We have seen what a defined club window looks like and we want it again, writes Carbery Rangers' footballer and former Cork forward JOHN HAYES
LAST Saturday, Dublin and Mayo brought the curtain down on the 2020 GAA season, and after a year that no-one could have seen coming we ended up with the most predictable of winners.
But this year has also shown us the way forward in the great GAA fixtures debate.
It has taken a global pandemic to force the GAA’s hand on something that has been blindingly obvious for so long, but this year, for the first time, club players in Cork and beyond received the courtesy and respect of a defined season with fixed dates for games.
As we all long for the day our lives can return to something approaching our old normality, GAA players across the country are hoping that the GAA will prove an exception.
All this has been said countless times of course, but the frustrations bear repeating to highlight how farcical it has been for club players for so long.
League games coming thick and fast in February and March in preparation for first round of championship in April or early May, but games are then few and far between on the long summer evenings. That same championship first round could well be deferred depending on how Cork progress in the national leagues. Then, after playing round one comes the guessing game of where and when you might see championship action again. For a long time, winning one game in early April and losing another in late September would see a team knocked out of their championship. That’s outrageous disrespect to the hard work of players and mentors when you think about it.
To be fair to the current Cork County Board, attempts to define and streamline the club season have been progressing these last few years. The numbers of teams at the various grades have been reduced, and group stages followed by knock-out quarter-finals were voted through in advance of 2020. They also had the grace to assure players that after the first round in April/May, the next games would not be until at least August. Progress of the Cork senior teams would still dictate when this could happen, but it did provide players with certainty that the bulk of May, June and July would involve league games only, allowing weddings and holidays to be planned without fear of a clash. A relatively simple gesture, but one long overdue and greatly appreciated by players.
When GAA HQ approved a club championship window from the end of July through to the start of October in advance of the 2020 inter-county championships, Cork stuck to its guns and ran off the entirety of the new championship formats in hurling and football. At senior level, six rounds of group stage games were completed in seven weeks in both codes, with the divisional contests filling the gap weeks. Quarters, semis and finals were then run week after week, with only the Premier senior football final not being completed as the country was moved back into Level 5 lockdown.
Though my own campaign was blighted by injury, and it was not a successful year for Carbery Rangers, the format for the season this year would get a ringing endorsement on our end. We had regular, competitive games at fixed times and within a reasonably short time-frame. It was a glimpse into what could be and what, realistically, should have been for some time now. Dual clubs would no doubt argue that additional breathing space is required, and this should be accommodated in the future club-only windows.
Thinking ahead to 2021 and beyond, the hope is that the long-mooted split season for inter-county and club activities will be implemented.
It has long been plainly obvious that the inter-county calendar is grossly bloated. From pre-season contests in January through to All-Ireland finals in September, a nine-month programme leaves very little room for manoeuvre for club activity.
I always compare this length of season to the AFL season in Australia or the NFL in America. Both competitions involve regular seasons with 22 rounds Down Under and 16 rounds across the Atlantic followed by play-offs, and yet neither competition exceeds six months in duration. Yes, there are complications with resolving the GAA calendar, but the principle remains – for a variety of reasons the inter-county season must be vastly reduced.
Thankfully, Cork has started to get our house in order with respect to our championships. Now can we expect Croke Park to follow suit? The noises are encouraging, but the GAA will have to break with long-held tradition and put the playing experiences of its majority ahead of commercial gains. The GAA love to talk about how the bulk of monies it receives goes back to the clubs for facilities upgrades and the likes but having great facilities and thriving underage programmes is ultimately futile when the end result is disillusioned, largely inactive adult players, or players lost to other sports or players just giving up because they are fed up.
There have been incremental changes such as the All-Irelands being brought forward by a week, but it’s time now to grasp the nettle. It’s time to implement what has been suggested by the CPA and the GPA and run the inter-county season first from January until July and turn the rest of the year over to the clubs. Club leagues would run concurrent in this scenario.
It has been suggested that the club season should precede inter-county, but I would not see this as satisfactory. Inter-county managers demanding access to club players during this time would be reason enough to dismiss this. Losing the buzz of All-Irelands for a couple of counties in September is an undeniable negative, but this can be replaced by the buzz of regular, local club games for the whole country, and I feel the benefit to the GAA on the wider level outweighs this negative.
It is possible that you will feel like you have heard little new in this column, but I’m not looking for any prizes for originality here. What new can be said about probably the most worn-out debate in the country after all, too long debated in newspaper columns and coffee shops and bars. Nearly a decade ago I wrote a broadly similar column for the other traditional major Cork newspaper, and only the powers that be in Croke Park can shut me up on this one. We have seen behind the curtain and won’t be fooled again – make the changes, make them radical and make them now.