Recently the condensed nature of GAA club championships in several counties has outraged club players and managers, with the establishment of a Club Players’ Association perhaps a sign that club players have finally had enough. Colm Honan asks whether the GAA is getting its priorities right.
It is hard to dispute that TG4’s Mícheál Ó Domhnail and his team do a wonderful job in presenting live GAA club games every Sunday towards the latter end of the calendar year. Often fighting inclement weather, the TG4 crew provide insightful analysis on what are generally enthralling encounters. There are no studio touchscreens nor flashy visuals. They do not conduct their analysis from a box overlooking a glistening Croke Park in high summer. This is GAA coverage at its purest. Viewers of the club action on Sunday afternoons will testify as to the excitement of the games and the level of skill on display. The annihilations that have become such a common theme in the inter-county provincial series are mostly a distant memory in the run-up to Christmas, when the club competitions take centre stage. One point margins of victory are becoming a much-welcomed norm.
Each year an overriding sentiment develops among the media that the club action is indeed worth the attention it receives, and perhaps even more. That maybe the players, coaches, volunteers and supporters involved with these teams deserve more.
Needless to say, this inclination is well and truly extinguished by the time spring appears, when the National League takes centre stage. Club activities once again become a fly in the ointment for the GAA hierarchy.
The makeup of the GAA calendar shows a clear disdain towards the club championships. Most formats are as follows: two/three club championship games in the month of April, followed by a break of three to four months, rounded off with what could be up to four or five games in six weeks to decide the outcome. The Dublin championship resumed just six days after their All-Ireland win against Mayo. For most club players, the summer is spent playing uncompetitive league and cup games. These matches are often contested with weakened outfits, bereft of the teams’ star players. Numbers at training decrease and levels of competition in the squad drop dramatically. Every inter-county match is accompanied with the possibility of club championship the following week if the result is negative. There is no room for planning. Club players are at the mercy of county results and erratic fixture scheduling leaves them in a state of limbo where they are unable to plan holidays, work and social outings. If this situation is unacceptable for club players, it is almost worse for inter-county athletes.
Following what is an intense summer campaign of training and matches, they are then expected to carry a significant load for their club sides. This mental and physical burden is unsustainable. A favourable run for a club side in their provincial competition can lead to a situation where players may find themselves playing twelve months of the year without a break – notwithstanding work, study and family commitments. Players barely have time to draw breath. The toll rests most heavily on young stars who must be all things to all teams with school, third level and club coaches as well as senior and underage inter-county managers knocking at their door.
Three weeks ago, former Monaghan selector Declan Brennan announced plans to establish a representative body for club players. The Club Players Association (CPA) would act on behalf of the thousands of club players, providing them with a voice in Croke Park. One wonders what impact this body will have adjacent to the juggernaut that is the GPA, the coffers of which were further replenished by the GAA earlier this year.
GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghaíl has commented on the issues facing club players, saying that he has “never hidden away” from the problems and is “more interested in solutions” – referring to the GAA’s new proposal to revise the provincial and qualifier series in a way that will shorten the season for many counties, relieving some of the pressure faced by county boards. These proposals, however, do not solve the issue of a club season running until St. Patrick’s Day and seem only geared towards generating more matches in the latter stages of the All-Ireland series.
Nevertheless, Ó Fearghaíl has pleaded with county boards to attempt to alleviate the congestion in club championships – and he has a point. This year Burt GAC, the Donegal intermediate champions, were forced to play their Ulster quarter-final a day after their county success. In Meath, where the county side exited the All-Ireland series in July, there was a seventeen-week break followed by three rounds of club championship in three weeks. Clearly there is a middle ground to be reached, and county boards must be smarter with their fixture planning.
With new figures showing a rapid decline in attendances at inter-county games (the average figure of 13,146 down markedly from 20,172 in 2007), there seems to be a consensus developing amongst ordinary members of the GAA on the need for change. The club players, who have been universally overlooked by the GAA, must be given consideration under any new proposals.