We need to split our season to protect players
There are just 11 days until the beginning of the Ulster Championship, and already we can see the cracks in our crazy fixture situation.
Two Thursdays ago, the Fermanagh team played Derry in a challenge match. Twenty-four hours later, the players were turning out for their clubs in a round of league fixtures. And they had another club game on the Sunday afternoon.
That’s three games in the space of 96 hours in a physically-demanding contact sport. You wouldn’t ask professionals to do it, even with the benefits of sports science, proper recovery and rub-downs.
But we have no problem asking amateur county footballers, quite a few of whom are working away from home, to drive for hours to matches where they will be identified as the key man and treated accordingly. And report for work on the Friday and Monday as normal.
These men are being abused. Plain and simple.
Given that 75 per cent of the inter-county programme is over by the end of March, the remaining 25 per cent of action causes total carnage.
Fermanagh are gearing up for the visit of Antrim on May 15, wondering how they get around not having a fully-fit captain, Eoin Donnelly.
An all-out, fetching, carrying midfielder, Donnelly is the heartbeat of the team. Not because he is lying in at centre-forward, taking things easy and kicking the odd free in a club match. Instead, he is in the middle of everything.
On the Sunday of that deranged fixture programme, his club Coa O’Dwyer’s beat Enniskillen Gaels. The value of that particular win would have been immeasurable to Coa, but it was the final straw for Donnelly’s hamstring, which tore under extreme demands — he works in Dundonald as a physio and is therefore racking up the miles up and down the roads, before unfurling himself out of the car to play.
This isn’t the fault of the Fermanagh fixtures committee. Nor is it the fault of county management for wanting to prepare their team given the five-week lay-off between the end of the league and their first Championship game.
It is the result of an overall culture that neglects player welfare in a practical sense.
The county board are scheduling fixtures for Friday, May 13 — two days before the Championship match against Antrim. Under GAA rules, anyone who is not named on the 26-man panel for matchday can play for their clubs.
Naturally, this will cause friction as the county management would wish to prevent players feeling as if they don’t have a chance of playing some part in the big Championship match, after putting down seven months of training.
There must also be sympathy for the county board too. All they are doing is providing regular games for the oft-quoted 98 per cent of playing members.
The Ernemen’s run to the All-Ireland quarter-final last summer caught them unawares. From May 17 to August 9, there were 11 weeks when no club player got a competitive game.
Some drifted away over the course of the summer. The county board suggested playing off the leagues in a bit of a blitz format. The whole thing was unsatisfactory all round.
Within a month from now, there will be a trimming handed out in a provincial Championship game. A pundit will exhume the idea of two-tier Championships. The debate will centre on competition structures rather than doing something truly radical, in divorcing the inter-county and club season entirely.
This accommodates the desire of the average club player, in wanting a shorter season not dominated by endless training.
And it would also cut down on the sheer endurance of being ‘training fodder’ for a county squad, and the life of constant training without the permission to play club matches.
Play the inter-county season and finish it in July. Then stage a club season. That means no ‘starred’ games, and nobody getting put in difficult situations.
And less amateurs flogged.