GAA not convinced that separating club and county seasons would work
Suggestions that distinct calendars would benefit club activities seen as impractical
Harry Ladd scores a goal for Lucan Sarsfields against Na Fianna in the Dublin SFC group stage last week. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
As the GAA grapples with the first April of the club-first experiment, there have been calls for the association to consider the complete separation of club and county schedules.
Among the recommendations of the Towards 150 report (the committee established to foresee the challenges of 2034, the association’s 150th anniversary) which controversially isn’t due to be published by the GAA, is a proposal that the two seasons be distinctly scheduled.
“The widespread practice of prohibiting county players from playing and training with their clubs has resulted in the deferral of club fixtures,” according to the report, “impacting on players by further extending their season. Currently, individual county boards have the authority to make decisions for their respective counties to ensure that club players can be offered a fair schedule of club games.
“Provincial Councils, too, have the power to undertake a games audit and to examine the fixtures programmes in each of the counties under their jurisdiction. Therefore, it should be emphasised, mechanisms already exist to ensure that club players are given fair and equitable opportunities to play games during agreed periods.
“However, close scrutiny and actions taken in response to breaches of county fixture lists are not been taken by the appropriate authorities within the association.”
The report then suggests its solution.
“. . . in order to enhance the playing experiences of club players, it is imperative that the association creates separate and distinct playing seasons for inter-county and club championships in order to provide a regular and meaningful schedule of games for all players and, in turn, recognises the important on-going work taking place in this regard at the time of writing [November 2017].”
At the weekend, former Dublin player and Wicklow manager Johnny Magee, now coaching his club Kilmacud Crokes, made a similar suggestion after his team had beaten 2016 All-Ireland champions Ballyboden St Enda’s.
“For me you need two separate seasons where you define the season: play your county season and then play your club season. We need to sit around a table and thrash whatever is out – I don’t think that has really happened yet.”
Feargal McGill, the GAA’s Head of Games Administration, sees the attraction of the idea but has reservations about how it could be implemented.
“I’m just not sure that it’s practical. What we’re doing at the moment is a roundabout way of addressing the problem, trying to have separate periods of the year, which are club-only and county-only. One problem is that there’s an understandable desire to play fixtures in the best weather and how can that be accomplished by having two separate seasons?
“Would it be ideal to have a complete season for club and another for county? Absolutely, but this year we will have 24 club weekends and 24 inter-county weekends. There are two blanks at the end of December so we’re effectively looking at two six-month blocks. I’ve yet to meet anyone who wants to see the All-Ireland played in the last week of June or the last week in December.”
McGill is currently monitoring the experimental fixtures calendar, which has been introduced on a three-year trial, and which includes the designation of April as a month, prioritising club activity.
“It’s just started and so we’re essentially keeping the heads down and watching how the various counties get on with their fixtures schedule. I’m certain that it will be an improvement on the situation up until now.”
There have though been complaints that in counties with early championship dates in May access to players hasn’t been in line with expectations. The provincial hurling championship’s new round-robin format means an early start for all counties whereas the Connacht football championship’s stand-out fixtures sees All-Ireland finalists Mayo and league runners-up Galway facing each other in less than four weeks.
“I wouldn’t let exceptions colour the overall perception. When we get a picture of how this has worked in its first year, we can look at ways of addressing the issues that arise. But there’ll be less than there were. We have gone from 16 club-dedicated weekends in 2016 to 24 this year.”
He is also unhappy with references to the small number of county championship fixtures being played.
“I’m angry about that because that was never the intention for April. At the launch of the national fixtures schedule last autumn, it was specifically stated that there was unlikely to be that many championship matches played but that with the inter-county calendar pulled back, there will be a lot more room for counties to play championship in July and August.
“We always accepted that championships can’t make serious progress in April. What Dublin are doing with the football is a good example. They’re playing group matches, which means clubs have their county players but no-one’s getting knocked out at this stage.”