Have we created a monster with new underage structure?
I REMEMBER being terrified as a kid when I first saw the Frankenstein movie. I had always thought Frankenstein was the actual monster only to find out that he was the doctor who created it. A monster made of different bits of other humans and meant to be the perfect being.
Well, the perfect being turned into a real monster which had to be destroyed. It took me a long time to lose my fear of monsters but fifty years later I hope it's not about to return. The cause? The new underage structure that has been inflicted on the GAA in Cork in the name of progress.
Yes, we all knew there were faults with the old divisional system but in the main it was basically sound and merely needed a little tweaking here and there to improve it. Instead of an injection it was decided by the powers that be that major surgery was required and so it transpired. The old divisions were totally done away with and new regions introduced which are supposed to lead us to the Promised Land in underage GAA where all would be bliss. Many promises were made to entice clubs to vote for the new system, which they did, but most of those promises have since turned to ashes and what we are staring at here in Cork is a complete collapse of underage games.
No, I'm not exaggerating.
Let's have a look at some of the promises that were made. Number one was a more co-ordinated, structured fixtures schedule for the whole county, with all regions playing the same age groups at the same time and on the same nights. Reality shows that the schedule is now worse than ever as each region is doing its own thing and picking their own nights for their own competitions. A club that has teams in different regions, like my own club Clonakilty for example, which has teams in three different regions, now find various age groups clashing on the same night. The new schedule also included blocks of football and hurling, three weeks each, but that is being totally ignored by the various regions, which is leading to clashes between both codes.
Also causing chaos for clubs is the incredible decision to play all leagues, from U10 right up to minor, nine different age groups, at the same time of the year, from March to June. The result is that many clubs are stretched to the limit to field teams and many have withdrawn from competitions. At the last meeting of the East Region, clubs were ordered to have all league games, football and hurling, at U13 and U14, finished by June 6th. If they failed to qualify for the knockout semi-finals, it would mean all U13 and U14 players having only one official championship game for the second half of the year. Little wonder underage soccer and rugby is thriving with this kind of fixtures' planning.
Clubs were also promised more games under the new system but, in fact, most teams are getting less. The problem is that they are all played in the space of three months. It is what is happening during those three months that is really frightening me.
We talk of burn-out of players at minor level and many pious platitudes are expressed about solving that problem. What we have now done under the new underage structure in Cork is to shove that problem right down to U14. As well as club games the new underage structure also includes games in the schools, interdivisional teams and development squads at divisional and county levels. Let's take the case of a talented U14 player who is equally good at both codes. Let's call him Dave.
Dave plays U14 football and hurling league games with his club and is expected to train with each team at least once a week. It's not a big club so he also plays on both U16 teams in their league games. That guarantees at least two/three games a week.
He is in first year in the local college and is picked on the first year football and hurling teams as well as the U14 football and hurling teams. That's four school teams and those school games often clash with club games because the promised co-ordination never happened at top level.
Dave also attends divisional U14 practice in both codes and is on both divisional squads. He is committed to training, playing tournaments and challenge games with those squads. He is also attending trial games for the county U14 development squads and is good enough to be a member of both. In theory, the football and hurling county squads shouldn't clash but in reality, ambitious coaches rarely stick to the given agenda and they frequently clash.
Overall, this means that during the months of April and May Dave is committed to playing and training with 12 different teams in football and hurling. Can anybody tell me where Dave is going to be by the age of 18 if this continues? When he picks up a knock, which is inevitable, he isn't given time to heal properly before being rushed back into action. How will his body be by 18? Dave loves our games and doesn't want to give up any team. But surely, what the new system is doing to him is little short of child abuse hidden under a sporting banner.
I love the GAA and I love being involved in underage coaching. But what I am witnessing now with our young players is truly frightening. We have no right whatsoever to be doing this to our children in the name of sport.
Not only is the new system abusing our young players and mentors as regards the fixtures schedule during these three months but it is also abusing families and clubs as regards travelling.
The new regions are made up of clubs from all corners of the county and a club from the far west could find itself playing a club from the far east in a league game. First off a bus has to be hired by the club if it's an away game as parents can't be expected to get off work to take the players by car. The players hardly have time to get home from school before they gather to get on the bus.
A journey that can take up to two hours follows, then the match and it may be almost 11pm before the players get back home that night. I exaggerate not as I've been there, done that, got home at 11.30pm one night. Little wonder that parents crib about it and the travelling bill for clubs is becoming a huge problem that can't be sustained. Cork is too big a county to treat as a single unit and we must accept that fact.
Add into this mix the confusion over the new rules governing competitions from U12 downwards, and the lopsided results that are coming from a dictatorial grading system and is it little wonder that all clubs are really fearing for the future of underage games in Cork.
We agree that what we had already wasn't perfect but it wasn't too far away from it and needed only minor fixing. Instead we have created a monster that is far worse than anything Frankenstein could conjure up.
How can anybody honestly say that a regional board that consists of over seventy different clubs, bigger than most counties in Ireland, is a viable GAA underage unit? It isn't and never will be, especially when the clubs are allowed to fix their own times and dates for games.
It is little short of frightening to realise what is happening, no fault of the officers who were catapulted into that situation, not elected to their positions.
We have been told that the new system is on a trial basis for two years but we all know that what has been set up will never be reversed. There is no going back and, unfortunately, we have been sold a pig in a poke.
Of course there is good work going on, in clubs, in divisions and in schools, but it is going on despite the system and only thanks to the good will and the hard work of the mentors involved. They deserve better and if we are experiencing difficulties in recruiting volunteers in all clubs right now, just imagine what it will be like in a few years time if this madness is allowed to continue.
If this is truly a trial run for the new system, then a full convention of all clubs must be held around the end of October to fully discuss the many problems that have cropped up and that need remedial action. Genuine efforts must be made to improve the system. In the meantime, the governing committee must get a grip on what's happening, or what should be happening and isn't.
Let's start by spreading out the games over 7 to 8 months, and not squeezing them into three. Then ensure that each region, and the clubs, stick with the football/hurling three-week blocks. Third, fix the same days for the same age groups in all the regions. Fourth, stop trying to run all the age groups at the same time, it's a crazy policy. Fifth, make sure the school games aren't clashing with club games and finally, run off the interdivisional tournaments and squad sessions at the quietest time of the playing season, not in the heart of the busiest.
I'd hate to start dreaming about Frankenstein's monster again in my old age but I'm heading there.
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