in too many counties. It was only a difficulty, not a crisis.”

Fixture planners’ jobs have been made that bit harder for next year by the delay in the confirmation of the national hurling league format. For all the negatives associated with the forthcoming structure, had the Carlow-Westmeath proposal been backed by Central Council earlier this month, it would have created a fixtures nightmare.

Their blueprint would have comprised eight round games followed by semi-finals, finals and relegation play-offs.

The rulebook states the competition has to be played over nine game weekends including finals. Carlow and Westmeath suggested one of the rounds could be played midweek. Even allowing for that, the commencement of their Leinster championship at the end of April would cause them quite a dilemma.

Cork have been playing midweek championship games for some time. Their fixture making is one of the most respected in the country helped by their ability to arrange big matches on weekdays because so many students are based in the county. Few other counties have that luxury. Then again, for a county with as many intricacies as Cork, they’re entitled to any semblance of wiggle room in their planning.

Emigration brings its own difficulties for counties like Cork as a dual county where amalgamated teams cause all sorts of problems. If, for example in Meath, a few football clubs come together to form a new hurling side, attempting to arrange a fixture that doesn’t impact their football schedules would be hellish.

O’Neill’s point about there being nothing else to write about at this time of the year is an interesting one. Are we so quick to point the finger when we in the media are consumed with the nourishment of the Championship during the summer? But that doesn’t excuse how much club players are being discommoded and disenchanted as fixture planners have to work their way around inter-county schedules, struggling to arrange them in tandem with the club scene.

Pile-ups and congestion will go on because more often than not, they can’t be helped. That’s what happens when there are 32 republics with their own idiosyncrasies.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Only the fixture planners truly know that. Only they fully understand the precipice they tether on trying to keep a county running.


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