A few weeks ago, Phillip Maguire scored 0-09 as he captained his St Teresa’s side in the Antrim JHC Semi-Final defeat against Shane O’Neill’s Glenarm. Prior to the match, the last competitive outing for the Glen Road side’s hurlers was on July 25th. A gap of 50 days.
Of course, St Teresa’s are a proud dual club, with their footballers competing in Division 1 of the ACFL. Over the course of that 50 day-period, their purveyors of the big ball took part in just four games, including one SFC clash, where they defeated St Joseph’s Glenavy to set up a tie with last year’s runners-up St John’s, which they ultimately lost.
Player retention is one of the GAA’s hot topics at the moment and there have been plenty of column inches dedicated to the training to match ratio, former county players Jackie Tyrell and Michael McCann speaking on it as recently as this week. Both have voiced concerns about the commitment required at both club and county level. Squads are shrinking at an alarming rate.
I recall a time when both St Gall’s and Cargin entered a third team in the Antrim league. It wasn’t always rosy. As mentioned in previous posts, a friend of mine regaled me with a tale of how the Cargin 3rds turned up for a match with the bare fifteen players and he still didn’t make the starting line up!
Fast-forward twelve years and many teams are struggling to fill both a senior and reserve squad. The Derry Reserve leagues were decimated this season, with the abbreviation ‘CONC’ one of the most common sights on any flick back through the fixture list.
Players, when asked, generally provide a few reasons for drifting off the scene. The commitment levels are too high. The fixtures are unpredictable and liable to change for any number of spurious reasons. There is too much training. It’s not fun to play anymore with all these systems.
One theme that comes up repeatedly is that other popular sports are more compatible with every day life. Take amateur soccer for example, the most popular competitor and the one that gets GAA people the most animated.
If you’re signed with an amateur soccer team, you know your schedule. You’re going to train on a Tuesday and Thursday night and play a match on a Saturday afternoon. Every week. It is extremely rare that an amateur soccer match be cancelled. Or have its kick-off time altered. Or be moved for a stag do. You can set your clock by it, and more importantly, organise your life around it.
The other issue that is unique to the GAA is that the fixture-makers, whose job I would liken to the conveyor belt of condemned fighters sent out to face the gladiators, have so many different groups to appease.
County players. Dual players. Single-code players. Clubs not wanting to play without the county players. Clubs who have no county players who are delighted to play the teams without their stars. Reserve players who just want to play recreationally with no aspirations of playing senior.
In no world should anyone be naïve, or optimistic enough to expect county boards to be able to keep all the plates spinning and keep everyone happy. It could be time to talk about divorce.
The only way to ensure the club player gets regular, dependable fixtures is for the county scene and the club scene to operate in separate spheres.
This is a tough pill to swallow for many, especially clubs with a number of county players who feel they are being punished for developing their players to inter-county standard. However, in the most successful counties, playing without county players for long periods is par for the course at this stage.
The utopia of Tuesday-Thursday-Weekend, or Monday-Wednesday-Weekend is achievable. Leagues can be split as evenly as possible, with reserve fixtures on a Friday night and Senior on a Saturday/Sunday afternoon, with hurling and football operating on alternative weeks.
This arrangement would allow dual players to train twice a week and play on a weekend, every single week. It would also allow those players who overlap between Reserve and Senior a day to recover, instead of being forced to play a part in two games on the same evening.
What about single code players? I would suggest the creation of recreational hurling and football competitions to run on alternative weeks on a 7-a-side basis. Sevens is a great format that encourages skill-based play and enjoyment of the game. Fixtures could be arranged on the same basis as the All-County leagues to simplify the process.
As well as providing an outlet for single-code players to play consistently every weekend, the Sevens format could be an incentive to attract the more recreational players back to the club, those who have perhaps drifted away due to the required commitment levels in today’s game.
What about single code clubs? This is a trickier one to solve. The likes of Loughgiel, Cargin or Cushendall in Antrim would only have a competitive league game every fortnight but could use the recreational format to develop their younger players or reserves in a less-pressured environment.
To allow the competitions to run as above they would need to be started early in the season and run concurrent to the Inter-County National League and Championship. At the end of the league format, with it done and dusted, so no games get left until the depths of winter, the club championships can begin, ideally with the intercounty season finishing around the same time to allow the county players to return to their clubs for championship.
I’ll attempt to illustrate how this might work below, using the Antrim leagues as an example:
Football Clubs: 34
Div 1-2: 8 Clubs (14 weeks) Div 3-4: 9 Clubs (16 weeks)
League April-July Championship: August-September
Hurling Clubs: 37
Div 1-3: 9 Clubs (16 weeks) Div 4: 10 Clubs (18 weeks)
League April – July Championship: August-September
The following could be a sample fortnightly schedule:
This template should leave sufficient rest days while not leaving players inactive too long. Clubs would obviously be free to arrange training as they see fit. Sundays are also kept free, for recovery and time spent having a life. And hangovers.
Divisional competitions, such as the Countess of Antrim or the Sean Larkin Cup in Derry, could be played as pre-season competitions to avoid clashing with league games, which has been a bit of an issue in recent seasons.
It is vital that we reduce the gaps in the season that create a vacuum and are anathema for the casual player. This is costing clubs players and threatening their very existence.
Like every possible fixture idea, there will be a myriad of issues to discuss and argue about, but sure that’s all part of the craic – GAA people are at their happiest when arguing about fixtures.
Unless you’re on the CCC.