Until the GAA accept that inter-county football has become a completely different level of the game, the club scene will continue to stagnate and suffer in comparison.
Club players are already treated as second class players by the GAA. Most begin collective training in late January or early February for a season that could last upwards of 10 months depending on the fortunes of their county team. As the inter-county season heats during the summer, a panel of 25-30 club players are asked to continue to stay fit and eager while they may go a month or 6 weeks without a meaningful fixture in their Championship. As the wear and tear of an already long season starts to build up, it is hard to accept this poor scheduling and many lose interest or decide to spend a summer abroad.
Meanwhile the time and commitment it takes to play for a GAA club has never been greater. Serious club players will look after their diet, flexibility training and mental preparation week on week during the season. This can include an extra half-hour before and after each training session for stretching, foam rolling and getting any niggles ready for the weekend fixture.
Outside of collective training, players can spend hours attending team or player only meetings each season, most will put in a gym session or two themselves during the week and if you require any treatment on injuries, there is the time and money spent on getting physio treatment or doing muscle specific exercises. It all adds up.
All of this is done simply for the enjoyment of playing the game, the pride of playing for your local team and the will to win and be a part of something special. There is no monetary, mental or physical gain from doing all this and without a club scene, the GAA would immediately lose the identity of its foundation and the identity it has fought so hard to keep by retaining its amateur status in name if not in practice.
Recent rule changes are a serious bug bearer of the club game. Inconsistency of officiating of these rules by local referees who, with all respect to them, are placed out of their depth by the GAA by the complicity of these rules are the main issue.
The black card, brought in due to perceived cynicism in the county game was a good idea in theory and has been somewhat effective as a punishment in that setting. In comparison, club referee’s struggle with the interpretation of what exactly constitutes a black card offence and the varying inconsistency leads to frustration among club players each weekend.
Alarmingly at the most recent GAA congress, more rule changes have been passed including the “mark”. Again in theory, this is a good rule to reward players for fielding the ball from the restart. Bringing it into club football however just adds another rule for a completely amateur referee to keep track of while he’s supposed to be watching for any infringements in the play at the same time. More rules lead to more mistakes which lead to more frustration in the game.
As I have previously stated I have a lot of sympathy for referees. The average age profile of GAA referees is between 45-55. You are already asking them to keep up with a game which is growing in speed and physicality each year, with an already complex rule-book to keep in mind and then you add in an extra card and a needless extra facet of the game? While it might work at the highest level, do you think a group of players of Junior B standard really need all these extra rules when they are struggling to get a panel together? I think not.
There-in lies the problem. The game is developing a certain way at the top level with Donegal, Tyrone, Cork, Mayo trying to create certain systems to counteract the recent dominance of Dublin and a style of cynical, possession hungry football is the end product. Short kick-outs, little fielding of the ball in the middle third and less foot passing over 20 yards has been the name of the game recently. The trickle down effect of said systems has been these rule changes which may serve to tidy up the game at the highest level but cloud it in confusion at all levels below.
There is an increasingly “Dublin-centric” approach in the GAA and while things may be rosy at the minute in the capital, things further afield are not as healthy. Involvement in club football has been declining in the vast majority of counties in recent years with many players citing the consumption of time as their main issue with the game. Set-ups with clubs have become so professional that it is impossible for players to sustain that kind of commitment to what is in all intense and purposes, a hobby for most of them.
All these issues are combining to create a substantial divide between inter-county and club teams and for the most part, they are becoming two different games. Clubs are the platform from which county teams are developed and somewhere at the top table, this is being sorely forgotten. Those who lose out from this are the people who work hardest to keep a club respectable, the players.
If there are no players at clubs for young people to aspire to play alongside or emulate, they will either, not join the club in the first place or drift away from the game at an early age and putting them on any number of “development panels” or giving them any amount of gear with the county crest on it will not keep them involved.
It is high time someone in Croke Park took notice of this concerning trend and took steps to change how clubs are being treated in the face of the county game. If nothing continues to be done then the standard and interest in the club scene will simply fade and sadly I think that, until this trend starts affecting the top 5 or 6 teams in the country, little will be done about it.