Restricting the club championships within calendar year another success for the FRC

Move has been strongly supported by people associated with successful clubs like Crossmaglen and St Brigid’s

At Saturday's Central Council meeting dedicated to its second report, the Football Review Committee formally sailed into the sunset.

In the space of its two years the FRC has accomplished a great deal. At present its legacy proposal, the black card, is being enforced in the football championship and even if that enforcement has not been uniform it has played a major role in making calculated fouling less attractive for defenders.

It’s no secret that the second report, drawn up to try to improve structures rather than the actual playing rules, was a more theoretical exercise that didn’t fuel the same passions as the original, concerned as it was with improving discipline and making football a game that rewards skill.

But the task in the committee’s second report was just as difficult if not more so but the reward for success even greater. For all that tackling indiscipline has been a Sisyphean labour, in relation to club fixtures the rock hasn’t even been rolled up the mountain in the first place.

The planning and maintenance of a coherent fixtures programme has been a source of constant agonising for decades between the needs of ordinary club players and the demands of county teams and the inter-county landscape.

Long history

For instance a perfectly good initiative to prescribe extra time in early championship matches – in order to prevent or at least modify the fixtures mayhem that replays cause – was reversed because of the loss of revenue threatened to provincial councils.

The GAA has long identified the problem but simply failed to address it.

A desire to deal with the matter once and for all prompted the FRC’s second report. The reason why it proposed that the provincial championships resolve themselves into four eight-county competitions was a simple ambition to make the early rounds of the championship more symmetrical so that county championships could be more easily organised.

At the focus group meetings, which discussed the subject matter of FRC I, chair Eugene McGee in an advisory preamble said there was no point going to Congress or Central Council with ideas that were not going to be accepted.

That caution was effectively shelved when it came to the ‘four eights’ idea because championship structure is something that is zealously guarded and there was little chance that the annual parcelling out of what would almost invariably be weaker counties from the bigger provinces to the smaller ones would find favour.

Contesting a strange province’s championship would have been disorientating for the counties who found themselves in that situation whereas the competitive pay-out from weaker Leinster or Ulster counties being diverted into Munster or Connacht was uncertain.

In the thick of such concerns the motivation to make club fixtures easier to organise went largely unexamined.

One big idea that managed to capture the imagination was the restricting of the provincial and All-Ireland championships to the calendar year. This will be a major change to the GAA’s annual schedule.

For the last 28 years St Patrick's Day has been set aside for the senior club finals and the occasion has successfully supplanted the Railway Cup as a big attraction in Croke Park on the national holiday. it has become part of calendar.

From 2016 the All-Ireland finals will be held in December, possible under lights in Croke Park. Initial reaction might have been that the change will result in a diminished status for the finals but significantly the move has been strongly supported by amongst others, people associated with Crossmaglen Rangers and St Brigid’s, two of the more recent All-Ireland football champions.

The reasons are obvious. The status quo requires clubs and their players to hang around after winning the provincial title for two or three months, depending on whether they make the final or not. On top of the inconvenience and cost of keeping a club in training for that length of time there are the consequences for the county teams.

Antrim hurlers have been perennially stripped of top players because of the constant involvement of the county champions in the All-Ireland stages . Galway have much the same problem.

Significant proposal

Most importantly the move is calculated to force counties to organise a proper schedule of club matches throughout the summer or else be faced with the prospect of their champions not being ready in time for the provincial championships.

Another significant proposal that was accepted will see virtually all fixtures within the GAA monitored and co-ordinated by Croke Park’s CCCC.

Finally there was affirmation of the council’s desire to enforce the closed season regulations with sanctions for breaches.

“Such sanctions should include significant financial penalties,” runs the recommendation, “as well as formal reprimands to the county board officers. This includes not only ensuring inter-county panels abide by the regulated date for return to collective training but also at under-age ensuring that the panels are restricted to a maximum of three collective sessions – training and/or games – per week, as per the regulations.”

At senior inter-county level the rules are starting to become more consistently observed, but at minor and under-21 level – a particularly insidious breach, as players are less able to speak up for themselves – there have been widespread breaches.

All in all it has been a solid two years’ work for McGee and the FRC, which has also been an excellent template for how to take on difficult issues within the game.