Cork kick-starts GAA debate on those hijacked summers

So Cork, what’s it to be? Incremental improvement or radical new thinking? Say what you want about the Championship proposals tabled last night to club delegates at the Cork GAA board meeting, but they will surely have the effect of energising club committee rooms weary of going around the houses on the impact inter-county fare is having on clubs around the country.

The working group charged with streamlining and improving Cork’s championships and offering solutions to a paralysed summer hasn’t so much shone a light as lit a fuse under the unwieldy, unproductive and ultimately deleterious structures in the county. That’s no bad start.

Cork is a unique case in this regard. The sheer size of the county, the number of clubs and grades and the competing demands at club and county level of football and hurling forces Cork to grapple with issues other counties only read of in abstract case studies. The effect of those challenges has been to facilitate a bloated and failing product that’s undoubtedly damaged standards at inter-county level.

Tracey Kennedy, chairperson Cork county board addressing delegates at the County board meeting at Pairc Ui Chaoimh last night Picture: Eddie O’Hare

With the new faces on Cork’s GAA executive has come fresh thinking. The new secretary/CEO, Kevin O’Donovan set out the three options for delegates last night. Though his tone was measured and delivery impartial, he will be a disappointed man if the document is not set on fire by some clubs around Cork over the next six days. They are invited to return with their preferred mechanisms in a week’s time. The 20-page document is not short of talking points and there’s little doubt which of the ideas will generate the most discussion.

We will come back to that. Firstly, some context. Several club fora in recent months had already convinced the workgroup of three fundamental changes to the championships in Cork: Firstly, that a mandatory overhaul is implemented to reduce the number of teams in each grade to a manageable 12; secondly, that direct relegation be reintroduced, and, thirdly, that the championship format be changed to a league-based system.

In Cork’s case, none of these changes are before time.

It may be the League — and therein lies another issue in Cork — but the idea that some top hurling clubs could cosy together a while back and ensure no relegation from the Senior Hurling League was frankly laughable, and hardly the recipe for the requisite cut-and-thrust fixtures for club players on the up. A shake-up of Cork’s primary and secondary competitions is badly needed. And a right ol’ shake-up is what’s on the table. The radical ‘Plan C’ proposal to play some championship games in the summer without inter-county players isn’t just left-field. It’s an important and intriguing proposal, but more than that, it’s a conversation kick-starter for every other county in the Association hen-pecked and hampered by the 3% of elite players

inadvertently dictating to the other 97%. “The first guy through the wall,” Boston Red Sox owner John Henry once told Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane, “he always gets bloody. Always.”

The idea that any team lines out in the most important competition of the year without their game-changers will be deemed a non-starter by many — some clubs more than others, obviously — but someone, somewhere has to start figuring how to reverse out of the club v county mess. As O’Donovan pointed out last night: “You can spend your whole life traveling around the world searching for the Garden of Eden, or you can create it in your backyard.”

The cash cows that are the provincial and All-Ireland championships have already proved their capacity to swallow whole the summer fixtures at home. Does anyone seriously believe that’s going to change? Clubs can rage or reform.

Firstly, though, let’s tease this one out. When the group was framing its proposals, it had to take the worst-case scenario club and work backwards from there. That club was probably Douglas, with its massive playing numbers, its competitiveness in both senior grades and its development of talent for the inter-county teams. At the time of writing, they have six players involved with the two Cork senior squads, and another couple on the fringes (that’s excluding U20s). Playing championship games — even one — minus inter-county players could exclude almost half of Douglas’ senior football team. That’s a frustrating by-product of recognition for a club still seeking its maiden senior title in either grade.

Other Cork clubs may not be as county-tied, but there will still be gripes. It will be a hard swallow that some championship games (with inter-county players) are worth twice as much in terms of league points (four v two), as games without them. In a moment where the committee is asking clubs to look beyond reliance on inter-county players, why are they halving the incentive to do so? Presumably, the working group will argue it’s the lesser of two evils. That they keep the show on the road through the summer, and they ensure county players are available for at least three of the five games (that’s potentially 12 points). With four of the six teams emerging, there’s a decent chance the two games without inter-county players won’t be decisive. Whether clubs are prepared to take that chance, and perhaps dice with relegation, will be decisive. Notwithstanding the pros and cons, Plan C has to be applauded as a first attempt in the GAA to recognise the primacy of the club player. Unless the Association is planning to row back the tide on the inter-county behemoth, there must be an alternative plan to keep the club game moving during the best months of the year.

Attempts to seal off April as a club month have already failed when most counties, Cork included, are only managing one round of championship in each code. That the Cork hurlers are playing their first Munster SHC game on May 12 against Tipperary removed the option of April 27/28 for club championship games. Somehow, when no one was looking, someone stole a week from the Cork clubs in April. There’s a secondary consideration in April: Clubs don’t want two championship games on the basis that a pair of losses could end their season, depending on the format.

Options A and B for championship change in Cork are more rudimentary. Play one championship game in April and then park it until Cork are out of both All-Ireland championships in August. Or just leave the championship until the autumn and ramp up the leagues to ensure some form of summer ball. Framed against Plan C, they are pretty banal alternatives, though not inferior for that.

The response to last night will be instructive. GAA grassroots are not renowned for radical tendencies, but the debates should be robust, even on the mandatory maximum of 12 teams in each of the four grades (Premier Senior, Senior A, Premier Intermediate and Intermediate A). The grading changes will be phased in between 2019 and 2021. With 61 teams in hurling currently and 53 in football, a few intermediate clubs will be looking over their shoulder.

“Clubs are presented with two options in relation to the grading of teams into the new championship grades,” the report details. “Grading 1, where teams are graded based on 2019 championship performance; or Grading 2, where championship performances over the past three years are also taken into account.”

The latter seems fairer. Whatever the upshot, the document is a signpost towards change in Cork GAA, and a recognition of the need for same. There is a unity of purpose between this and the Cork 2024 plan to pull football up by its bootlaces. It was the economist John Maynard Keynes who warned that difficulties lie not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones. That first step is winging its way to 160 clubs across Cork. The workgroup behind the proposals is Jim Woulfe, Conor Counihan, Pat Ryan, Marc Sheehan, Ronan Dwane and Kevin O’Donovan.