Jack Carney (right) has had a near two-year odyssey with his club, Kilmeena, and county, Mayo. Such a run can provoke a lapse in form and energy. It’s one of the downsides to the split season experiment. PHOTO: CONOR MCKEOWN

Mayo judgement reserved on GAA 'cash cow' split season

by Martin Carney

AS we get older the years pass with ever-increasing haste, leaving us to reflect on opportunities won and lost and question where is time going to.

This year is all but done and dusted; a year bookended by war in Ukraine and riots in Dublin, Limerick winning their fourth hurling title in a row and Dublin, as they are often inclined to do, outsmarting Kerry in an All-Ireland final made special, if you want to see it thus, by the return of the 40+ Stephen Cluxton in his role as goalkeeper.

In the world of GAA the year donned new clothes completely as, for the first time, the playing season was governed by what has become popularly known as the split season.

The thinking behind this new format was to give separate space to the games at inter-county and club level, thus avoiding much of the overlap between both that had always been a feature in the code.

In theory the idea carried much merit. Assigning the first five months exclusively to inter-county football and the remainder to clubs seemed a neat and workable solution – on paper, at least.

Much was made of how it would benefit players, in particular those at inter-county level, by giving them an equal opportunity to devote to their clubs as well as the county team.

Under the old system, overlapping fixtures occasionally prevented players from representing their clubs, so this split seemed to provide a well-packaged remedy.

Like anything as radical, it’s hard to give a definitive view on its merits or otherwise after just a year in operation. In one area indeed, i.e. the promotional zone, I’m certain that it did little by way of benefiting the organisation.

Aside from having good people on the ground, competent coaches and healthy local traditions fuelling involvement, all competing sporting organisations value publicity to sell their game.

This is mostly dependent on print, TV, internet and radio coverage. Advertising the product (I hate using the term) is vital in attracting the young and generating revenue.

In this regard, I feel the GAA, by assigning the final five months exclusively to the club game, removed its most powerful promotional tool, the All-Ireland quarterfinals, semi-finals and finals, from the calendar during the months of August and September.

Since the foundation of the association, these dates were sacred to followers the length and breadth of the country. One didn’t have to be from Kerry or Kilkenny to recognise their importance.

These were hub events that drew people to the capital to socialise and meet up with friends, aside at all from going to the games themselves. In the new system, with the All-Ireland finals taking place in July. this tradition was summarily scrapped.

The void was best exploited this year by the game of rugby. The autumn months this year were particularly special to the rugby fraternity as they coincided with the staging of their World Cup in France.

Ireland, rated the number one team in the world, attracted huge interest nationally and beyond, and although they fell short of winning the tournament, their involvement captured the imagination of the public nationwide. The promotional dividend for the code was priceless.

Meanwhile, with their nine-month season, starting in August, the Premier League, year on year, has an adoring and worldwide following. Saturated print space, radio and television coverage helps enormously in driving interest in the game.

The reality for the GAA this year is that nothing happened in these final months that came close to matching the spotlight shone on its competitors. RTÉ, TG4, Mayo GAA TV and occasionally BBC 2 promote club fixtures week after week; RTÉ Radio and at local level, Midwest Radio, devote much of their prime time weekend coverage to covering the club scene.

Yet the interest levels are mainly local; the games are too often of a quality that fail to capture attention. The backdrop to most of the televised games are empty terraces and little atmosphere. In enhancing the image of the game they are lightweight, to put it mildly.

My biggest gripe about the inter-county season this past year is that in condensing the season, games were shoehorned into a time frame that was barely sustainable.

It is worth reminding ourselves that not alone did we have the inaugural split season, but on top of that a completely new championship format. Replacing the old ’back door’ system with a three-game Sam Maguire round-robin series placed intolerable extra pressures not alone on fixture-makers, but on players in particular.

Looking no further than the Mayo experience gives credence to this argument.

Let’s examine this.

Aside from the January FBD competition, Mayo subsequently played 14 competitive games between January 28 and July 2.

After a near flawless regular National League campaign, the reward was a winning final appearance in Croke Park against Galway on April 2.

The following weekend saw the team lose in the opening round of the championship to Roscommon.

To say there was little time to prepare for the game is an understatement. The recovery period after the league win was minimal. Giving players time to recover was barely adequate and, in hindsight, the result against Roscommon shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

A further six weeks elapsed before Mayo played Kerry in the opening round of the new Sam Maguire round-robin format.

In advancing from their group, they competed on three successive weekends from June 18 to July 2 when, unsurprisingly, they got hammered by Dublin on the latter date.

This brought their season to a close.

From those 14 National League and championship fixtures, it’s instructive to look at the playing records of five who played in practically all of them.

Aidan O’Shea started 12 and appeared as a sub in the other two; Mattie Ruane went one better, starting 13 and appearing off the bench once; Jack Carney shared the aforementioned statistic; Sam Callinan, fresh from the Under 20 campaign, played in four of the six championship games; and Padraig O’Hora, though injured for much of the league, had the same championship appearance record as his club-mate.

All five competed at year's end in their respective county finals. Subjected to much criticism because, in some cases, of sub-par performances, is it any wonder when you look at their game schedules?

Jack Carney’s near two-year odyssey with county and club (Kilmeena) was always likely to provoke a lapse in form and energy.

By the time they contested the county final, the two Breaffy stalwarts had run short on energy. Injury curtailed Padraig O’Hora’s season, while the one with least work load at senior inter-county, Sam Callinan, looked freshest of all.

Based on this it will be some time yet before I give the thumbs up to the new split season.

In its present format it’s undoubtedly a useful cash cow for the association but it’s shoehorned into too tight a time frame and asking too much of players to give it unequivocal approval.