‘Inter-county players will no longer be strangers in their own clubs’

The newly agreed Split Season will be judged kindly by GAA historians, writes a delighted TOMMIE KENOY

“Players, both at inter-county and club level, have spent decades mired in frustration as they tried to marry their love of and commitment to Gaelic games with the day to day business of running their social, employment and family lives”

GAA Congress has given unanimous approval to the Split Season, an overdue but very welcome competitions structure that will bring fairness, regularity and certainty to the Association’s national games programme.

The new structure will end a long and at times acrimonious stand-off between conservative elements in the GAA’s administrative wing and its grassroots members, over a national fixtures programme that had evolved in piecemeal fashion over decades and which lacked a clear strategic plan. It was the subject of numerous reports and recommendations, many of which were never or partly implemented.

All this was overseen by individuals and groups, many with deeply vested interests, who put personal ambition and institutional issues at the top of their priority list and well ahead of the best interests of clubs, players, ordinary grassroots members and the long-term good of the Association.

These people are the GAA’s power brokers, political animals who are either climbing the administrative ladder or else clinging forcefully to their influential position therein. They rule the roost within a corporate elitist administration, unchallenged by the thousands of volunteers at ground level, some of whom are eager for progressive change but who are skilfully held off by their leaders.

  Players, both at inter-county and club level, have spent decades mired in frustration as they tried to marry their love of and commitment to Gaelic games with the day to day business of running their social, employment and family lives.

County Competitions Control Committees and County Boards were presented with ongoing challenges, as they tried to organise local competitions amidst the movable feast that was titled The Master Fixtures Plan.

And then there’s the club. How often have we heard GAA voices laud the club as the foundation stone of the GAA? How often have we wondered why affirmative action was never taken to create a cohesive annual games calendar, that matched such lofty rhetoric? Instead, the Association continued to career, irrevocably, towards a cliff edge of self-destruction.

But two events combined to reverse that destructive conclusion. Firstly, tens of thousands of club players rebelled in 2016 and formed a body to represent them, a volunteer lobby group called the Club Players Association. It was set up with one sole objective; to Fix the Fixtures.

Indeed, the arrival of the Split Season has led this group of committed grassroots members to wind up – job done – pointing out that it’s now a matter for GAA administrators to put a suitably designed games structure in place within the designated periods.

Roscommon GAA deserves huge credit for keeping the fixtures crises on its agenda all the way through. It even set up a Fixtures Review Committee whose recommendations were unanimously adopted by County Board and resulted in a motion for reform being sent to Central Council. The outcome, a 48 to 4 defeat, was proof, if proof were needed, that our elected representatives at national level tend to treat their electorate with a certain degree of distain. A subsequent motion to Congress, while technically in order, was not accepted on the basis that a review group had been set up and it was therefore unnecessary. They’ll always find a way.

Secondly, the world was attacked by a virulent enemy, a virus that led to millions of deaths, caused widespread illness and literally turned life on earth on its head.

Thus the GAA was faced with a fixtures conundrum. What to do and how to do it? County or club first? How to organise a games programme in the midst of a national health crisis?

The solution, the Split Season, will be judged kindly by GAA historians. It is a structure that nobody in their wildest dreams could have envisaged as 2020 dawned. It is more a product of the law of unintended consequences than any carefully considered GAA strategy.

It was first put on the table in 2017 by grassroots GAA members through their representative body and was met with stonewall resistance by GAA authorities and the Fixtures Task Force, both of whom listened but rejected. The latter flatly refused to include it in their recommendations. Yet, for a number of reasons, it will go down as an historic and progressive decision that resolved the Association’s fixtures crises and put in place the foundations for a fair and balanced national games programme.

The most significant reason is that it introduces clearly designated seasons for 3rd level, club and inter-county competitions. This is the cornerstone of the new system.

Also of major importance is the fact that club games will become the centrepiece of attention through the autumn and into the winter months. Inter-county players will no longer be strangers in their own clubs and will be an integral part of local panels as they train and play together in pursuit of club glory. At last the club has been reinstalled as the core unit of the GAA.

Greater crowds will attend games and income to County Board coffers will accordingly increase. No longer, as persistently happened in the past, will provincial and national administrators point the finger of blame at local CCCs. Instead, club competitions can be structured to fit neatly within the designated club season. The GAA will be restored to its rightful place as a community-based Gaelic games and culture organisation centred around the club.

During their designated period inter-county games will take their rightful and unchallenged place as the Association’s greatest product, its flagship promotional tool and primary source of revenue.

Other benefits will include the completion of the GAA’s games programme within the calendar year, an end to the interminable tug o’war over inter-county players, no more uncertainty and irregularity in the national games programme, and hopefully, a reversal of the worrying drop- out rate of players.

Some claim that this was a ‘top down’ decision, brought to Congress for truly altruistic reasons by rulers at Central Council and the Task Force and supported by the President and DG. Technically correct, but nonetheless a flawed analysis.

In truth that position was arrived at through the hugely positive reaction that grew among grassroots members following the unplanned reactive introduction of the Split Season last autumn. Intensive lobbying by CPA and some progressive officials at club and County Board levels had laid the foundation, created the script. Events last autumn built on that foundation, as, game by game the infant Split Season grew rapidly to adulthood. A massive force for change grew and ultimately the Association was forced into recognising the Split Season as a glaringly obvious solution to the Association’s endemic fixtures crises.

Getting to this point has been a long and at times torturous journey, not untypical of the pace of change in the world of GAA. At last, from 2022 onwards, we can share an Association that will be better, stronger, more community-based.

Finally, the GAA’s willingness to recognise and embrace progressive change, in spite of the contradicting stance it has long taken, deserves to be recognised. So too does the final act in office of outgoing GAA President John Horan. More than anyone he was the one who recognised the will of grassroots members, convinced his ruling body to recognise it and bring it to Congress for permanent installation in rule. History will, deservedly, judge him kindly.

 

* Kilmore GAA Club man Tommie Kenoy was Secretary of the now disbanded CPA (Club Players Association)