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Seán Moran: Once the GAA starts changing, there’s no going back

Is the split season a loss of a ‘promotional window’? Depends what you’re trying to promote

It’s less than six years ago now, but on the day of its launch in January 2017, the Club Players Association floated — through a personal comment by secretary Declan Brennan — the idea of finishing the intercounty All-Irelands by the August bank holiday.

How we laughed. The previous year, courtesy admittedly of a replay, the All-Ireland football final had taken place in October. The championship was as likely to conclude in early August as it was to be staged on Jupiter.

The reaction was a classic underestimation, not just of change, but the rate of change that has characterised the past two decades of the GAA.

It has also been a feature of the rapidly evolving intercounty championships that each step along the way of reform and experimentation has taken place with the assurances that if a format don’t work out, it can always revert to the way things were.


That, however, has never happened. Once you start changing there’s no going back even if finding a long-term solution takes time, trial and error.

There are many genuine and heartfelt objections to the impact of the current split season and the loss of August and September as dates for the biggest GAA occasions, but to what extent are they based on sentiment and how persuasive are they?

Without doubt All-Ireland finals in September were part of the brand. Early autumn and as Darragh O’Sé once reminisced, the fading of the light at training and the growing crowds in attendance signalling that the big day was coming: as much part of the season as covering schoolbooks and collecting conkers.

Things only change though generally when there is good enough reason plus a specific event to concentrate the mind.

The reason behind corralling the intercounty season into a much reduced calendar space was a wide perception that the balance between what was allocated to the county game and to the club activities of the vast majority of players was all wrong.

In 2013, Dublin’s reign of terror had scarcely started but at the end of the year, CEO John Costello made a disarmingly frank admission in his annual report.

“While Dublin have achieved great success in recent years at inter-county level in both hurling and football, to some degree, it has come at a cost to the club game and club players.

“In recent years, the inter-county calendar has dictated when we play our local championships. As a result, competitions often span half the season and finish in a sprint so that Dublin have representation in Leinster.”

This was no great epiphany and the same must have occurred in other counties but as long as the All-Ireland remained part of dewy-eyed autumn journals, there wasn’t going to be the room to do anything about it.

Croke Park has been rightly arguing all summer that judgment on the split season can’t happen until the full year has been assessed – the rush to deem it success or failure after the All-Ireland was over, a reflection of the old indifference to club activities

Covid was the event that concentrated minds. Remember, at the start of that benighted year the concept of a split season wasn’t even part of the recommendations advanced by the Football Calendar Review Task Force (FCRTF).

Not, you felt because the taskforce was wedded to its stated objections to the idea but that it was felt to be to be too radical to have a chance of acceptance.

That sense was itself radically altered later in 2020 when the club fixtures became the first activity permitted to return for the GAA and brought such a sense of release — even with the “behind closed doors” protocols — and local engagement.

County players trained with their clubs and local championships were played in the best of weather. By the following year’s annual congress, the split season was not only back in the recommendations but its adoption was all but guaranteed.

Croke Park has been rightly arguing all summer that judgment on the split season can’t happen until the full year has been assessed — the rush to deem it success or failure after the All-Ireland was over, a reflection of the old indifference to club activities.

So far, reaction is positive. Cork chair Marc Sheehan, who oversees the GAA’s biggest club schedules, said in these pages earlier in the week that the timetable was a vast improvement on the old stop-start model when fixtures ground to a halt only to be resurrected at the indeterminate point in the future when Cork teams made their annual exit.

Players get to take holidays in August or even July if they don’t reach an All-Ireland semi-final.

There will presumably be analysis of the negatives: the clashing with big events in other sports earlier in the summer and the consequent hit to coverage; whether the sudden drop-off in August and September has a profound impact on the profile of the association.

Realistically, that is unlikely. Attention switches from the big events in Croke Park to local events, spread around the GAA’s constituent counties. Once the All-Irelands were over, TG4 launched into their club coverage in August and by mid-September RTÉ had done likewise.

Obviously there isn’t the same interest in county championship matches as there is in the contests which fill big stadiums but there is all the same, a steady profile for Gaelic games.

Above all else, the split season appears to be achieving its objective of certainty for club players. There may be reservations about how some counties manage this process but the overall evidence is that it has been a big improvement.

The question now is to what extent the main competitions, which are also the financial engine of the association, have been bent out of shape by this realignment. Does the split season result in an unsustainable narrowing of the promotional window?

Before jumping to conclusions the GAA also needs to focus on what exactly it is promoting.