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Comment: Why 'madness' of the McKenna Cup is here to stay

By Declan Bogue

Former Donegal defender Eamon McGee summed up the feelings of many in his county as they would have been making their way home after Sunday's Dr McKenna Cup fixture against Monaghan was called off.

He tweeted: "Come on McKenna Cup, you've had a good run of it but do the honourable thing. Just call it a day and pack it in, nobody likes you."

His disgust might have been compounded by the fact the rather tasty-looking fixture was called off seven minutes after the scheduled throw-in time. Carloads of families who had already made a journey of two and a half hours from far-flung Inishowen or Gweedore had to face into it again.

At the Athletic Grounds in Armagh, the small loyal band of Derry followers were similarly disappointed. For some, a visit to Friar Tuck's was the only salvation available.

Finally, there was some good fortune in a sense on the outskirts of Newry. The clash between Down and UUJ was called off, but the colleges bring virtually no support outside of players' families.

Ulster GAA will take some stick for what happened, given the late postponements. There is also the tricky situation they, along with the Connacht Council after the Galway-Mayo call-off, find themselves in, in that refunds are impossible to process at the time, patrons being handed a 'match voucher' instead.

Postponements in January are far from rare and that's what you risk when you run a pre-season competition. But weather happens too; such as the Tyrone v Cavan game late last February being unsafe to play because of water lying on the pitch.

At least that day in Healy Park, the sensible decision was made not to accept anything at the turnstiles until matchday referee David Gough made the call, leaving nobody out of pocket.

Nobody likes watching Gaelic football on plastic pitches, but perhaps in future a contingency plan to move a game to one of these facilities might be worth exploring.

But anyway, back to the central point - what purpose do the January competitions now serve, especially given the condensed seasons that we are looking at for the future?

Cast an eye towards the Munster Senior Hurling League and Tipperary are still not fielding a team in it, after deciding to do their own thing in 2017.

Even prior to this, Donegal had occasionally forwarded Under-21 teams to fulfil McKenna Cup fixtures.

Last Wednesday night, new Derry manager Damian McErlain named his first squad of 22. Precisely half of them had played minor football for him over the past three years.

Three group games in 10 January days is simply no way to prepare for a National League that commences in the last weekend in January. In fact, it's total madness. The work-to-rule policy adopted by Donegal and to a lesser extent Derry is merely boxing clever.

When the Athletic Grounds game was called off, Orchard County manager Kieran McGeeney spelled out the preposterous nature of how this competition will be completed by January 20.

"It is going to be tough now because it tightens things up a bit. Whoever gets through to the semi-finals is going to have to play three games in seven days," he explained.

At a conservative estimate, only one county is able to cope with this kind of workload and that is Tyrone. At this time of year, they are able to carry a large panel. Once they qualify for the semi-finals, they are also able to recall all their players who played the group stages with their colleges - providing their participation has ended.

Lads who get their chance with Tyrone in January have a serious threat over their head. It was only last month that they played their first challenge match in Mickey Harte's time, and that a one-off against Carlow. There is no slacking off for the Dr McKenna Cup and there is no safety net of getting a chance to impress on the challenge match circuit.

No county has done as much for the credibility of the McKenna Cup as Tyrone have by consistently taking it seriously, winning the last six editions.

The competition itself found a neat slot in the GAA calendar when the GAA brought all county action into a calendar year, creating a need for a pre-season January competition, while the Ulster Council took the brave step of bringing the university teams on board and creating some variety of fixtures.

The high point came at the apex of the Tyrone-Armagh rivalry of last decade when 19,631 hardy souls paid through the gates of Casement Park to see them slug it out for the 2006 crown.

But all the same, the overall appeal has waned. Managers have become sniffy and rightfully so given the way the fixtures are now crammed in.

However, be under no illusions all the same. Whether it be the O'Byrne Cup, the FBD League or the McKenna Cup, these competitions are finance drivers for the provincial councils.

For that reason, they are going nowhere.

Belfast Telegraph

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