THE split-season could be the beginning of the end of the clubcounty player. Firstly, before we begin, I must declare that this is an opinion piece not a prediction, I never make predictions and I never will.
Secondly, my experience on this issue is exclusively from a club manager’s perspective so I accept that this article is inherently biased. That said, I will try to strike a balance, much like the modern clubcounty player.
The issue at hand is that all parties, myself included, want access to their players. Be that a county manager, a university manager, a minor manager or a club manager. Most players want to play for all their teams but often find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Tommy Conroy is a perfect example of this. Earlier this year he lined out for Mayo in the National League on a Sunday and two days later he lined out for NUI Galway in the Sigerson. He subsequently tore his cruciate ligament and will miss the remainder of the season. Whilst the injury is not categorically accredited to playing two games in quick succession, you must think that playing an inter-county match and a Sigerson game within 48 hours is detrimental to player welfare.
Croke Park has attempted to address the issue with the introduction of the split-season. Essentially county teams have exclusive access to their players for the league, championship, and Qualifiers. Players are then freed up to play for their clubs when the inter-county season concludes.
So at face value that seems like a fair compromise, players no longer have the burden of having to pick one or the other or both, you play for your county and then join up with your club when the county season finishes.
There are however, from a club perspective, several inherent problems associated with this model.
1)Player welfare. The current inter-county player is amateur in name only. Their season could begin in November with strength and conditioning and depending on their run in the All-Ireland series, Qualifiers or Tailteann Cup, they could be on the go until July.
They are then expected to jump immediately back into club action until OctoberNovember and then commence the next year of county football immediately. Essentially, this is footballing all year round with little to no rest period. We will see more and more Tommy Conroy situations.
2) As most club leagues are starting this week, we will see little to no county players in action for their clubs. Indeed, most clubs who have county representation will play most of the league minus their county contingent.
3) The county player who is not making the county team. If for example, you are not in the squad of 26 you get no game time for your county and are unavailable for your club. Croke Park have issued a directive that those in this situation are to be made available for club games. However, often said players will be expected to train with their counties instead of playing for their clubs.
If a county manager makes it clear you are expected to train, a club manager quoting the directive on players being released, from experience, is wasting their time.
4) The new championship formats. From next year you will have more games in the county calendar with the extended Champions League style format. This will serve only to further exacerbate the the problem.
5) The calendar. The new format means that a lot of club championships are to take place in late September and October. We were blessed with the weather last year, but clubs will increasingly struggle with access to pitches if the weather takes a turn in AutumnWinter. Anecdotally I have heard of many clubs with inadequate flood lights at this time of year.
Ultimately, I have no perfect solution. All managers have their own pressures and issues so just because I am speaking from the club point of view, I am not attempting to apportion blame to the county side of things.
I know for a fact that many county managers have released players to their club, and they have returned injured, which has impeded their progress too.
Where is the end game? I believe the first step in the next two to three seasons may see county players being made available for club championship games only.
The next logical progression to this would be to follow the rugby format. You play for your club or your county but not both. I hope this is not the case.
Using my home club Dromintee as an example, we have Aaron McKay on the Armagh panel. This shows that there’s hope for us all, if McKay can play at that level.
On a serious note, the underage children involved with Dromintee see him playing for Armagh and it fills them with thoughts of pulling on the orange jersey themselves one day. Aaron also cannot do enough in terms of helping with underage in the club and giving up his time to speak or have a photo taken with the next generation.
I’m sure this is the same up and down the country with county players. So, I hope we can find a way to accommodate both for as long as possible.
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