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Comment: Why the GAA club scene deserves better

By Declan Bogue

It was after the Moy's Ulster semi-final win over Newbridge that Sean Cavanagh - he of three All-Irelands and five All-Stars - revealed he is in the grip of something addictive.

"I can now start to relate to players in Crossmaglen and players in Slaughtneil that I played with at Ulster level, talking about the special club feeling and the club bond," he said.

"And to be honest, I never really had that and now I'm starting to feel it. And what a feeling it is. It's as good as pulling on a Tyrone jersey on big days in Croke Park."

This, from a man who has tasted the biggest of all county days and captained his country in International Rules, bear in mind.

It shows that club Championship success has no equal.

The previous night, Kilcar and Slaughtneil supporters cheered both teams off the Healy Park pitch for an enthralling Ulster club game. There were other contests in differing sports in Copenhagen and Dublin, but the day's entertainment was to be found on the Gortin Road.

On the GAA's own website, it states the Association's 'basic aim' is to "promote and control the National games of Hurling, Gaelic Football, Handball and Rounders".

It's estimated that 98% of the playing population are exclusively club players, and 2% play inter-county. This time of the year is an annual demonstration of just how healthy that club game is.

That's why it is important to point out that even in the warm glow of these times, and allowing for the changes to the playing calendar that comes into effect in 2018, that club players still remain completely shafted.

Later in the definition of the club, the web page states: "It's vital our clubs continue to grow and reinvent themselves to ensure that this structure is reinforced".

The GAA at central level has become lazy and suffering from an extreme lack of imagination in this regard. Any reinforcement and reinvention of the club scene has come about through the dedication and skills of club volunteers, management and players. The ruling body has piggy-backed on this effort but should be granted no credit for it.

Despite all the extra focus on the county game, in truth the appeal of the Championship is rapidly waning. When the league is on it is the best inter-county competition going with teams evenly matched and every game carrying meaning.

And while the traditional excitement mounts for the Championship, it amounts to a dreadful let-down. Cast your mind back to last year and how many truly gripping games can you recall outside the final?

County finals and provincial Championships represent a return to authentic values after the bloated All-Ireland series and club action is squeezed like a Concertina.

And for those that think there was a golden age of club football and hurling, think again.

In 1993 Derry won the All-Ireland. Lavey were nominated to represent the county in Ulster. A dual club, this is what their schedule looked like for a few weeks.

Friday night - Derry football Championship against Bellaghy. Sunday - Kingscourt in the Ulster club at Breffni Park.

The following weekend, they met Slaughtneil in football on the Saturday and Lisbellaw in Ulster club hurling the very next day.

The week after, Kilrea in football on a Friday night, Dungiven in hurling on the Sunday. It left them exhausted before they fell to Errigal Ciaran the fourth weekend in the Ulster club football Championship.

Back then in Derry, county players played virtually no club league action.

It's the same now in Dublin, where county defender Johnny Cooper admitted last year he had appeared in just two of Na Fianna's league games in 2017.

If anything, things are getting better. But why can't they be excellent?

And the answer to that is because of how county action consumes everything in its' wake. April 2018 is now meant to be left clear for club action. What county board will stage a round of club Championship fixtures and run the potential risk of half the club players in the county escaping to play a summer in America after getting knocked out?

And make no mistake, some county managers are already eyeing up that final weekend in April as a training weekend, with county boards asked to stage a round of fixtures midweek before it.

The club scene is already impressive. But imagine if it was the priority, running over the summer, with players released to play for their county just as it is in international soccer and rugby?

If anything, it might help the county game, with the training to games ratio rebalanced and a lack of time for teams to tactically smother each other.

When was the last time you saw a standing ovation between two county teams where the crowd were agog at the quality they were witnessing, totally consumed by the drama?

The new fixture masterplan should be seen as the start of a journey, not the end. Perhaps the next director-general of the GAA may see it that way too. That appointment next year has never been more crucial.

Belfast Telegraph


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