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Teams withdrawing and college game clashes - GAA must scrap meaningless pre-season competitions

Donegal are unable to field a team for their McKenna Cup semi-final clash with Monaghan.

Donegal players after their McKenna Cup win over Derry during the week.
Donegal players after their McKenna Cup win over Derry during the week.
Image: Evan Logan/INPHO

THIS IS NOT a new debate.

The GAA’s pre-season competitions have traditionally divided opinion and even that might be overstating things slightly. There are few who would passionately put forward a case for them.

The lack of status is a major drawback. Unlike the league, where promotion and relegation can have a knock-on effect on a team’s championship run, pre-season outcomes are meaningless by comparison.

In fact, teams are becoming increasingly disinterested in these competitions. The sides who typically reach the All-Ireland finals are generally in team-holiday mode at this time of year.

The five-in-a-row champions Dublin, who face Longford in their O’Byrne Cup semi-final this weekend, are on the way back from their vacation in Bali.

Newly appointed boss Dessie Farrell will be present, and will certainly field a quality outfit, but the majority of his first-team players are simply not required at this early stage of the campaign.

Meanwhile, other teams have even elected not to take part in the pre-season competitions at all. Tipperary and Kerry are two examples of sides who decided not to play McGrath Cup games in the past.

This year, the Kingdom have selected a squad which consists of members from the U20 panel, and other inexperienced players for their pre-season amble as their seniors are on holiday in Thailand.

There’s also the obvious clash with third-level competitions.

Due to players being involved with the opening round of the Sigerson Cup this weekend, Donegal will not be able to field a team for their McKenna Cup semi-final against Monaghan. 

Declan Bonner’s side have 13 players who are on college duty this weekend, while key forward Michael Murphy is the manager of Letterkenny IT (LYIT).

“Whoever fixed the Sigerson in the middle of this campaign, it’s absolutely ridiculous,” a Bonner told Highland Radio before his side’s withdrawal which may lead to a fine or a sanction.

“I don’t know do colleges, or authorities in GAA or the Ulster Council, do they communicate or what?”

Bonner’s frustrations are certainly understandable. Something has to give to alleviate the fixture pile-ups, and attempts have been made in this regard.

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The inter-county pre-season now commences in December to create space in the fixture calendar for the club-only month in April.

But that change has not achieved the desired impact. Many believe the club-only month is not working while others have pointed out that inter-county players are not getting sufficient off-season time to recover.

Contrary to Bonner’s stance, it would be far easier to eliminate the meaningless inter-county games, rather than target the prestigious college competitions where players are guaranteed to play higher quality games. 

The Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups are also important launchpads for players who are looking to making the breakthrough at inter-county level. Kilkenny goalkeeper Eoin Murphy told The42 last year that captaining WIT to Fitzgibbon Cup glory in 2014 helped him get into the Cats’ senior squad.

It’s probably going to get to the stage where inter-county players won’t be involved with the colleges or they’re going to have to decide a separate team,” he lamented at the time.

Fans will always turn out for games, and the McKenna Cup clash between Armagh and Tyrone brought in a healthy crowd of over 5,000 to the Athletic Grounds. But supporters would hardly miss a competition that is effectively being wedged into the season, particularly when they still have competitive league games to look forward to.

The GAA’s Fixtures Calendar Review Taskforce looked into this last year, and found that there was an appetite to retain the provincial leagues and start them in January.

Yet, this writer is confident that pre-season competitions are damaging to the GAA and should be scrapped. 

The debate rages on.

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