Seán Moran: Flaws revealed to date unlikely to derail GAA split season

Judgment will depend on success of season for club players and not inconvenience for intercounty game

A quick survey of opinion around the provinces on how the calendar year season is progressing now that the provincial action is entering its final week. There were of course the predictable spoilers: it’s a bit early to say, come back at the end of the year.

It’s not like I want to open the oven and check how the souffle’s doing – there, I told you. It’s a mess! The broad point being made is that a schedule designed to benefit club players can best be assessed when their season is over.

The weekend’s provincial football finals produced a fair degree of dissent. Saturday’s Munster and Leinster matches were indicted for lack of competitiveness, an ongoing issue for both provinces, made all the more disappointing in the latter case because of the belief or hope that Kildare had closed the gap on Dublin.

To an extent the matter is moot because by next year the round-robin format will be in place and the only significance of the provincial championship beyond deciding the title winners will be to filter counties into the relevant Sam Maguire and Tailteann Cup groups.

Connacht and Ulster provided competitive finals and although aesthetic concerns were raised about Clones, Derry supporters didn’t appear to mind.

The Tailteann Cup has been deemed a success on its exposure to date with Carlow and Leitrim providing some fairytale narrative going into the quarter-finals.

There were also scheduling issues and Croke Park is suffering a lot from this in 2022. On Saturday, the football was up bang against Leinster’s European rugby agonies with a slightly less pressing tailback for those interested in getting to a screen to view the soccer equivalent.

This Saturday, Galway supporters face the rigours of a cross-country trip to Dublin for a seven o’clock throw-in if they are to be present for the Leinster hurling final, followed by the return journey, which will take them late into the night. It’s patently unfair and with consequences for the attendance, now likely to be little more than 25,000.

On one level this is just bad luck. Having an Irish team in the rugby final combined with one of the highest-profile English soccer clubs contesting the champions league title is unlikely to be a recurrent problem.

Not that it shouldn’t be avoided where possible but in recent years, the demands of broadcasters as well as the reluctance of gardaí to entertain afternoon matches if at all preventable on Saturdays have meant evening starts for most championship fixtures.

Indications from the provinces have been that attendances have held up quite well compared with the pre-pandemic totals. Ulster has suffered because the previously leisurely progress of its football championship has been sped up and spectators are picking and choosing their fixtures but crowds at the semi-finals were good and Sunday’s final was a sell-out.

Other provinces are happy enough even if Saturday’s Leinster finals (men and women) drew 40,000, a drop of 7,000 on the Dublin-Meath final in 2019. Munster hurling is up but the province’s football is down.

There is also an undercurrent of resentment about the crash-bang-wallop speed of the schedules and the phrase most in use is that ‘the GAA look like they want to get it (the championship) over as soon as possible’.

Well, in a way they do. The purpose behind the split season is to give club players a decent uninterrupted run at summer activities and that necessarily means curtailing the intercounty calendar.

As we are frequently reminded that 97 or 98 per cent of players operate exclusively in the club environment.

As one official put it: “The split season is intended to give the club player a better structured championship programme and we need to assess those merits at the end of this season and not pass judgement on the basis of half the intercounty season.”

There are mixed signals as to how much use the counties will make of this extra time for their club competitions but for the most part the weeks in August are being used if not always for championship. Players taking holidays is one of the issues raised but surely allowing space for that is one of the key benefits of the split season.

A player will in future be able to book holidays for June or July in the definite knowledge that they won’t be missing a significant club match after its original date was suddenly changed by a fortnight because the county had a replay that weekend.

Of course if anyone wants to holiday in August, they can go ahead but they aren’t going to be misled by a fixtures schedule changing at the drop of a hat. July is more of an issue because of inactivity.

Any county with ambition is going to defer championship until the end of that month but those who don’t do as well as they had hoped, like Waterford, end up with a couple of tumbleweed months after an unexpectedly early intercounty exit.

It may well be that some tweaking will be agreed before a new fixtures calendar is finalised with officials open to the idea of expanding the All-Ireland season into early August to allow the championship a little more time to breathe and because only four counties at most are involved in the finals.

Then there is also some scepticism that the current 100-day window will be adequate when the round-robin format kicks in next year and that remains to be seen.

But in the likely event that the club season prove a success, there’s little prospect that the deficiencies revealed so far in the intercounty programme will lead to the project being abandoned.