D-day has arrived for the inter-provincial football and hurling championships. Since the last rites were administered to the competition when it was shelved last year, speculation has increased that the axe will now formally come down on something that has been part and parcel of the annual fixtures calendar for decades.
This weekend delegates representing every county are due to cast their votes for the retention or scrapping of the competition.
The time for talking is now over — the matter will be put to the vote in Dublin by GAA President Christy Cooney himself.
I have one major regret in relation to the process that has taken us to this stage — and that is that the players themselves were not consulted to any great extent to gauge THEIR feelings on the competition.
From my own experience as a player, spectator and provincial manager I know for a fact that successive generations of players — from Sean O’Neill, Iggy Jones and Jimmy Whan to Stephen O’Neill, Daniel Hughes and Steven McDonnell — have bee four-square behind the inter-provincial concept.
There may be rumblings of discontent within the corridors of power about falling attendances, cluttered fixture lists and a dilution of status in relation to the competition yet it is a fact that the majority of our best players in both football and hurling would be reluctant to see the series jettisoned.
Those who care to take time to look at the bigger picture will see that the inter-pros offer players rather more than the chance to fulfil extra fixtures.
The matches actually provide the best players from the various counties in each of the provinces to come together to sing from the same hymn sheet for a change.
Bear in mind that many of these players find themselves engaged in hostile, high-intensity, grudge matches at certain stages of the season.
The majority of them too do not get the chance to represent Ireland in the International Rules series.
So the inter-pro series is the only really representative door open to them and you can take it from me from my own personal observations and my recent experience as Ulster manager that the players are very keen to see the competition continued.
Had a consultation process been initiated involving the players I think that much more positive feedback would have emerged in relation to the competition. Martin Donnelly too has proved a wonderful sponsor in recent years and the finals have been played in exotic locations.
The Clare man has pumped in money while other people have preferred to criticise the competition from the shadows.
In 2009 Ulster, under the captaincy of Tyrone’s Stephen O’Neill, won the football title in London and I would just hate to think that this could now prove to be the last series to have been played.
One of the main bones of contention surrounding the inter-pros is the actual period in the year when they are staged.
In recent years they have been relegated to darkest November and that certainly does not get the fans’ juices flowing.
I have been a firm advocate of having the competition staged sometime between mid-February and the end of March.
I think a window of opportunity would surely present itself within this period and I do not think that any county team bosses would be seriously discomfited by losing players.
The occasions on which players from rival counties can come together in a common cause are few and far between as things stand. Perhaps players from different counties who turn out for their university sides mix rather well because of the particular situation in which they find themselves but on the whole players play for their own county and that’s that.
No province has been more committed to the Railway Cup than Ulster. Successive Ulster Council presidents have eulogised the benefits of the competition while current secretary Danny Murphy has been doing everything possible to ensure that it continues. But I sincerely hope that he is not a voice crying in the wilderness.
I would hate to think that delegates will turn up this weekend with the express view of pulling the trapdoor on the competition without having engaged in some debate.
We shall have to let democracy take its course — and I remain optimistic that good sense will prevail.