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Time for a change? All-Ireland club final switch to January could be a better fit

It has been proposed to move away from the current fixture date of 17 March.

BY THE TIME St Thomas run out on Croke Park on All-Ireland club final day, it will have been 17 weeks since they lifted the Galway senior crown. For their hurling opponents Ballyhale Shamrocks 15 weeks will have elapsed since their Leinster title victory.

pjimage (1) Corofin, Dr Crokes, Ballyhale and St Thomas have all been crowned club champions in recent seasons.

That is the curtain-raiser before the football showdown between Connacht champions Corofin and Munster kingpins Dr Crokes, the pair competing 16 weeks since their respective triumphs in provincial deciders.

In that lengthy time through the winter, over Christmas and into the spring, all four sides will have had one competitive outing. They all negotiated their February semi-final hurdles before another hiatus kicked in until the 17 March assignments that will, barring a draw like last year’s hurling decider or what Dr Crokes had to go through back in 2007, finally draw a line under their marathon club campaigns.

How much longer though will St Patrick’s Day be the stage for the doling out of club silverware? Saturday’s gathering in Wexford for the GAA Congress pushed that process on a little further. One of the recommendations of the GAA fixtures think-tank is to draw the club finals back from their traditional March schedule to an early January billing.

The prospect of a change has been long mooted, the idealistic solution being to wrap everything up neatly before Christmas Day. The feasibility of that particular calendar overhaul is dubious though. Given the current inter-county system in place and the myriad of club formats in various counties, is it practical at present to expect every county to be in a position to put forward club champions by mid-October? That demand would place a huge strain on dual counties, Tipperary (2014) and Waterford (2017) felt the pressure as a consequence of long hurling seasons and the fact they had so many clubs operating in both sports.

Finals in January could offer a solution. Last November the chair of the GAA’s Fixtures Review Committee Michael Martin floated that suggestion when speaking on RTÉ Radio. John Horan and Tom Ryan rowed in further behind it on Saturday, the GAA chiefs stating that it will be a matter for Central Council to rubber-stamp with the proviso that the Leinster senior football fare, which was halted on 9 December last, may need to reach an earlier conclusion.

In the build-up to the recent football semi-finals, the issue was put to defenders Kieran Fitzgerald and Fionn Fitzgerald. The Corofin player reckoned it was ‘crazy’ to be ploughing away with ‘60 days to go for 60 minutes of football’ in an interview with several media outlets before their last four tie while the Dr Crokes defender felt ‘it was a little bit archaic’ to persist with the current model. Their clubs are well-versed in the slog of staying fresh mentally and physically for such a long spell with this marking Corofin’s sixth All-Ireland series since 2009 and it will be a fifth All-Ireland assault for Dr Crokes since 2012.

The length of the season offers further complications. Cuala won the hurling final last year against Na Piarsaigh on 24 March. Limerick’s league campaign ended a week later at the semi-final stage against Tipperary. At that juncture John Kiely had moulded together a strong unit and by the time they were All-Ireland champions in August, only Mike Casey from Na Piarsaigh had forced his way onto the teamsheet from the off.

Starting further back in the pecking order compromised the 2018 aspirations of that bunch for Limerick. A similar scenario faces the emerging players hoping to hurl for Galway and Kilkenny, or play football for Galway and Kerry this year. Even for the established figures there is a snag, TJ Reid’s first outing as Kilkenny captain in 2019 is set to be delayed until the Leinster round-robin games in May.

As the All-Ireland series draws to a close, there is another club schedule cranking into gear. All over the country the pre-season business has commenced. Dr Crokes will be called back into action in Kerry in early April. The Galway and Kilkenny championships will resume a little later but in all cases it’s difficult to wrap your head around the task of getting set for a new season so soon after featuring in a game of the magnitude of an All-Ireland final.

For the clubs involved the next few weeks is a precious time. They are all recent champions – St Thomas 2013, Ballyhale 2015, Dr Crokes 2017, Corofin 2015 and 2018 – but the lack of novelty does not diminish the significance of this day for the players and the communities that envelop them. The prize is considerable as the national summit is within sight.

But the suspicion is that atmosphere would not change even if the date did. All-Ireland club finals are great days irrespective of their occurrence in the year. A Croke Park setting – and the availability of the stadium should alleviate any concerns about adverse weather conditions early in the year – in January would not dilute that pre-match anticipation or the subsequent joy of success. Recent years have suggested that the 17 March showpieces have started to be swallowed up by other events, sporting and otherwise, in the national spotlight. A change could offer a chance for their status to grow.

The notion of days remaining sacred in the GAA calendar is dubious. Hurling was wedded to the first Sunday of September for years but 2018 proved it was not sacrosanct and a mid-August outing did not detract from Limerick’s eventual celebrations.

Moving the All-Ireland senior club finals will not cure the most serious of the fixture ills afflicting the GAA. But it would help next month’s finalists who have toiled throughout the winter. Or the semi-finalists of Ballygunner, Cushendall, Mullinalaghta and Gaoth Dobhair who waited for periods ranging from 10-13 weeks after their provincial final victories.

And what would fill the void on St Patrick’s Day? A condensed league programme in March – featuring 23 top-tier games alone this year – means there will be no shortage of potential ties to slot in for GAA fans to digest.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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