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choke park Why shortening inter-county season is just pure madness - the GAA have taken figs from Fig Rolls


Moving the All-Ireland football final away from September is like moving St Patricj's Day from March 17. Photo: Sportsfile

Moving the All-Ireland football final away from September is like moving St Patricj's Day from March 17. Photo: Sportsfile

Moving the All-Ireland football final away from September is like moving St Patricj's Day from March 17. Photo: Sportsfile

September, the long days surrendering to autumn, darkness awakening from hibernation and greedily devouring the evening light, has long been rescued, elevated, and illuminated by an untouchable landmark.

The boys of summer at play in Croke Park, pulsing the ungovernable hysteria of All-Ireland final day to every corner of the land.

If December is Christmas, then September brings the hurling and football showpieces: fixed and immovable, timeless listed buildings on the landscape of Irish sport.

The jewel in the GAA crown, its most powerful recruitment tool, bunting and flags and a sense of belonging, a date that fits the occasion as snugly as an expensively tailored suit.

Like St Patrick’s Day at the opposite equinox in the year, a celebration of Irish identity, a Mardi Gras weekend, a triumph of tradition, a sunburst of singularity.

Imagine the kerfuffle if the Government decided, in some moment of wildly warped 'wisdom', to shift the national holiday from March 17 to, say, mid-January.

Last Saturday, the GAA, in a well-meant but lamentably self-destructive move, voted for the equivalent shifting of their tectonic plates.

They euthanised September All-Ireland finals despite them being in the whole of their health.

The inter-county season was placed on a starvation diet, the protein-rich month of August and the sugar-rush of September stolen from its plate, reducing summer’s healthy, muscular torso to something skeletal and wan.

The Sunday Game theme tune will be decommissioned at the very time of the year when it tops the charts.

Two months to which the GAA holds the title deeds – when the Premier League and rugby are either sleeping or yet to gather their real and powerful momentum of later in the year – have been flushed down the pan.

The GAA have voluntarily taken the figs from the Fig Rolls.

Facilitated by an obsession with shortening the inter-county season (the chunk of the year that attracts the vast crowds, that guarantees wall to wall media coverage, that place hurling and football at the centre of the national conversation), it is, in this commentator’s view, a move of well-intentioned madness.

Well-intentioned because the admirable motivation is to facilitate a more coherent club fixture list.

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Madness because it detoured around the central reason why club teams have been denuded year after frustrating year: the absolute control of county managers over the access clubs have to their own star players.

Inter-county teams training to games ratio is 13:1, by far the highest of any sport.

Yet during this fallow competitive period, county managers veto the return of players to their clubs. The consequence is that local fixtures are postponed and deferred, and club players not involved with the county are left sitting idly by.

In some ways, the paranoia of county managers is entirely understandable as they are fearful of ceding competitive advantage to a rival.

The solution is to compel all county teams to release players, to weave an intersecting season of club and county fixtures (as happens with club and international in rugby and soccer) and insist the big names are freed.

Essentially, the GAA - in honourable pursuit of an equitable deal for club players - have treated the wrong injury.

The equivalent of a patient with a broken leg having his arm placed in a sling.

As last week’s headline over Martin Breheny’s impassioned polemic pleadingly beseeched: ‘Inter-county should not be treated as the big enemy’.

Those towering summer collisions extend the GAA’s reach way beyond its core audience.

They are the GAA's equivalent of the Late Late Toy Show: more than two hours advertising the magic of their wares to a vast audience.

In a world where rival sporting organisations are competing for scarce human resources, the sight of a teeming Croke Park or Semple Stadium or McHale Park or St Tiernach’s Park, with Cian Lynch, Brian Fenton, Darren McCurry or TJ Reid making magic, is a winner of hearts and minds.

The power of role models is vital: watching David Clifford or Tony Kelly make magic on a canvass of grass is the lure to bring thousands of kids to the gates of their local club.

Now Kerry, Mayo, Dublin, Tyrone, Limerick, Tipp, Kilkenny and Waterford will go fully six months between county games.

Shortening the county season, stripping away the months most powerfully associated with the GAA is illogical on so many levels.

In recent years, the intention was to move the All-Ireland football final to late August, but, for a variety of reasons that ranged from replays to Papal visits to Tyrone's Covid delay, the big game managed to sneak into September (or even move to December, as was the case in 2020 due to the pandemic).

It was as if the gods were advising the GAA against tampering with a proven formula.

Ringed in the calendar, an instantly recognisable bend in the road, the kind of priceless marketing tool that has commercial departments purring with joy, September is synonymous with All-Ireland finals.

But no more. Even the excitement in the classrooms of competing counties, the children costumed in county colours in the week of the match, the seed of identity sown, will be lost to school summer holidays, many of the kids on foreign beaches as the drama unfolds.

A noble, well-meaning but deeply flawed GAA gesture will open a vast late-summer, early-autumn void.

And, as darkness eats into the evening, as the proud listed buildings are torn down, as something priceless and elemental is lost, the silence that engulfs the Hogan Stand will seem at once deafening and unspeakably sad.

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