The age-old debate of club versus county seems to raise its ugly head year after year. For a county like ours with such a prominent senior football team that has been in so many All Ireland finals of late it seems we still cannot get the balance right between club and county. The same problem occurred again this year with a fixture pile up as our county champions and genuine All Ireland contenders Castlebar Mitchels had to play six games, six weeks in a row, eventually losing to now Connacht champions Corofin in extra time having run out of gas during that period of extra time. Some may be wondering what about Westport? They had the same conundrum. They even had to replay a county semifinal against Shrule/Glencorrib mid-week such was the backlog of games. However, Westport were not on the go for a continuous 18 months as the Mitchels were, and Westport had plenty in the tank at the final whistle of all their games.
The frustrating thing for club officials, players, and managers is the postponement of games. After Mayo’s win against Tipperary in this year’s semifinal, Mayo manager Stephen Rochford declared on The Sunday Game that the final round of club championship matches was going ahead the following weekend. Club players prepared accordingly and sacrificed a social weekend in the capital in preparation for these games. I am sure their bank balances were better off, only for the final round of games to be pulled on the Tuesday or Wednesday beforehand to the frustration of most. There was pressure from current and past players, one of whom was myself, to have the games called off.
I have first-hand experience from both sides of the fence. When a county team like ours who has a genuine chance of winning the holy grail nothing should get in their way. County players find themselves in a bubble, particularly at the business end of the season where nothing can distract them from their ultimate goal of winning Sam Maguire, not their parents, wives, girlfriends, or their clubs. The club has to take a back seat. When inter-county involvement is over, the clubs become number one again. It does not always seem right but that is just the way it is. Hindsight is a great thing. I did not realise the likes of Castlebar would have to play six games in a row as a result of that postponement. It was an impossible ask for a team that had competed in an All-Ireland final in March.
In 2004 Mayo got to the All-Ireland final after a replay victory over Fermanagh in the semifinal. My club Charlestown Sarsfields were genuine contenders for the Moclair Cup that year. It was frustrating not knowing when our next game would be. I remember arriving at club training one evening in late August for our manager to announce that we were starting pre-season training again as no dates were set for club games. The grunts and groans from team mates were audible. This is bullshit I thought, why should we as club players suffer because of the success of the county team. I was ready to blow a fuse and then I realised I was once one of those county players a short time before wanting nothing to get in my way of All-Ireland glory. It was time to zip it and take a back seat as I had expected club players to do in 96 and 97 when we were gunning for glory. Some of my club team mates did not play football the year after as they were fed up at been treated second rate (and they could not bear two pre-season regimes in one year ).
A bit of meticulous planning can go a long way in not upsetting our clubs. 2016 was difficult to plan for because of Mayo’s defeat to Galway and a qualifier run ensued. Add to that the All-Ireland final replay and suddenly there are not too many Sundays available for championship club games. In 2017 I expect Mayo to win the Nestor Cup so plan our club championship fixtures around that scenario. Of course, have a plan B in place should a shock occur. Club championship matches should only be postponed if our county team have to replay a game or if there is a sudden bereavement in a club. Do not set dates for games that could create a club v county scenario again, it is the least the clubs deserve.
I was on duty for Radio One for the Connacht club final between St Brigid's of Roscommon and Corofin. It was a sensational performance by the Galway kingpins who put in a most effective counterattacking display using long diagonal kick passes to tear St Brigid's apart. Mike Farragher and Gary Sice did untold damage for Corofin who held their normally free scoring opponents to a measly five points for the duration of the game. I have no doubt their facile victory will have Castlebar Mitchels wondering what might have been. At least Castlebar know they can go toe to toe with the best.