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Opinion: Fixture congestion, GAA’s silent killer

With numerous competitions overlapping each other, it’s time GAA implemented a fixture calendar everyone must abide by.

This Saturday will play host to one of the great events in the GAA calendar – the Sigerson Cup final. This year however, it serves to outline what is becoming a growing problem in the GAA. A problem which its hierarchy are not prepared to address – its fixture calendar.

Traditionally, the Sigerson Cup semi-finals and final were all played across the same weekend in a veritable festival of football. Concerns over player welfare in recent times have led to this practice being abolished. The problem now s that the GAA’s fixture calendar in its current form is making a mockery of the notion of player welfare.

Last night, UCD beat UU whilst NUIG defeated DIT, with two places in Saturday’s final up for grabs. With both Liam Silke’s UCD and Kieran Molloy’s NUIG through, these two players will be faced with a problem – both lads are Corofin clubmen and Corofin’s All-Ireland club semi-final against Moorefield is fixed for 2pm in O’Connor Park, Tullamore. The Sigerson final will throw-in at 3:30pm at Santry (Trinity College). Potentially, both men will be faced with a very difficult decision – one which shouldn’t have to be made.

Already this year, Dublin’s Brian Howard has failed to line out for DIT in order to play against Donegal in the National League, despite him being on a sports scholarship with his college. Personally for Brian Howard, this is completely understandable. Howard has forged for himself a starting berth in Dublin’s much vaunted forward-line and he doesn’t want to risk losing it by opting to play for DIT instead of the Dubs. The point is though, he shouldn’t have to make that choice.

This problem is not exclusive to football either. In this year’s Fitzgibbon Cup, a total of 18 members of Limerick’s senior hurling panel were registered to a variety of colleges. Treaty boss John Kiely has had to endure these absentees as he tries to guide Limerick through a tough Division 1B campaign.

Next weekend will see Slaughtneil take on Nemo Rangers in the other All-Ireland Senior Club semi-final. Whoever wins that fixture will progress to the final at Croke Park on 17th March. Where does that leave Cork’s Ronan McCarthy and Derry’s Damian McErlain? Cork have already come up short at home to Tipperary in a very competitive Division 2 and Derry find themselves in a potential relegation battle in Division 3.

Slaughtneil are the bookies’ favourites to progress to the decider which means that the Derry boss could be without his Slaughtneil contingent for the whole of the National Football League. This is then further compounded by the fact that April is set-aside for clubs, meaning that he will have very little time to integrate these players into his squad for their Championship opener against Donegal or Cavan on 27th May. Senior inter-county teams are being punished for having successful clubs. It’s just not fair.

Finally, because of the jam-packed nature of the GAA calendar, we are now faced with a fixture pile-up due to the rescheduling of games that have fallen foul of the bad weather. The finals of the FBD League and O’Byrne & McKenna Cups still need to be played. They are now being shoe-horned in during breaks in the National League – where is the consideration for player welfare in these instances?

The solution to all of these problems in an obvious one – a complete restructuring of the GAA calendar. There needs to be a centralised master-fixture list and all school & college bodies, county boards and provincial councils need to be accountable for keeping these fixtures. This will need to involve a condensing of the inter-county season – not a popular idea in the hierarchy of the GAA.

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Preseason tournaments such as the McKenna Cup should be scrapped

Initially when universities were admitted to these competitions, it breathed new life into them. However, now the higher-education teams often lose their best players to the county sides and some inter-county managers opt to play their U21s. They have become a farce and now only add to fixture congestion.

Delay the start of the National League until then end of February/beginning of March

This will afford the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cups the respect and prestige that these competitions deserve and it will remove the county versus college tug-of-war. Abolish the unnecessary League Finals and run the League off over 8 weeks.

Condense the All-Ireland Championships

Why is there a need for the Championships to run from May to September, with up to six weeks between games? Give the players what they want – regular games and a reduction in the training to games ratio. Run the inter-county championships from May to July.

Play the club season within the calendar year

If the National League and Championship is run from March to July as suggested above, instead of January to September as it is now, then that leaves August, September, October and November to play county, provincial and All-Ireland club championships. Then, everyone can have December off.

Solutions such as these will solve a great many problems within the GAA. They stop the overlapping of competitions, give inter-county players back to their clubs for the business end of the year and deliver fixture certainty to the club players – the lifeblood of the association.

An overhaul of the GAA calendar is a simple concept which may yet prove to be a logistical nightmare to implement. What is without doubt, however, is that something needs to be done before this begins to affect participation in our great games.

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