It was really only a matter of time before a county withdrew from one of the preseason competitions which kick off the Intercounty GAA season. What is maybe more surprising is that it is a county like Donegal, who have some of the best resources and a larger selection of players than a lot of other counties. But with the increased congestion of the GAA calendar and the strain it is putting on players something had to give.
The start of the year throws up problems for players that do not appear further on in the season. Many have to juggle university commitments along with playing for their county. The U20 competitions throw another conundrum for players and management as they get underway. Yes, there is the problem of club v county as the season progresses but that mainly effects fixtures and the availability of county players for their clubs. But some players will train with their senior county team, their U20 side and their university team.
With player welfare such a big issue within the GAA, there was always going to be a tipping point, and Donegal’s decision to withdraw from the semi-final of the Dr. McKenna Cup against Monaghan was when it all tipped up. There were 25 players named who were unavailable for the Ulster champions this week, some due to injury, illness or travelling but the majority were all part of university teams set to take part in the Sigerson Cup competitions.
Donegal along with Down, who are due to face Tyrone in the other semi-final, had requested for the fixtures to be put back by 48 hours. However, this was rejected by the Ulster Council who said the games were going ahead as planned. It seems strange that the Ulster Council would do this.
If unexpected weather conditions had made the pitches unplayable, they would surely have had a contingency plan or would have postponed the fixture, so why not have one for when a team is putting the welfare of its players before the fulfilling of a fixture? It is not like they were given no notice.
Following Donegal’s win over Derry on Wednesday, their manger Declan Bonner told reporters that he would not be able to field a team. Any organisation given four days’ notice would be able to make a decision and work out the finer details such as pitch availability, referee availability etc.
So, could this be the beginning of the end for our preseason competitions?
With Down also requesting a deferment on their semi-final, it shows that Donegal are not the only ones with player availability problems at this time of the year. If Dublin had not such a huge pool to pick from, it would not be unfair to say that they might struggle to field in the O’Byrne Cup at times. Many of their first team squad do not feature in the competition as they are only getting back into training around the start of the year.
Like many things it seems time has caught up with these preseason competitions in football especially more so than hurling. Back in the “golden years” of the GAA when football was played right supposedly even if players were lining out for a number of different teams the level of intensity, commitment and time taken up by these various teams was not as bad as it is now. Sometimes they could even have a smoke before a game back in the day. But not now. A schedule for a player who is supposed to commit to county, university and possibly U20 is overloaded. Even when they agree on certain things to help control the demand, it is still too much. That is why Donegal not fulfilling this weekend’s fixture is a good thing. It may force Provincial Boards to look at scrapping the competitions altogether, forget about the money and the sponsorship they bring in and think about the players.
For Donegal, the county board may receive some sort of sanction for not togging out in Brewster Park, Enniskillen on Sunday. But there may be ramifications or criticisms about how they possibly treat club players during the season in relation to club games.
Already, some have queried where was the thought of player welfare for the county board surrounding the playing club games last season when some teams were forced to play two games in three days or play a final a couple of days after a semi-final.
Whatever does happen, the serious discussion needs to begin as to how beneficial these competitions really are.
Many former and present intercounty footballers will tell you they are not very beneficial. So why not listen to them and see if in 2021 the start of the season is bit less congested.