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'At the end of the day, sometimes you have to speak up and say 'Enough is enough''

Both Chrissy McKaigue and Aaron Kernan agree that the the All-Ireland club championships must be played in the one calendar year.

AARON KERNAN AND Chrissy McKaigue are both perfectly versed to speak about balancing both club and county commitments.

cpa1 Aaron Kernan and Chrissy McKaigue.

During Kernan’s 11 years of service to the Armagh senior football panel, he won seven Ulster club titles (he won an eighth in 2015 after he stepped away from the inter-county panel) and three All-Ireland club winners medals with Crossmaglen.

Slaughtneil dual star McKaigue on the other hand, has won Ulster titles with his club across both codes — they were beaten in the All-Ireland club football final in March — while also involved with the Derry inter-county set-up.

Yesterday, the Club Players Association (CPA) proposed a new national fixtures plan, in an attempt to balance the congested club and county fixtures calendar.

In the plan, ‘three innovative changes’ were outlined — the entire month of April should be a ‘club-only month’, the All-Ireland club championships must be played in the one calendar year, and the month of December must be free for all club and county players for ‘necessary downtime and recovery’.

At the press conference at the National Sports Campus, Kernan spoke about his own reasons for being involved with the CPA, giving an insight into his personal experiences while laying out an argument as to why these proposed changes should be welcomed.

The 2005 Young Footballer of the Year reminded those present of several instances when an extremely successful club campaign within a county appears to have resulted in difficulties for the the inter-county side.

In 2007, Crossmaglen won the All-Ireland club title but Armagh ended up in a relegation battle on the last day of the National League. The same thing happened in 2011, and in 2012, the Orchard county were relegated while Cross won the All-Ireland.

On the contrary, in 2005 Armagh won the Division one National League and Cross lost their All-Ireland semi-final that February. Armagh won the Division two title in 2010, Crossmaglen lost the quarter-final of the county championship the previous August.

Aaron Kernan Kernan has been involved with the CPA since it launched in January. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Armagh won the Division three title in 2015, while Cross were knocked out of the Ulster championship’s first round the year before.

He also referred to other examples:

“This season, the Derry footballers were relegated from Division two, Slaughtneil made the All-Ireland Club final,” he said from the top table. “Clare and Dublin played in the relegation battle in 2017, Ballyea and Cuala contested the All-Ireland club final.

“Even the powerhouse that is Kilkenny hurling are not exempt from this. Ballyhale won the All-Ireland club hurling in 2015, Kilkenny ended up having to win an epic relegation play-off by a point against Clare to avoid relegation to Division 1B.

“It’s safe to say that there’s a pattern there and it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the contribution of some of our county players to their clubs may have resulted in a different outcome. “

In the new plans proposed by the CPA in facilitation for a single calendar year club championship, it’s suggested that all All-Ireland club finals be played at the end of November as opposed to the traditional St Patrick’s Day.

Kernan went on to discuss how this is something he welcomes with open arms, and how it’s best for the club player regardless of the tradition that lies around All-Ireland club final day.

“While leaving Crossmaglen on St Patrick’s Day to go to Croke Park to play on All-Ireland final, they’re memories I’ll always cherish,” he told the press conference.

“But the reality, for me, is it wouldn’t really bother me what day I was heading to Croke Park to play an All-Ireland club final. The day was irrelevant, it was the occasion that matters most to me.

“Provincial club championships at all grades annually produce epic encounters. They fill the winters with enjoyment for those parishes, those communities themselves and also the neutrals that come to support them in numbers. It’s astonishing given the time of year it is and the weather and the lead up to Christmas.

“But to me, it just proves that there’s just a love for our game — whether that is club, whether it’s county. The numbers are growing every year that are attending. I feel that this will only be enhanced with proper fixtures set in stone with everything building towards what is, for club players, their ultimate in provincial and All-Ireland glory.

Aaron Kernan reacts as a free is awarded against him Kernan in action for Armagh in 2014. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“People talk about winter and not being able to play football, but the quality of football and entertainment that’s provided by the players is nothing short of amazing. I feel that if it’s properly set in stone and all built towards the right time, that this is only going to get better, for neutrals, for those communities and for the GAA itself.

“The sad reality is that at the moment all the momentum that you build up from winning your provincial campaign at the end of November, start of December, it’s completely lost. Christmas takes over, it takes a few weeks to recover from it, there’s not much football on. You’re scrambling for challenge games, to get boys fit, to get boys refocused again and everything is lost that you’ve built up from what is usually a brilliant month of football — October, November, towards the provincial finals.

“We’ve always stopped training completely for December, and then you try to restart, refocus and build momentum again. Sometimes it has worked, other times it hasn’t. I think if everyone sits down, has a look at it, communicates properly, I think the time is there to facilitate a calendar year.

“I think it will just lead to constant peaks throughout the season where we’ll have our National Leagues, we’ll build towards that, we’ll build towards the inter-county provincials, we’ll build towards our county finals, our club provincials and we’ll finish off our season with All-Ireland club finals at junior, intermediate and senior.

“Some people within my own club have felt that St Patrick’s Day, that’s said to be the club day, the family day. That might be fair enough but why are junior and intermediate clubs not part of that? Are they not club people? Are they not family people? Should it not be their day as well?

“That’s why I feel the need to give everyone the same platform to perform. Now is the time. It will take sacrifice across the board from everybody, it will take change from everybody but for me, I think that ultimately it will lead our games to a new level.”

Donal Vaughan with Christopher McKaigue McKaigue in action for Derry against Mayo this month. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The lengthy journey on a Tuesday morning from Slaughtneil to Abbotstown alone proves how strongly Chrissy McKaigue feels about protecting the club player.

He wasn’t speaking directly to or presenting to the conference, but yet he was present and listening intently. There was no real obligation on him to be there, but he wanted to be there.

“Club is obviously a very important part of my life, but people tend to forget, irrespective of the inter-county football or not, you’re a club player,” he told The42 afterwards. “You’re a club player first.

“Today I just thought it was important to show my support in terms of a situation that needs to be changed somehow. The fact that the CPA have provided the template for a calendar year, that each competition has its own time slot — to me it’s very, very progressive, and it’s something that needs to be changed.

“The way things are going at the minute, players are becoming disillusioned and it’s often overshadowed by how committed and fanatical GAA players are.

“At the end of the day, sometimes you have to speak up and say ‘Enough is enough. We would like to see some kind of common sense approach applied, and I think that’s what the CPA actually embodies.”

The 28-year-old firmly endorses the CPA’s suggestion that the All-Ireland club championships should be played within a single calendar year.

In terms of the re-fixing of final dates, the Derry native has no issues.

“There is an almost romanticism about the St Patrick’s Day club finals. Aaron Kernan made a very good point, and he’s better versed than anybody to speak about club football.

“The intermediate and junior guys don’t get to play on St Patrick’s Day. If you have to sacrifice that, well whatever. If you’re playing an All-Ireland final with your club on any day, it’s going to be a good day so I don’t think that should be a big stumbling block.

“To have the chance to have a couple of weeks off, to actually focus for another competition, with another squad of players would be important. At the minute, its just merges into one.

Christopher McKaigue dejected Slaughtneil were beaten in the All-Ireland club football final in March. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“To have a 15-month playing season for certain players isn’t going to help anybody. I think it’s extremely unfair on the players, it’s extremely unfair on certain management teams, on counties, on clubs and whatever else.

“It’s no one’s fault, but I think the longer it goes on without change, then it becomes somebody’s fault. Change for the calendar year would be a massive step in the right direction.

And in terms of what’s next for the CPA’s proposed plans — raising awareness is the main point alluded to by all involved, particularly chairman Micheál Briody.

The changes do not require a motion to go to Congress. They can be routed through Central Council, and if agreed there, the onus is on Croke Park to schedule them accordingly.

At the minute, the CPA is at a ‘standstill’ with Croke Park. They have met numerous times in the past but no further meetings are scheduled.

Awareness is key first and foremost though, and McKaigue agrees.

“I think today is just about the CPA showcasing the work that’s going on behind the scenes, completely voluntary,” he said. ”The people behind this association are just pure GAA people, heart, that want to see change.

“They want to see positive change. They’re not here to kick up a fuss, they’re not here to do anything that’s going to cause damage. It’s all for the betterment of the GAA people, the club player, the inter-county player.

“It would be nice to see the powers that be in Croke Park actually stand up and say ‘Hang on a minute here, these guys deserve a bit more hearing than they’re possibly getting.’

“The plans laid out today hopefully will actually showcase that.”

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‘Free the month of April’: CPA calls for change and share plans to end fixture problems

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Emma Duffy

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