Oisín McConville on Football

July 16th, 2014 | Club Football

Oisín McConville on Football

For club players in the likes of Cavan, Down, Laois and Tyrone, the weekend defeats of their county teams at least cleared up one thing – they know their county championships will be in full swing soon.
That’s a significant thing given that we now live in an era where club and county in GAA seem to be getting further and further apart. A lot of what we have heard lately seems to be that it is getting harder and harder to be both a committed club footballer and inter-county footballer in certain counties. Perhaps the best recent example of this was in Laois, where Colm Begley, one of their top players, was not allowed play in their first championship match of the year because he had played for his club a few days before.
I found that one of the most infuriating, frustrating and mind-boggling things that has possibly ever happened in the GAA. Punished for playing for your club? Your first port of call has to be your club, especially when it comes to championship football. We must remember, championship is what matters most to all players, be they club or inter-county, and all championship games, be it the All-Ireland Final or a Junior Club Championship First Round game, should be treated the same from a player’s perspective.
Now that might sound crazy to some people. But I should explain something from my own career here. When I was playing football, the thing I always said to myself was: “What’s next for me? What’s the next most important date on my calendar?” Now this following scenario wouldn’t have happened, but if I had an inter-county championship game on a Sunday, and a club championship game with Crossmaglen on the Friday, I would play the club game for sure – because it would be the next thing on my list.
By being made an example of, Colm Begley wasn’t given that opportunity a couple of months ago and I can’t fathom how that was allowed to happen. It tells me that we are going down a dangerous road, whereby club managers and club players are now at the stage of accepting that they will be without their county players for nearly the whole year, or certainly the majority of the whole year. Cavan for example, have now split their league into two – with one table for games played with county players, and one for the games played without!
Now it’s well accepted for a long time that county players aren’t going to be around for club league games. But for it to start happening at championship level is very worrying. I believe that means there’s a real risk that the GAA club scene could go down the road of club rugby. There was a time when club rugby was popular in this country, but once the elite level players were exclusively committed to provincial rugby, the club scene faded from the national scene. Very few people are going to watch club rugby these days, apart from the people involved.
It’s madness to think that a club could nurture a player until he is 18 or 19, and then at that age he is cherry picked by a county team, where he could well stay for a decade, playing very little club football in that time. From speaking to a lot of inter-county players, they are lucky to play two league games a year for their club at the moment. I’m manager of the Crossmaglen senior football team now and this season I have had our inter-county players available for two league games out of 11, and no training sessions. They haven’t trained since January with us. We’re lucky in that our players will still come to see us and show their faces when they can, but when you are without players of the calibre of Jamie Clarke and Aaron Kernan, more or less all the time, it’s not ideal.
Inter-county players are still being released for the club championship, but in the Colm Begley example, because he plays for Laois but plays his club football in Dublin, he wasn’t ‘sanctioned’ to play. They punished him for playing, when what they should have been doing is welcoming him back with open arms after he played an important game for his club and was returning to them in good nick.
However, I firmly believe that despite this increasingly difficult situation, it is still possible to be a fully committed inter-county footballer and remain a committed member of your club. During my own days with Crossmaglen and Armagh, we were competing for All-Irelands at both club and inter-county level for most of my career. Now there were times when the two didn’t run that smoothly together, but when Crossmaglen were going well, Armagh were going well, whether it was incidental or not. We started winning Ulster titles and All-Irelands with Crossmaglen, and then Armagh did the same.
The thing about Crossmaglen and Armagh though, was that it was at times very frustrating for fellow county players that we were always getting to the latter stages of the All-Ireland Club Championship. The frustration came from the fact that we, the Cross players, would usually return for the last two league games with Armagh. We played one or two league games for the county and we would then have forced our way back in for the championship, whereas someone who had been playing all the way through the league was probably dropped.
I remember back in 1999 after a league game against Donegal, the Armagh players got together and had a meeting about us, and apparently tore into us. We heard a lot of what had been said in the meeting when we came back and after that there was a lot of clearing the air. We told them how we felt and after that we were maybe able to compromise a little bit more. Overall, I definitely think Crossmaglen’s success was a big positive for the Armagh football team.
I think perhaps the best example to illustrate how possible it is for top inter-county footballers to have equally fulfilling club careers is in the most successful county of them all – Kerry.
The single biggest compliment I can give to Kerry is that it never seems to be an issue there. They just seem to go and play their games, and they probably play as many if not more club games than any other county in Ireland. They don’t seem to overtrain their players. They just seem to always play games, whether it be League, Divisional, Kerry County Championship – they always seem to be playing, and they seem to be playing at times of the year when other counties are closed down.
The big thing then is that, whenever Kerry get far enough on, there is a lull in the club stuff and I think everyone accepts that because Kerry have been so successful over the years, 36 All-Ireland titles and all that. Take this weekend just past – Kerry qualified for the All-Ireland quarter-finals when they beat Cork in the Munster final on July 6, and the following weekend their players were playing championship with their clubs. No problem. James O’Donoghue, who was lighting up all our television screens two weekends ago, was one of the main men last weekend as his club Legion knocked out Colm Cooper’s club Dr Crokes.
I mean, take Cooper for example. He has been so committed to Dr Crokes for years – winning Munster titles, trying his hardest to win an All-Ireland with them – and he has balanced all that with being one of the top players in Ireland with Kerry. Cooper has played as much football as anyone in the country, and he still has been able to excel. Until his injury this year, he had hardly ever even been injured in 12 years of playing at the highest level.
Yet some people seem to still be of the belief that a good club run is to the detriment of an inter-county team. I firmly believe the opposite. We have our own example in Crossmaglen, the case of Colm Cooper and Dr Crokes, and another example this year was St. Vincent’s. Not long after winning the All-Ireland Club title with Vincent’s, Diarmuid Connolly was playing up in Tyrone for Dublin, kicking an absolutely brilliant winning point at the end of the game. Players at that level are just able to do these things.
Part of the reason why this topic is in the news at the moment is the recent proposal from the Football Review Committee that suggested completing the All-Ireland Club Championships in a calendar year – in other words, having everything wrapped up by December, as opposed to the following March, like it currently is. Now, having played in seven All-Ireland Club finals on St. Patrick’s Day during my career, I know the value of that date – it’s the highlight of any club player’s career – but I generally agree with the FRC proposal.
I think it’s fair to say that something had to give as far as fixtures go. The recurring theme I hear from club players – and I hear it at length on the Player Welfare Committee in Croke Park – is fixtures. They are changed all the time. Changed because a county manager says so, changed because of a training weekend, you name it. Players see a schedule at the start of the year and try to plan around it with holidays and things like that, but the amount of times that list is stuck to are few and far between.
It is the most sensible thing to try and get the club championships run off in a calendar year, but I think we have a lot of things to put in place before we do that. The inter-county calendar would probably have to be tweaked to get all the club championships finished by December for a start. We’d have to examine exactly how you would do that, but at least the debate has started.
Another major advantage to having everything wrapped up by December, is that you would then create a genuine off-season, a one or two month period for nearly all players where there is a genuine break. A time when we’re a closed shop. The quicker that we start thinking along those lines the better. People talk about burnout? Well that’s a solution there. And I mean a real off-season and not one where inter-county managers are rubbing their hands and saying we can start training even earlier now!
To go back to what I said at the start – we have reached a very challenging point in the relationship between club and county teams, and in the Colm Begley example, I believe a dangerous precedent was set. Punished for playing with your club!? To me, it was one of the most ridiculous things that has ever happened in GAA, as well as being totally avoidable and unnecessary.
We have to learn from the best with regard to all this. Kerry, and also Kilkenny at the top level in hurling, seem to have it down to a fine art. They both manage to keep their club players generally happy, both manage to produce very strong club teams and competitive club championships, and are both very successful at inter-county level – they have won 70 All-Irelands between them.
They are the shining examples that a good club career does not have to be mutually exclusive to a good inter-county career. We can all learn from that.
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This is the first of Oisín McConville’s exclusive football columns, which will feature on GAA.ie throughout the summer. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and are not necessarily those of the Association.

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