Seán Moran: Resistance to new structure isn’t helping club crisis

Fact Wicklow champions had to play twice in 24 hours doesn’t prove the new calendar is failing

St Patrick’s players celebrate after defeating Rathnew in the Wicklow senior final Replay at Joule Park, Aughrim, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Inpho

St Patrick’s players celebrate after defeating Rathnew in the Wicklow senior final Replay at Joule Park, Aughrim, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Inpho

 

Years ago, an early pioneer of sports psychology in Gaelic games was approached by a team in the hope that he’d give them “an oul’ talk” in the run-up to a big match.

He tried to explain that sports psychology was a process and that once-off talks no matter how searing the insight or rousing the inspiration, weren’t really practical. You wouldn’t for instance, he explained, ask a physical trainer to come in for a solitary session to get overweight players match fit.

I remember thinking back then that this was ambitious – not so much the idea that psychological preparation needed to be taken seriously but selling the notion that any worthwhile solutions take time.

The GAA is hardly a unique environment in its demands for instant results but it has a tendency to raise the temperature on such demands by taking so long to address persistent problems.

Club fixtures have become an obvious example of this. It is decades since the issue began to make what would become frequent appearances in the annual reports of the director general but only comparatively recently has there been a concerted effort to address the problem.

Intractable problem

As might be expected with such a long running and intractable problem, progress has been slow and quick fixes have proved impossible despite growing impatience in the broader GAA community.

Last weekend’s fiasco, which forced Wicklow champions St Patrick’s to take the field in the Leinster championship less than 24 hours after winning the county title has cast the whole club scene in a very poor light, but is it a fair reflection on recent moves to improve the club schedules?

In recent years the GAA has untangled age grade fixtures with a view to preventing fixtures at one level spilling over into the schedules of others. Minor matches can’t for instance now hold up senior schedules.

This year’s new calendar contracted the inter-county season by a fair amount, clearing virtually all of April, ending the All-Irelands two weeks early with all of the knock-on effects that entailed, for instance only four counties still involved in championship by the second weekend in August.

Club Players Association chair Micheál Briody was largely fair in his RTE interview at the weekend, commending the shortening of the inter-county season and raising question marks over the effectiveness of declaring April a club month – echoing criticism on this point from the CPA’s inter-county equivalent, the GPA – but it would be hard to agree with him on two points: his assertions that the new measures introduced in 2018 “have been worse for the club player than in previous years” and that the about-turns on Newbridge and Páirc Uí Chaoimh proved Croke Park capable of quick decisions.

The latter were simply climb downs in the face of public opinion and involved nothing more complex than making venues available – as opposed to the at times Sisyphean task of rolling fixture solutions up the mountain.

A national assessment needs to be completed but the statement released by the Wicklow county executive on Tuesday suggests that the suggested deterioration of club schedules is not universally the case. In defending itself against criticism concerning scheduling of the football final the local organisation make a number of points.

Underlying the whole problem was the perfect storm of a replay, the involvement of some of the Rathnew players with the Glenealy team contesting the hurling final and the absence of a suitable floodlit venue to host a midweek fixture.

Should it have happened? Of course not. Draws mightn’t have been regular occurrences in Wicklow finals but they’re hardly long-odds outcomes in club football matches during the autumn.

But it is an over-simplification to point at the date on which the county exited the qualifiers, 9th June, and to extrapolate from that, that there had been no improvement in club fixtures.

As the county statement pointed out, the football championship was organised on a round-robin basis this year, increasing from two to five the number of guaranteed matches for each club.

Overhang of fixtures

In accordance with the clubs’ wishes the league was concluded before the championship in order to prevent what had become an annual overhang of fixtures into the late autumn. The vast majority of these fixtures also featured clubs’ county players, another departure.

In other words football activity in Wicklow was a good bit more extensive than the previous year.

Reviewing club fixtures’ programmes is only part of the task facing the GAA centrally in the coming weeks, as the inter-county formats introduced this year are also being assessed with a view to proposing tweaks for next year’s calendar. These proposals will go to Central Council at the end of November.

The inter-county schedules with their trialling of round-robin matches in both the football and hurling championships have a major bearing on the games calendar overall and by extension on club programmes.

Initial indications are that the group format at the All-Ireland football quarter-final stage – the Super 8s – for all the question marks over it in terms of crowds and venues had little enough impact on the clubs whereas the provincial hurling format, which produced the centrepiece of what has been acclaimed as one of the best championships in history created significant difficulties for local fixtures.

As with any ongoing process it’s too early to say with confidence that the new measures introduced this year will in time solve the fixtures’ issue but it’s equally impossible to be certain of their failure.

smoran@irishtimes.com

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