Raging debate | 

Pat Spillane: Venom directed at myself and Donal Óg Cusack over split season worries me

The tone of the debate worries me – particularly the venom being directed at the likes of myself and Donal Óg Cusack who dared question the validity of the split season.

24 July 2022; RTÉ Sunday Game analyst Pat Spillane before his final broadcast, with his Sunday Game colleagues, from left, presenter Joanne Cantwell, analysts Sean Cavanagh and Ciaran Whelan before the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Kerry and Galway at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

24 July 2022; David Clifford of Kerry takes a free during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Kerry and Galway at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

16 February 2022; David Clifford of UL scores his side's first goal, from a penalty, during the Electric Ireland HE GAA Sigerson Cup Final match between NUI Galway and University of Limerick at IT Carlow in Carlow. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

24 July 2022; David Clifford of Kerry takes a free during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Kerry and Galway at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

18 December 2021; Paul Mannion of Kilmacud Crokes during the AIB Leinster GAA Football Senior Club Championship Semi-Final match between Portarlington and Kilmacud Crokes at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Pat SpillaneSunday World

Forgive me, but I have to again address the elephant in the GAA room – the split season.

I promise this is my last word on the subject - for now.

The key issues are: Is it working? Can it work? Is there a better plan?

Judging by the reaction to previous comments there is no middle ground. There is a Yes camp and a No camp and nothing in between.

The tone of the debate worries me – particularly the venom being directed at the likes of myself and Donal Óg Cusack who dared question the validity of the split season.

It reminds me of the rhetoric we heard during other contentious debates in the GAA such as opening up Croke Park to rugby and soccer.

We have been accused of being elitist, motivated by personal financial gain and forgetting about the grass-roots of the GAA whoever they are.

Firstly, let me debunk some of those accusations.

It is simply fake news that the likes of myself and Donal Óg Cusack had a vested interest in prolonging the All-Ireland series because of our work on the Sunday Game.

All the Sunday Games panellists/contributors/co-commentators have an annual contract with RTE.

Dónal Óg Cusack© SPORTSFILE

So, it doesn’t matter to any of us how many games are played. As for the suggestion that I have no interest in club affairs.

Well, I played club football for 25 years and served as Templenoe club chairman for seven years.

I don’t buy the argument that we all should wait until the end of the season before expressing a view on the new format.

If a car is racing out of control the driver doesn’t wait until it crashes before taking remedial action.

When I suggest a split season for inter-county football and hurling all I hear is about how this would impact on any of the country’s top dual clubs - take Kilmacud Crokes or Ballyboden St Endas in Dublin, Slaughtneil in Derry or Loughmore-Castleiney in Tipperary.

All I can say is that hard cases make bad law. In other words, it is simply impossible to cater for every scenario and every player.

I was accused by being emotional when I said September was by far the best month for promoting the GAA in schools because it coincided with the two All-Ireland finals.

Again, I know that from personal experience and I don’t like the attitude of the Croke Park authorities to the debate.

They keep insisting the split season is working and have adopted a kind of ‘no surrender’ attitude.

I accept there were cogent reasons for introducing the split season.

Club players now have a defined season. Less money is being spent on inter-county teams – in theory.

Though I wonder will that be the actual case when we see many County Board accounts at the end of the year.

The plan prioritised the 98 percent of players who only tog out for their clubs and it put the county managers back in their box.

No longer are they able to dictate when players can play for their clubs.

But I’m sorry, I can come up with far more convincing arguments against the split season.

Firstly, the GAA are cutting off their nose to spite their face.

With no replays, the loss of revenue from the All-Ireland series will ultimately impact on clubs with less funding available for coaching and infrastructure projects.

More worryingly, however, is the loss of profile for the GAA due to them closing down their shop window products, the football and hurling championship for six months of the year.

Don’t forget there were only six high profile championship games in July, the All-Ireland semi-finals and finals in both codes.

We have abandoned August and September, traditionally the two biggest months of the year on the GAA calendar in terms of national profile.

David Clifford celebrates Kerry's All-Ireland final win. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

RTE’s viewing figures for the Kerry v Galway All-Ireland final were interesting.

Granted, it was the most watched sports programme so far this year, but it was only the seventh most watched football final in the last decade.

This reinforces my argument that July is not the optimum month for sport on television because so many people are on holiday or alternatively opt to head to the beach rather than watch TV.

For the next four and half months armchair TV fans can choose from a variety of sports ranging from the on-going European Athletics Championships in Munich, the Premier League, the Champions League as well as the various other soccer competitions in the UK and Europe - not to mention the small matter of the World Cup in Qatar between November 21 and December 18.

As for rugby, we have the United Rugby Championship, the Champions Cup and the autumn internationals coming up.

Meanwhile, all the GAA can offer are the club championships.

Arguably the club is no longer corner-stone of the GAA.

It is what happens at inter-county level that matters now to the general public.

Of course, within individual counties club championships are hugely significant.

But with the odd exception they are parochial affairs, with limited interest national appeal.

TG4’s viewing figures for county championship games are relatively modest.

Next year the issues will become even more stark with the new look All-Ireland football series.

The number of games jumps from 68 to 90 with the provincial championships being squeezed into a five-week time-frame.

The stars of Gaelic football, David Clifford, Seanie O’Shea, Shane Walsh and Brian Fenton are being hidden from view.

Ok they are playing with their clubs, but GAA fans want to see them performing at the highest level against the best opposition.

The companies who sponsor the GAA championships are not getting bang for their buck.

The sale of O’Neills replica GAA jerseys fell by 15 percent this year.

The only times the GAA’s two biggest stadia, Croke Park and Pairc Ui Chaoimh, will be full during the next eight months is for this weekend’s Westlife concerts in Cork and next month’s Garth Brooks’ concerts in Croker.

As a result of the split season, one of the hurling quarter-finals, between Galway and Cork, was played on a Saturday afternoon with a 2pm throw-in.

Galway reached the All-Ireland football semi-final via a penalty-shoot-out and thousands of fans were deprived of a chance of seeing a replay between themselves and Armagh.

Due to their proximity there wasn’t time for any meaningful build-up to the hurling and football finals this year.

Match tickets for the hurling decider were easily available on the eve of the game while football final tickets were sold on Ticketmaster on the Friday before that match.

I don’t ever recall that happening before in this century.

Meanwhile, the first round of the club football championship in Tyrone and Mayo won’t be played until September even though neither county made it to the last four in the All-Ireland series.

Tyrone, indeed, got knocked out in the first round of the qualifiers.

But the senior club hurling championships in Louth, Kerry and Carlow concluded last Sunday.

Ballyduff, the beaten finalists in the Kerry decider, will have played three games in a week by this evening.

They are a dual club and had two junior football championship games this week.

Harry O’Reilly, the football manager of Cork dual club, Eire Óg recently revealed the schedule facing the club’s senior hurling and football sides.

Having already played nine league games in each code, they then faced a county league semi-final, a first round football championship tie and a first round hurling championship tie on successive weekends.

What is actually happening now is that many club players are suffering from overload at a time when they might want to be on holiday with their families or friends.

Club footballers in Kerry, who just finished the county league, are now involved in the round robin club championship with the county and divisional championships still to come.

And there is no rest for the Kerry county stars.

Take the case of David Clifford, the country’s highest profile GAA player.

He started back training with Kerry on December 8 last.

David was involved in McGrath Cup, Sigerson Cup and National League games from Christmas until March.

April to July was non-stop championship action. He missed the Munster final as he was rehabbing following an injury.

Seven days after the All-Ireland final he was back playing for Fossa in the Kerry junior club championship which is ongoing.

There is a video of him scoring a wonderful point in that game on July 31 - with just a handful of people standing behind the posts over which he kicked the point.

Later in the autumn, Clifford will feature for East Kerry in the county championship followed by the East Kerry championship with Fossa. By the time he’s finished it will probably be time for him to return to training with Kerry.

Many clubs are understrength at the moment because students are still away on J1 visas, others are on holidays while more are playing football in the US.

Take a look at the Score Beo website and check out the number of high-profile players who featured in the Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Boston championships last weekend.

Paul Mannion, for example, was playing for Donegal in Boston while his club Kilmacud Crokes began the defence of their Dublin and Leinster club titles.

I rest my case!

Essentially the GAA has taken a sledgehammer to crack a nut and gone for the nuclear option. Of course, there were issues with club v county. But I believe they could have been resolved in a different way.

What is required now is compromise. There is an unarguable case for moving the hurling and football finals to the latter end of August with club championships starting later than this year.

But as I repeatedly written there is a near perfect solution which would solve most of the issues and keep the GAA in the shop window from early spring to the end of autumn.

I’m referring to a different kind of split season with inter-county football and club hurling been played in the months of February, March, April, May and June with inter-county hurling and club football taking place in July, August, September and October.

It is the ideal scenario as it caters for the needs of clubs and counties.

We could do with a common sense approach which of course will require compromise. Or is that too much to expect?


Today's Headlines

More GAA

Download the Sunday World app

Now download the free app for all the latest Sunday World News, Crime, Irish Showbiz and Sport. Available on Apple and Android devices