BY MICHEÁL O'SULLIVAN
FOR the 2022 championships we have a split season. But is it really a split season?
Originally, the whole idea of a split season in the GAA came about as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was voted into Congress last February with players, clubs and administrators all equally joyous at the prospect. Half the year for inter-county and the other half the year for the club, it sounds perfect for the club player.
But looking at the proposed fixtures calendar recently published by the Cork County Board for 2022, it doesn’t look so appetising for the ordinary guy. It’s a split season, yes, in terms of championship but it’s the same old story other than that.
The first round of the group stage of the Bons Secours county football championships is pencilled in for the weekend of July 22nd. The opening round of the county leagues is fixed for the weekend of February 12th. In all fairness, to players, clubs and management teams, what sense does that make?
My vision of the split season at club level would have been returning to training later – like March, for example – in preparation for a later league which ran into and through championship. A more condensed season. Now we are back where we were with a minimum ten-month season. It means that form in the league is now completely alienated from the championship. Players are again asked to return to training in early January or before with no ball being kicked in anger for seven months. I thought we were moving away from that.
Will inter-county players be released for any of these league games? It looks to me like the club teams with inter-county players are being punished as was the case before. I wouldn’t expect to have them for every game but running the county leagues against the Allianz National Leagues would suggest that’s what is going to happen.
Take one of this year's county Premier SFC finalists, Clonakilty, as an example. They had four on last year's inter-county panel. Potentially, they could be joined by a few more. Clon will have every opportunity to develop the strength of their panel but not in ideal circumstances. For fringe players to develop they need the stronger, more experienced guys around them.
Running a club senior team that reaches a county semi-final or final can see costs running to between €15,000 and €20,000 or beyond for the season depending on how many you are paying. The split season, or a more condensed season, would have seen a big reduction in costs due to the shorter season. Clubs are scouring the county for coaches – in a lot of cases, outside coaches – in preparation for what is now a post-Christmas start-up once again. Throw in the costs of lights, renting grounds, etc., and you are piling serious pressure on already cash-strapped clubs as a result of reduced lottos and club fundraising due to the pandemic. No doubt the thinking is to give club players more meaningful games over a longer period of time, but with the league over by June, your inter-county players – if you have them – will be arriving back on the scene. From my own experience as a manager you now have to re-integrate them into the system and the overall game plan which means scouring the province for worthwhile and meaningful challenge games. And they are hard to get. Having a few league games left over to use in the run into championship games always proved very worthwhile preparation.
Also, the divisions/colleges sector of the county championship, which is to be run on a round-robin basis, is pencilled in to begin on June 9th. How Cork fare against Kerry in early May and the path they take as a result will impact the window, if any, that they have for preparation with their county players.
Former Carbery chairman Tom Lyons and current Carbery manager Tim Buckley have vocalised in detail of late the worries they have at the demise of divisional football. As I have said in this column in the past, I believe that every player should have an avenue to play football at the highest grade through representing their division.
Senior A is not the highest grade – Premier senior is the top tier here in Cork – yet these players are not allowed the opportunity to represent their division and get to play in the premier championship. There is that thought process out there that Senior A is a high enough grade in itself, but if you were in Páirc Uí Chaoimh last month for the Premier and Senior A finals, the gulf in class was obvious. I want to see the best players in the county all given the opportunity to play in the top competition.
Former Carbery GAA Secretary Donal McCarthy addressed this issue at the board’s recent Convention. He said: ‘It is evident that Carbery suffers more than any other division, from the fact that we have nine clubs in the division that are ineligible for the Carbery senior football team. Like it or not we struggle to bridge the gap between senior and junior football. I am still of the opinion that players who play in the senior county A football and hurling championship should be allowed play for their divisions as all these players are being denied the right to win the Andy Scannell Cup/Sean Óg Murphy Cup and a county senior hurling or football medal.’
In Cork at the moment we are very spread out with the number of grades that we have. Gone are the days when our county team was predominantly made up of players from senior clubs. Now it’s a cross-section of players from across all grades which is great. But I'd love to see these players rubbing shoulders more often in the same championship. Surely it would benefit their development and, of course, our entertainment.
Look, observations are fine and I accept that it is an extremely difficult job to put together a programme of this magnitude, but I still think we can do better. Rant over.