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The college competitions debate: what do players want and how can we make that a reality?

We surveyed players and spoke to managers, the GAA and the GPA to see what can be done to resolve the challenge with college competitions.

IT WAS THE depths of winter and Mary I’s Fitzgibbon Cup manager Jamie Wall was busy with preparations for the upcoming campaign when the phone rang.

Usually, players are assigned availability by the high priests of the modern body, the inter-county managers. That is then relayed to the college boss. Wall had not spoken to a single county manager up until this point of the season. The reality is he rarely does.

‘Here is my schedule. Here is what I have been told I can and cannot do.’ Like it or lump it. This has been the way of business for years.

Then new Galway manager Henry Shefflin gave him a call.

“They were playing a game the same night as us and he said, ‘Look, I just want to give this guy a chance. I didn’t see him for two weeks because he had Covid. I want to see what he is about. Could we take him this night to have a look?’

“I said of course. I really appreciated the call. I wanted that young lad to have a crack. I had so much respect for how Henry conducted it. He could have called me to tell me. This was a conversation. Jesus, I want that young lad to play for Galway too.

“He is a big loss of course but if this is his chance, let him take it. That is the reality for 90% of college managers. We are on the player’s side. You wouldn’t be in it if you were not.”

henry-shefflin Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Such an empathetic interaction is the way it should be, but often isn’t. 2022’s welcome return to normality brought back the unseemly pinch points between college and inter-county games.

Tommy Conroy suffered a cruciate ligament injury playing Sigerson for NUI Galway two days after he lined out for Mayo. Kerry duo Tony Brosnan and Jack Savage came on in a McGrath Cup match a few hours after both played Sigerson Cup for MTU Kerry. Dundalk IT pulled out of the Trench Cup final, the second-tier football competition, citing player burnout.

Numerous managers subsequently vented their frustrations at the current scheduling. This conundrum has been a source of exasperation for some time. Shift it to December, some suggested. Play it without inter-county players. In response, colleges point the finger at the unyielding decrees imposed by the county game.

As usual in such debates, the views of the players themselves are ignored and underappreciated. Speaking out is difficult since they serve several masters and fear offending any. Scholarships and childhood sporting dreams are on the line.

“We keep doing this,” says Wall with a sigh. “Doctors bicker while patients die.”

The42 surveyed 31 inter-county players who featured in this year’s Sigerson, Fitzgibbon, Trench and Ryan Cup. All participants were involved in crossovers between college competitions and inter-county action.

1

90% said college competitions are ‘very important’ or ‘fairly important’ in their playing career. 90% also said the competition should have a standalone spot in the calendar.

2

32% favoured before Christmas; 65% answered January.

3

When the GPA surveyed 450 male students across all college competitions on when they would like them to be played, 42% supported before Christmas, 52% opted for January and 6% other.

In the same survey, the frequency of returning home for training is still a problem. Just 74 make the trip once a week, 130 said it is twice, 146 answered yes for three sessions, 56 selected four and 44 said five or more.

When asked by The42 if nothing changes, how likely it is that inter-county players will be unable to play in college competitions, 25% said not likely, 42% answered likely, 32% said it was very likely.

4

In feedback or further comments, Gaelic footballers were particularly concerned about this.

***

“Sometimes we are too afraid of robust discussion,” says Wall. “In my own house, disagreeing with my mam is like mortally offending her.

“In the GAA, if you just ask a question, someone often takes it wrong. We are so on edge. In our own corner. We take any healthy discussion as accusatory.”

aaron-gallagher-and-cian-lynch-with-jamie-wall-after-the-game Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

The Corkman played in the Fitzgibbon Cup previously and managed Mary Immaculate College to their own success in 2017. He is well placed to instigate such heated debate.

“People often point the finger at the association for all of this. Look, the reality is there are only 52 weeks in a year. Is it an issue of bureaucracy or is it actually diplomacy? Put it another way, is it an issue of ego?

“John Kiely’s lack of ego allowed him to let Cian (Lynch) go play in the Fitz. At the same time, it is easy to do that when you’ve won three of the last four All-Irelands.

“I am not blind to the reality either. County managers are under so much pressure that nothing else has space in their heads. I am not accusing inter-county managers of an ego trip. I can only imagine the pressure they are under. Anyone who has been over a club feels pressure so you can only imagine what it is like at county level.

“If they are not obliged to give, I understand why they wouldn’t. I think it is unfair to expect an inter-county manager to willingly give it up. If it was taken out of their hands, that would be much better.

“At least then it is across the board. Fitz managers can’t do less. Doing less than what we are doing now amounts to them not playing at all. You are lucky to get your player for a league game if his club was knocked out. If his club goes far, you don’t get them in the league which is fine.

“You only get four games, that is the industry standard. Maybe six to ten training sessions. If anyone is going more than that, fair fucking play to them.”

The bind has been tightening to a breaking point. In 2018, All-Star Brian Howard reportedly took the decision himself to skip a number of Sigerson Cup games for DIT to fight for an opportunity with Dublin. A year later, DCU’s Niall Moyna stood down and outlined in an RTE radio interview that players had started to come to him and say they can only play inter-county senior: “For me, the joy was gone from it at that stage.”

DCU’s current manager is former Dublin footballer and current Tipperary coach Paddy Christie. He is unsurprised to hear that such a strong number feel they are facing an impossible choice.

“When a player says that, is that because of the impression they get from managers? I don’t think it is a reflection of players feeling like it is not possible. The way some inter-county managers have gone on…

“Some are open-minded, practical and care about the player. Others, to put it mildly, it is idiotic behaviour. All about them. They want to control everything and dominate everything. They want everything else to take a back seat.

“We’ve played league and championship in college for a number of years now. Hand on heart, I don’t think I’ve come across a team that wasn’t well prepared. Well kitted out, well organised. The whole shebang. A lot of former county players are involved. This isn’t ramshackle stuff.

“Some of those college teams are better organised and some of the people involved are as good if not better than some county teams. The idea that it is detrimental or dangerous to a player is farcical.”

paddy-christie-speaks-to-his-team-after-the-match Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

And he has a litany of examples to prove it. Take Kildare cornerback Shea Ryan. Ryan played with Christie’s DCU throughout the league and Sigerson campaign. He faced off against All-Stars like David Clifford and Thomas Galligan. Come last Sunday, Christie watched with a mix of pride – and a little pain – as Ryan excelled against his own county in Newbridge.

His own policy is to let players do a low-level session if they played national league at the weekend. This could be a recovery session utilising the onsite physio. Christie is currently Tipperary U20 manager as well. The more squad members involved in college competitions the better. From a football perspective, it is an education and exposure inaccessible in many parts of the county.

The players clearly value it. It evidently helps their development. Win-win.  

“As an inter-county manager when my lads are training with UL, UCC, whoever, why would I feel they are not improving? Why do I need all the control? I can say that as someone involved in inter-county. There are an awful lot of capable people involved in management. The really bad manager who runs the player into the ground I’d say is one in ten at most. The same thing is true at the top level. You hear about some cowboys out there.

“The belief that nobody can manage as well as you can. No one can do what you do. You are not the best manager in the world. There are other good managers out there. The travelling thing, fucking hell. This drives me mad. Have a fella drive four hours to train for 90 minutes and drive four hours back again. Is your training really that much better to justify eight hours of travelling?”

Trying to adjudicate on this tug of war is the association. GAA Director of Player, Club, and Games Administration Feargal McGill openly acknowledges a problem exists. However, there are a few points that need clarifying. On the results of the survey, he argues that such results are to be expected, following the emotive discourse that has unfolded over the past month.

“You are better off sometimes standing back and looking at these things with a clearer head down the line,” he contends.

Secondly, improvements have been made. The punishing schedule of two games in back-to-back days is gone. The crossover has lessened.

“There are issues. I think we need to be careful how we portray those issues. They apply to a small subset of the playing group both at inter-county and if we take the overall base, a lot of teams are out of the third level before the National League starts. You are looking at the successful counties. I just think we need to put it in context.

“I don’t think we have the same level of issues as we had previously. Of course, more can be done. The GAA moves slowly. We have isolated the issue over the last few years and we can make it about even fewer players. But it takes some time, some cajoling. This needs to be an evidence-based approach.”

fergal-mcgill Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

While the split season is a benefit, there remains a congested calendar. For the association, there is the ideal solution and then there is what matters, a realistically attainable one. Finding a standalone spot is unlikely to ever feature in that.  

“I don’t think you will ever get to an absolute standalone spot. I think we can minimise the crossover as best we can. Some people would say glibly just put it before Christmas. You are in on top of the club championships then.

“We just simply have too many competitions and too much crossover of players. A significant number of players are involved with clubs, the county in the league and third-level colleges. These things are not simple.”

What about delaying the start of the league?

“I don’t think so. I think we have a footprint now for league and championship. I don’t see that changing. I think we need to look at other things. We have other ideas in mind. It won’t be any one solution.

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“Look, from the GAA’s perspective, there will be conversations taking place about how we can improve the situation. That is exactly what we do on an ongoing basis. It is not always done in the glare of media light.”

Lay all those cards on the table and you’ve got a difficult hand no matter what way you play it. It is about cooperation and collaboration as much as it is administration. Someone needs to facilitate that. Drive it. And there is a body equipped to do so.

***

Colm Begley is the Player Welfare Manager for the Gaelic Players Association. The Laois native played and won a Sigerson Cup with DCU. The fortunes of college competitions are a cause close to his heart.

colm-begley Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Recently the GPA met with the Higher Education GAA chairperson Michael Hyland to talk about fixtures. It came on the back of a concern raised by an inter-county manager. A game took place on Sunday with the county. A college fixture originally scheduled for Wednesday was then put back to Tuesday. The conversation was productive and positive. They are set to reconvene next week.

“It is about looking at the fixture scheduling,” stresses Begley.

“The reintroduction of the preseason competition is difficult. That wasn’t supposed to go ahead. It added more games. It was something taken away initially and then reintroduced after Covid because of the pressure to have something. I don’t believe they should be in place. Higher education and challenge games can be arranged for that run in.

“I don’t know if a rule is the right way to go and if that is what players want. We are looking at a contact hours policy at the moment. A load management policy.

“Can we improve the environment? Can we reduce the travel? Having students travel for a gym session should never happen. They should never have to go further than 15 minutes for a gym session.

“If they are training with the college, should they be driving down twice a week for inter-county training? I don’t think so. That is my own personal opinion. You need managers to buy into that.

“Most colleges manage load. Most practice RPE (rate of perceived exertion) and have strength and conditioning coaches there. If it is a physical worry, you will find out very easy. If it is skill-wise, watch the competitions this year. They are playing against some of the best players in the country.

“If we could reduce the chances of crossover even by a week. Can we maybe pull a week back at the start? Is there potential to look at half-and-half? Three weeks in December and three in January? That is an out-there suggestion but it might reduce the crossover.

“I don’t think it is ruling, more forming guidelines for managers. ‘This is the load recommended. This is how we can achieve it.’ A contact hours policy is something we are looking at and engaging with the GAA on it.

“Injury surveillance is hugely important. If we put that in place, we can see where they are actually occurring.”

Begley is keen to stress that while the flare-ups that come and go every year are problematic, serious issues do lurk under the surface. A couple of weeks on the sidelines is one thing. Significant long-term damage is another.

“We all see the immediate issue with players getting injured one game after another. If you are involved in these competitions for three or four years, there is a lot of research showing recently it is not the load there and then. It is the continual overload.

“Enda King (Head of Performance Rehabilitation) in Santry has recently published a hip and groin pain prediction for elite Gaelic games. The highest level of male elite athletes recorded over two years. We are talking 2703 athletes. He showed the prevalence of hip and groin. It is damning data for players. Long-term overload of players is getting worse and worse.”

When Kerry manager Jack O’Connor was pressed on his decision to play two players in a preseason competition after they had already played a Sigerson Cup game, he insisted they hadn’t been forced to play and volunteered themselves.  

However, what players want to do and what is in their best interests aren’t always aligned. So, in a situation such as that, should the GPA not take a stand? Students can’t or won’t speak up, but could their representative body?

“I was very surprised personally,” admits Begley.

“That is a very obvious case of poor player welfare. Travelling from a game and going playing another game. Jack said the players wanted to play. I think Jack should have shown leadership. Let them recover and give them another time during another match in the future.

“I understand players can’t speak up as well. We are trying to engage with managers more, especially regarding student players. The incident happened, they played. We didn’t think that would happen. Fortunately, the players didn’t get injured.

“Yeah, we need to do better on that as well. Players want to play; I understand they want to make an impression but sometimes people in charge need to recognise that there will be more opportunities in the season and it is better not to play that game.

“I would say we recognise we can engage managers better. We can come out in public and say that, but we’d argue it is more effective to engage with managers and educate players.”

Contact hour policies, training guidelines and scrapping preseason competitions are all, in typical fashion, slow steps forward. Right now, a void exists where players do what they feel is expected of them because it is devoid of clarity or compassion. This year students who won finals still trained with their county the next day. The repercussions for much of the damage done now will echo into the next decade.

That is the sporting context. Then there is the human one. That is something the GPA are increasingly mindful of. All this pulling produces a diminished experience.

“I am conscious too, that fellas enjoy this period like they should,” says Begley.

“Especially after Covid and everything, they should get the freedom to go and get the most out of it. Enjoy what should be an exciting time of their lives. In all of this, the player, the person, has to come first.”

About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

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