Belfast Telegraph

Tough schedule puts GAA stars at risk

By Declan Bogue

Around the salons and bars of Ballinderry's Lough Neagh hinterland, they are sweeping up the debris, throwing out the half-eaten sandwiches and taking down the bunting celebrating an Ulster title for the Shamrocks.

It's Christmas time, almost. Time to dig in for the winter and reflect on a season that was extraordinary in many ways. We will take a bit more time in the coming weeks to look at this, but it truly was a momentous year for Ulster GAA with the Joe Brolly/Sean Cavanagh pantomime, the implosion and subsequent toxic fall-out in Donegal and the revival of Cavan.

We also witnessed another example of how managerial departures in Ulster never go smoothly with Fermanagh failing in their duty to maintain any contact with Peter Canavan, leading to his disillusionment and eventual departure.

Most depressingly, we had a season where there will be no engraving on the Liam Harvey Cup; the Ulster senior hurling Championship. More on that subject later too.

On Monday evening, there was another impressively organised press launch for the Dr McKenna Cup, held at the Metropolitan Arts Centre in Belfast. All the Ulster county managers were present and available for interview, as were playing representatives from each county.

This was coming less than a week after the press launch for the Ulster club finals, and just over 24 hours after the Ulster club final between Ballinderry and Glenswilly.

The basis of what was said will keep fans up to date with news, interviews and follow-ups all the way to Christmas. There is also Ballinderry's upcoming clash with Kingdom Kerry Gaels in London to bridge the gap too.

Once the turkey bones are boiled for soup and the manufactured fuss over the new year is out of the way, there is something cathartic about getting along to a McKenna Cup game. It gives supporters an opportunity to do some talent-spotting on the hopefuls trying to stake a claim on their county team.

After the excesses of Christmas, a little bit of light-suffering on the terraces is vaguely appealing to supporters and they relish the cold air and the scrappy football.

It's only funny because only a month previously, the debate will have been raging about how the club and county fixture schedules are so lop-sided that we are trapped in a never-ending season.

Proof if it was needed, that the appetite for football and hurling, no matter the season and weather, is insatiable. However, we keep revisiting the problem of an association that tends to stuff club fixtures into narrow windows as the county season drags on for much too long.

Last week, Michael Murphy made the point that Donegal's stance – they are considering leaving club Championship off until the county conclude their involvement in the All-Ireland series – could be the answer.

Rightly, he points out that all players will know then when the club Championship begins.

Wrongly, he did not consider that it could be late September before that is a possibility, leaving them with only weeks to go before the commencement of the Ulster Club Championship. Given that Donegal play a round-robin system, that would lead to cramming fixtures.

You might recall that after they won the All-Ireland in 2012, Karl Lacey ended up playing six Championship games in three weeks. Since that, he has had two surgeries performed on his knee and his hip and endured a wretched 2013 season.

We could be wrong, but nothing would seem more obvious to the outsiders looking in than it was exactly that kind of player abuse that contributed to Lacey's injuries.

There's also the question of valuing county above club.

At the start of the year, club managers are looking to tailor their training in order to peak in time for the Championship campaign. Leaving everyone else dangling about and waiting – for some players wishing – that their county will be beaten so that they might get to play a bit of football, would cause the already developing rift to widen.

Respected coaches and physical trainers in the province will already have conducted an eight-week period of pre-season training the leagues begin in mid-April. They also need six weeks of periodised training in order to get up to Championship speed.

To merely hang around until your county is knocked out of the All-Ireland, only to be told that your club is playing in the Championship seven days later, is not good enough.

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