Playing with a GAA club provokes mixed emotions. Of course club players like to see their county winning games, being successful, and bringing back an All-Ireland title in September. But, generally progress for the county team comes at the expense of club players: it creates havoc with club championship fixtures, training schedules and, as a result, club players' social lives. That's why, as a club player in Meath, I somewhat resented Meath's success, and couldn't help feeling disloyal, half hoping for their early exit from the championship. I'm sure I'm not the only one. Club players who take their football and/or hurling seriously, are committed to training hard for games and watching what they eat and drink, can't help feeling conflicted, as a defeat for their county leaves the summer open for club championship games, and maybe even a summer holiday.
This year, for example, the Meath club championship started on the weekend of 15 April. It's run on a round robin basis so each team has four matches to decide the quarter-final pairings. The second championship match was played on 24 June after Meath's defeat to Dublin in a replay. Meath's run in the qualifiers, which took them to the All-Ireland semi-final, meant that there were no further championship games until 24 August. That's just three championship games in five months! As a result the final will not be played until the 21st October. That's frustrating and disheartening for all club players.
What other sports run their championships - the most important games - on such a stop-start basis? The worst part for the club players is the uncertainty. They had to try to keep their fitness high over this period, as every Meath game brought with it the possibility that they would be eliminated and that the club games would be played the following week. On five separate occasions this year the club players had to prepare for a game which would have been played if Meath had been defeated. Four times it didn't happen. Consequently, it's very difficult to plan training schedules for players to peak at the right time and just as hard for amateur players to maintain a plateau of fitness for such an extended period, without regular games. And, as for booking summer holidays. Impossible! Not even Mystic Meg would try. So where's the satisfaction for the club players?
That's why the GAA's efforts to improve the fixture logjam for the clubs should be welcomed. Although, as the GAA admitted in putting forward the plans, "acceptance of the proposals here will not resolve the problem of how to provide club players with a more satisfactory programme of games", it's a very welcome first step demonstrating that they "are serious about addressing the issue". The scenario outlined above will probably continue in the short-term as the current composition of the inter-county championship does not allow much scope for championship club games to be played in tandem. However, the proposals signal a start to ending the division between club and county that has existed for so long. This is their most important feature and why they should be supported.
Club and county have to exist side by side. They are intertwined and mutually dependent. Club matches are of vital importance to the health and well-being of the GAA and they must be given the respect and prominence they rightly deserve. There's three months to digest the recommendations before Congress and build support for the proposals to be taken on board. It's time for the club players to speak out and make sure the county boards and provincial council's do so.