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Pat Spillane: The GAA have made a dog's dinner of split season

Two events went under the radar recently - and they show why the GAA is in trouble.
Cathal McShane and Oisín Mullin clash in the 2021 All-Ireland final. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Cathal McShane and Oisín Mullin clash in the 2021 All-Ireland final. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Pat Spillane

Only eagle-eyed GAA fanatics would have paid attention to two recent GAA events.

The 2022 draft fixture list was published, and the provincial football championships draws were made.

This was once a high-profile live TV event. Two weeks ago, the draws took place in the RTE radio studio in the middle of a busy sporting Saturday afternoon.

The fixture list confirmed the formal split between club and county fixtures.

Next year we have a compacted inter-county season, lasting 27 weeks from January to July. The championship will be done and dusted in 16 weeks.

So far, so neat, you might say. Sorry, I don’t buy it.

Granted the split season gives certainty to club players.

Frankly, I believe the GAA has made a dog’s dinner of it.

Fans arriving at Croke Park, Dublin, ahead of Tyrone taking on Mayo in the All Ireland football final (Damien Storan/PA)

Fans arriving at Croke Park, Dublin, ahead of Tyrone taking on Mayo in the All Ireland football final (Damien Storan/PA)

Taking the flagship competitions – inter-county football and hurling – out of the shop window for six months is a spectacular marketing own goal. It hands rugby and soccer a free run.

Club action can be entertaining – the Tipp hurling final and replay were outstanding, for example.

But let’s call a spade a spade: club matches will never get the same viewing figures as inter-county games, as they do not command a national profile.

In order to persuade youngsters to play a particular sport nowadays, it must be high-profile and be seen regularly on national television. This is where the younger generation find their role models.

From next year their role models for six months of the year will come from rugby and soccer, because they’re the sports they will watch on TV.

Next year the last game on the GAA inter county calendar is the All-Ireland football final on July 24 – unless there is a replay.

Then there is a six-month break before the 2023 Allianz League begins on either the last weekend of January, or the first weekend in February. It’s a joke.

And what about Croke Park? It will be little more than a white elephant for half the year. Next year will be an exception with Garth Brooks’ five concerts.

But Croke Park was rebuilt to provide a platform where our national games would be promoted.

For more than a 100 years the All-Ireland football and hurling finals were played in September.

It was the time of the year when the GAA took centre stage.

The youngsters were back in school; they were all playing football or hurling, because of all the hype surrounding the finals.

With the stroke of a pen, the GAA has abandoned it all.

Pray tell me, why shorten the season when the majority of the other sports are actually extending their season to maximise profile and generate more revenue?

The GAA are cutting off their nose to spite their face.

All games will be decided on the day, apart from the All-Ireland final.

Again, I’m a traditionalist when it comes to replays.

It will take some getting used to with the new schedule.

For example, the Munster football final will be played on Saturday, May 28.

It will be a far cry from the heady prospect of a scorching July Sunday in Killarney – where the atmosphere and colour for a football decider is on par with what hurling fans rave about when the Munster final is staged in Thurles.

Those magic days will be lost forever. There used to be an old saying in Tipp hurling ‘Cork bet and the hay saved’.

Well, next year the grass will still be growing when Cork and Tipp clash in the championship.

Traditionally the months of July and August were top-heavy with glamour matches in the GAA championship – not anymore.

Granted there are big games in July, including the All-Ireland semi-finals and final in both codes. But, unless there is a replay in football, August 2022 is GAA-free.

And there probably won’t be many club games either as the start of local championships will be delayed in order to allow inter-county players have a break.

Of course, the old format had many flaws.

It was wrong that club action was put on hold to allow county team managers have uninterrupted access to county players.

In many instances county managers dictated when club fixtures were played – and nobody knew for sure when club championships would start.

As a result, hundreds of young players travelled to play in the US during the summer. This was all wrong.

But the GAA ought to be mindful of a quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: ‘Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast’.

Hand on heart, I believe the new format is ill thought out, it was drawn up in haste and is a huge own goal.

Of course, the club player must be looked after.

But let’s be clear: it is inter-county matches and players that drive the profile of the sport, and generate the bulk of the GAA’s income.

We are getting our priorities all wrong.

As I have alluded to previously, there is a simple solution – which my Sunday World colleague Sean McGoldrick has written about on these pages on many occasions.

It is very straightforward: the first half of the year is devoted exclusively to inter-county football and club hurling, with the remainder of the year given over to inter-county hurling and club football.

The running order can be changed every second year. This would ensure maximum exposure for the GAA from late January to the end of October, as well as giving dual club players a better crack of the whip.

As for the provincial championship draws – well, they were fairly underwhelming and not likely to whet the appetite of even the most diehard fan.

I continue my Shakespeare theme here and suggest it was case of much ado about nothing.

The big game is the quarter-final clash in Connacht between Galway and Mayo – though I doubt if in mid-April it will bring the nation to a halt.

In Munster, we have a Cork v Kerry semi-final to look forward to.

Given that the Rebels endured a 22-point mauling from Kerry in last year’s provincial final, I can’t imagine thousands flocking to Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the rematch.

The fans will far more likely be there for the Ed Sheeran and Westlife concerts next year.

Even now I could predict the semi-finalists in Leinster – it will be a repeat of last year with Dublin, Meath, Kildare and Westmeath advancing.

I wonder will Tomas Ó Sé regret leaving the cosy confines of the Sunday Game studio for his new role in Offaly.

They face Wexford in the first round and the winners have the dubious honour of taking on the Dubs in the quarter-final.

Of course, Ulster will be the most competitive province.

One would have to feel sorry for Tyrone. In virtually every other sport the champions are rewarded.

In Ulster, they get an extra match in the preliminary round.

I had to check what happens after the provincial championships.

Basically, the 16 counties that finish up in Division 3 and 4 after the 2022 League will participate in the new Tailteann Cup – unless any of them reach their respective provincial finals which would guarantee them a place in the All-Ireland series.

New York will also participate in the Tailteann, coming in at the quarter-final stage with the competition being run on a straight knockout basis.

The provincial champions qualify directly for the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

The runners-up, together with the remaining teams from Division 1 and 2 knocked out in earlier rounds of the provincial series will get a second chance to reach the quarter-final via a qualifier system.

The 2022 All-Ireland championships in hurling and football will be like a 400m sprint rather the traditional marathon.

All in all, it will take a bit of getting used to.


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