As county boards all around the country tidy up their remaining fixtures for the 2016 season many club players and officials have to be wondering what the future holds in the years ahead.
There has been serious concern within Croke Park about falling attendances in the last few years. Yes All-Ireland finals will always be a sell-out; you could fill Croker a couple of times over on those days but quarter-finals and semi-finals are not the go-to games any more.
Provincial attendances are overall down with the Ulster championship the only one holding their ground. However, this could change with the coming of Brexit.
County Board officials are getting it in the ear with fixtures going late into the year, especially senior championship. However, it’s not only adult games that are now dragging closer to Christmas; just as we have seen senior intercounty managers call off club fixtures at the speed of a text, intercounty managers are also getting underage games called off until they’re out of the championship thus having an end of year rush to finish off competitions.
Again I go back to the point. County Board officials get it in the ear when clubs are faced with the prospect of playing well into the winter months but does the responsibility of club fixtures not lie with those elected by club members who attend county committee to make sure the fixtures are played at a reasonable time of the year and not into the dark evenings of winter.
If we take a look at the proposal recently reported on where the last eight in the football All-Ireland series would be changed to a Champions League type format, two groups of four with each team playing three games and then the top two in each group going into the semi-finals.
The proposal put forward by GAA Ard Stiúrthóir Paraic Duffy also hoped to tidy up the length of the inter-county season to allow for the club scene, but if we remember back to last year, county boards were reluctant to do anything in terms of shortening the All-Ireland series season.
One thing that has not been explained was would these games be played on a weekly basis or would there be free weekends in between games. This would mean it would take five weekends to play the three extra games and there would certainly be no club fixtures in that period. Given that the top eight teams would be just finishing their provincial championships just how many weeks would clubs have to play without their county players and would they want to? Where will it stop?
I recently read a piece where Declan Brennan, a former Monaghan county selector, was part of a group willing to set up a club players union. Brennan told RTE Sport “that the decision makers in Croke Park need to be reminded of the importance of clubs to the health of the sport”.
He went on to say that if Croke Park came up with a proper fixtures structure that would take into consideration the club player they would support it.
If the new fixtures format was to be introduced without the consideration of the new club players’ union, what action would this new body be prepared to take?
I agree wholeheartily that club players need an independent voice but if they are only going to be another talking shop then what’s the point. If they are prepared to make sure that club players get a fair hearing and get a deal that incorporates both the inter-county scene and the club scene they will definitely get the support of players all over the country.
And what would the powers in Croker feel about another body representing their members? Would they see it as a challenge to their power? Would they be prepared to listen to those who for a long time have had very little power? But if this union or group was to gather momentum they would have the potential to be one of the most powerful within the Association - a trembling thought for many in the corridors of power, no doubt.
The final piece of the argument of the fixtures problem may be that with falling attendances the GAA are under pressure to do something to get the people back. Would the change of the format achieve that? Are the powers that be not overlooking the fact that many of the games are not good? How many decent games were there last year? Are supporters just fed up following teams that they know cannot compete with the big boys?
Another question that might arise - are there too many games on television or the internet? You can see most games now at the push of a button. Why would you go to the bother after a busy week to travel while you can watch it from the armchair or on a stool along with your mates?
There is also the cost that is involved; going to games through the summer is not cheap, especially when your teams get to the latter stages of the championship.
There are loads of mitigating factors but one thing is for certain, whatever decision is taken, there will always be someone or some group that will find fault. The corporate side of the Association have forgotten about the volunteer; they have forgotten about the club player who just wants to play for his home team; they have forgotten about the many lads who get into their cars on a Friday evening to come home from all over the country and maybe another country just to represent their parish.
Major decisions lie ahead.