WHILE some counties and managers appear to have all but neglected the club scene with their scheduling once GAA is allowed to return, Cork football boss Ronan McCarthy is more than willing to see the bigger picture.
Club action is set to resume at the end of July, while the GAA has said that inter-county games won’t take place before October 17th. County panels are allowed to assemble from September 14th onwards but already that guideline – which isn’t enforced in rule – looks to have been ignored in some quarters.
McCarthy firmly believes that it would be unfair on clubs if a straight knockout championship was implemented after a round-robin model was agreed last year. Cork are waiting for an announcement from Croke Park before finalising a new schedule and McCarthy feels that finding a middle ground is the key priority.
‘It looks fairly certain that we’ll be playing games, both club and county, and that’s really welcome,’ he says.
‘At one stage, it seemed that we weren’t going to play at all. I suppose managing the transition back into playing is going to be difficult and it has thrown up a different challenge in terms of managing club programmes and also ensuring that inter-county teams have adequate preparation for their championship.
‘I think you have to try to be fair to everybody. My own opinion would be that it would certainly be unfair to introduce a straight knockout system to the club championship.
‘Obviously, the idea this year was that clubs would have a minimum of three games in their groups and I think there has been too much investment of time in that to just have knockout. The question is though, how do you avoid knockout championship for clubs and ensure that there is a meaningful number of games but then, in my case preparing for a game against Kerry, allow for adequate time to get ready for that.’
In practical terms, the transitioning of players back into the inter-county scene with the Kerry game on the horizon is likely to be a challenge.
‘The issue here is that you could have players coming back to you having played anything up to six or seven games over the previous eight-to-ten weeks,’ McCarthy says.
‘You’re having to manage their load when they come back into you, it’s not as if they finish club championship and come straight back into full training with us.
‘Any extra couple of weeks that we can get there would be helpful. The other side of it is that I don’t know if it’s advantageous to have an unbroken eight or ten weeks before a game.
‘That can be too long. I can remember Dónal Óg Cusack saying that the Cork hurlers had five full weeks before the 2006 All-Ireland hurling final [Cork, going for three in a row, lost to Kilkenny] and if they had had their time back, they might have shortened that period as it was quite long.
‘There’s a happy medium there, there’s a middle ground. I don’t think four weeks is enough but I wouldn’t be looking for eight or ten weeks, either. The practicality here is whether you can find adequate time for the county teams and, of course, the clubs and club players are getting games, which is equally as important.’
However, while Cork and McCarthy are willing to embrace fairness for the greater good, it’s not the case everywhere and he wonders why it can’t be effectively policed.
‘The most disappointing aspect about it is that, when the political will was there to shut down games and training and everything else, generally most counties and teams observed it to the letter,’ he says.
‘It’s been disappointing that we’ve gone from that to a situation where now it’s being left up to the individual counties. Some counties, it would appear based on their championship formats, are not buying into the spirit of the law, if you want to call it that, and that has been disappointing.
‘The organisation has shown as a whole that it can implement rules and regulations and can get a buy-in and the question is, why isn’t it the same now in relation to club championships?
‘We’ve seen already that an awful lot of counties have shortened their club championship and I think that it’s wrong that that has happened. What you don’t want is one team going in with twice as much preparation as another. My own position on it is that I would hope that you’d avoid straight knockout for clubs but you also wonder how difficult it’s going to play group games in hurling and football, week after week.
‘We’re also operating in a vacuum where we’re waiting for the master fixture-list from Croke Park. That might shed a light on the possibilities but, at the moment, it does seem to be very cramped.’
Having said that, McCarthy doesn’t feel that the return of a straight knockout inter-county season for the first time since 2000 is a fait accompli, either.
‘I don’t know and we’re operating in a space at the moment where there’s a bit of uncertainty,’ he says.
‘Certainly, I haven’t heard anything back from any kind of source really that indicates that knockout is the only option on the table.
‘I would imagine that, in the same way county boards are trying to give clubs as many games as possible, Croke Park will try to do the same for inter-county teams.’