Brian Malone really noticed the impact of Wexford’s split season after he had retired from the county footballers last January. As well as a 16-year career, which earned him multiple plaudits on his departure, he has been a busy club player.
Like many in the county, he turns out for the hurlers and footballers in his club Shelmaliers and has won a county title in both codes in the past two years.
He reflects a consensus in Wexford, which is an intensely active dual county, that the decision to run the hurling and football championships consecutively rather than concurrently — a split season within the split season — has been a great success.
“You’re playing in the summer, which is when you want to be playing. I probably didn’t realise it as much when I was involved with the county team that club players are just lying idle, waiting for us to get back so that championship could start.
“The split season means games when the weather’s fine. In Wexford, we pretty much have a match every week and we’re playing the one game, which is very positive.”
Shelmaliers begin the defence of their football title the week after next and lost their hurling quarter-final to Naomh Éanna, who they beat in the 2020 final, a fortnight ago.
This weekend’s hurling final between St Aidan’s of Ferns and St Martin’s sees the former in pursuit of a first county title and the latter, county champions three years ago, battling injuries to their two star players, county hurlers Rory and Jack O’Connor.
If any club could survive such setbacks it’s probably Martin’s, many of whose players have represented the county at under-age.
Since Oulart last claimed the county in 2016, the winners have all been dual clubs with nearly entire starting line-ups in common between football and hurling.
County chairman Micheál Martin says that the structure will be subject to review before November’s county board meeting. He doesn’t feel that the actual split is contentious but other aspects are of some concern.
“The players’ feedback is nearly unanimously positive. We are due to complete a fairly comprehensive review of the structure in advance of our November county board meeting. The big talking point isn’t so much the split season for us although there are some reservations, which I share to a degree, like that we’re finishing our hurling very early.
“We’re also handing a big gap to the footballers, a wait of seven or eight weeks until the football championship starts. There aren’t that many issues, however, and as I say the reaction from players and supporters has been very positive.”
He is also worried about the tightness of the schedules.
“We started our championship 10 days after we were knocked out by Clare. The clubs switched to two groups of six rather than four threes, which we had last year but that was for the best of reasons — more games. Lee Chin said on Wexford TV that his club (Faythe Harriers) had a lot of young players and that they had definitely improved because of the extra games rather than the tighter four threes.
“But extra weekends are hard to source.”
Last year Rapparees won a first county hurling 43 years but their football wing Starlights were narrowly defeated in the quarter-finals. Brian Malone sympathises with the pressure that level of dual involvement brings
“The Rapps had a long wait for the Leinster championship. It’s hard to keep things going over that long a period when you’re playing football at the same time. Maybe they would have liked to play football first and then hurling but I don’t know.”
Waterford, though, run a similar structure in their county championships and despite the long gap Ballygunner came through to win not only Munster but the county’s first All-Ireland.
It’s not, however, comparing like with like. The Waterford champions would have trained through the weeks when the football was being played as they don’t have the same dual player issue.
Rapparees coach Declan Ruth made the point to The Irish Times after their surprise defeat by Laois champions Clough-Ballacolla in the Leinster championship all of 11 weeks after winning the county that it’s not just the loss of focus caused by much the same players switching to football but others, who play different sports which are in full cry by the time provincial championships start.
One of their most important players Nick Doyle was playing rugby with Enniscorthy and because the match was switched to Saturday to accommodate television, a clash of fixtures cost Rapparees his presence.
For Malone, the trade-off is worth it for clubs, who in his opinion are happy to compete for the county title and more relaxed about the province.
“It’s hard to have it both ways. Hurling clubs want to go first so they can play in the summer but the downside is a big lay-off going into Leinster.”