English has fears for Fitzgib­bon’s fu­ture

Con­flict­ing de­mands mean Col­leges have lit­tle or no ac­cess to their play­ers

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Seán Mo­ran:

There are con­cerns that the Fitzgib­bon Cup – along with its foot­ball equiv­a­lent, the Siger­son Cup , one of the two old­est com­pe­ti­tions in the GAA – may be reach­ing a stage where its sta­tus is be­ing ir­repara­bly un­der­mined.

It’s not hy­per­bole. The third-level GAA cham­pi­onships are up and run­ning next week. The sched­ules for the com­pe­ti­tions were launched be­fore Christ­mas and they bear the hall­marks of the in­tense cal­en­dar that lies ahead. The prob­lem for col­leges – and it’s the hurl­ing clubs rather the Siger­son coun­ter­parts, who are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing most tur­bu­lence – is that they have lit­tle or no ac­cess to their play­ers.

The so­cial na­ture of third-level fare has been un­der­mined. One anec­dote is of a week­end away can­celled be­cause a num­ber of the play­ers were un­der county panel al­co­hol bans and in sol­i­dar­ity their col­lege team-mates de­cided not to go ahead un­der the con­straints.

In­creas­ingly play­ers aren’t in­volved in the run­ning of the clubs and the train­ing of younger teams – the type of ac­tiv­i­ties that were for­merly com­mon­place.

Semes­ter­i­sa­tion and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of club cham­pi­onships at ju­nior and in­ter­me­di­ate as well as other lev­els have com­bined to en­sure that the Fitzgib­bon has to be played af­ter the turn of the year.

This sea­son sees the GAA run a trial cal­en­dar which pro­vides ad­di­tional weeks for club ac­tiv­ity. Con­se­quently there’ll be no county fix­tures in April and the All-Ire­lands will be over a fort­night ear­lier than usual. An­other ef­fect will be the dou­bling-up of league week­ends, hurl­ing and foot­ball, as well as that com­pe­ti­tion get­ting un­der way in two weeks’ time.

Com­plet­ing the per­fect storm has been the with­drawal of vir­tu­ally all third-level col­leges from the se­condary pro­vin­cial com­pe­ti­tions, which are cur­rently in train.

Not only have the me­chan­ics of pre­par­ing and field­ing col­lege teams been thrown into dis­ar­ray but the other en­gage­ment in col­lege life, ad­min­is­ter­ing and coach­ing, which used to be part of the club in­volve­ment on cam­pus, are un­der such pres­sure that the char­ac­ter of the game has changed – maybe ir­re­triev­ably. Alarmed Nicky English has been in­volved for a long time as both player with UCC and more re­cently coach with UCD and al­though he has stepped back this year he is alarmed at the trend away from the com­pe­ti­tion’s tra­di­tions.

“The in­volve­ment in Fitzgib­bon hurl­ing is to cre­ate a bond and re­la­tion­ships in other dis­ci­plines that last all through your life in a work­ing con­text. It in­tro­duces the play­ers to a good stan­dard and ac­tu­ally im­proves them at a stage when they’re grow­ing and be­com­ing more adult and ca­pa­ble of mak­ing de­ci­sions for them­selves.

“If you’re not go­ing to pro­mote that then there’s lit­tle point in UCD and UCC or who­ever ar­riv­ing with their ‘galac­ti­cos’, who prob­a­bly know peo­ple on the op­po­si­tion bet­ter than they know their own team and we play a match that’s all over Twit­ter and peo­ple say it’s great but it’s all a to­tal fraud.

“I’ve said this be­fore but it’s be­com­ing less like the great com­pe­ti­tion I loved play­ing in and more like the Rail­way Cup, which even­tu­ally died be­cause peo­ple started putting more and more things ahead of it, which is where we’re go­ing with the Fitzgib­bon at the mo­ment.

“They need to find ad­e­quate space for it or for­get about it be­cause very shortly the col­leges are go­ing to say, what are the grants and schol­ar­ships for?”

English’s for­mer Tip­per­ary team-mate Colm Bon­nar also has experience of both sides, hav­ing man­aged county teams as well as Fitzgib­bon sides in Water­ford IT where he has been the long-serv­ing GAA Of­fi­cer. He sees pres­sure as the nat­u­ral con­se­quence of the new cal­en­dar.

“County teams know they need to be mo­tor­ing around the 28th Jan­uary, which is roughly when the Fitzgib­bon is start­ing. It’s putting a lot of pres­sure on stu­dents al­though I think col­leges re­alise that county play­ers have a very good level of fit­ness and they just need to get them game time.

“It’s not easy though, as a num­ber of games are on a Satur­day, in­clud­ing the fi­nal with league fix­tures the next day. It used to be sep­a­rate but ev­ery­thing has tight­ened up.

“Stu­dents can be com­pro­mised as to who they give their pri­or­ity to. It’s dif­fer­ent for se­nior play­ers who can de­cide what they want to do but younger lads are try­ing to make an im­pres­sion.”

Anec­do­tal ev­i­dence of the prob­lems isn’t hard to find.

One Fitzgib­bon team has some county play­ers who have yet to pull on a col­lege jersey this sea­son and the com­pe­ti­tion starts next week whereas a player, a county pan­el­list, makes the point that with the ear­lier start man­agers have been putting more em­pha­sis on con­trol in the pre-Christ­mas pe­riod, so many county play­ers weren’t re­leased for the end of the third-level league or train­ing or team gath­er­ings. Rapid de­te­ri­o­ra­tion Conor O’Shea is coach with UCD and as a re­cent player, he is able to trace the fairly rapid de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of the sit­u­a­tion.

“I ac­tu­ally played in re­cent years so I’ve seen it from both ends. Even in 2012 we had all of our play­ers for train­ing pre- and post-Christ­mas and a few years down the line we don’t have ac­cess to our play­ers for train­ing ses­sions bar about one ev­ery three weeks. You’re not even get­ting them for chal­lenge games. We’d one on Wed­nes­day and didn’t have ev­ery­one avail­able. We’re not the only col­lege but you just don’t have the ac­cess.

“An ex­am­ple is that there’s not one Dublin player play­ing with UCD this year. There are guys in col­lege but they’re train­ing so much that there’s no time. The play­ers take it se­ri­ously when they’re there but they’re not there of­ten enough to take it se­ri­ously if you un­der­stand me.

“Be­cause the col­leges have been taken out of the Walsh Cup and al­though it was some­times a hin­drance be­cause you didn’t have your full team all the time you at least had ac­cess to your play­ers lead­ing up to the Fitzgib­bon and you had them on the week­end be­cause they could train with their county team be­cause they had to play with UCD that week­end.

“What you’re left with is that any of your play­ers in the Walsh Cup are un­touch­able and a good num­ber of those play­ers are fel­las in col­lege try­ing to make a name. We’re not in the po­si­tion this year of hav­ing a whole team of in­ter-county play­ers. It’s a strug­gle.”

English’s point about schol­ar­ships is shared. All of the ma­jor in­sti­tutes of ed­u­ca­tion pro­vide grants and bur­saries but if star play­ers aren’t able to rep­re­sent the col­leges, what is the point in con­tin­u­ing with the in­vest­ment?

For­mer Clare cap­tain Brian Lohan is an­other with ex­ten­sive experience of Fitzgib­bon both as a player and coach with UL. Not in­volved this year, he is how­ever well aware of the prob­lems. He says that the GAA have to make up its mind on the is­sue.

“You’re go­ing to have to get ac­cess to all of them or ac­cess to none. Ei­ther play­ers are left with their col­leges for Jan­uary and how­ever long they last into Fe­bru­ary or else if the coun­ties need them, don’t play any of them but the GAA should re­alise that if there’s no ac­cess there won’t be any schol­ar­ships and the other things that the col­lege GAA clubs pro­vide.

“A few years ago, col­lege play­ers were obliged to play with their col­leges and no-one else. A sim­i­lar rule would re­move all am­bi­gu­ity. Let them play and train for Fitzgib­bon. Or you can de­cide they can have no ac­cess to them and that’s grand too be­cause the col­leges will keep go­ing and the schol­ar­ships which will be lost to the in­ter-county play­ers can be re­placed by the GAA or pro­vin­cial coun­cils.” Club play­ers He be­lieves that if in­ter-county play­ers are to be ex­cluded from col­lege teams, schol­ar­ship bur­saries should go to club play­ers.

“The peo­ple who raise funds and work hard at it would have no prob­lem giv­ing schol­ar­ships to a club player, who was happy to put some­thing back into it. It mightn’t be huge money but it might save him from hav­ing to do part-time jobs and cre­ate a bit of space for study. But you can’t have a sit­u­a­tion where your star player wants a full schol­ar­ship but isn’t will­ing to put any­thing back.”

At congress in 2012 GAA di­rec­tor gen­eral Páraic Duffy de­fended the third-level col­leges from crit­i­cism, which he said, “… over­looks and de­val­ues the con­tri­bu­tion that this sec­tor has made to the de­vel­op­ment of our games in sev­eral im­por­tant ar­eas – in the rais­ing of play­ing stan­dards, in the train­ing of ad­min­is­tra­tors, and in the in­vest­ment in our games and in­fra­struc­ture.”

It will soon be time for the GAA to back up those sen­ti­ments if a vi­tal re­source isn’t to be­come per­ma­nently com­pro­mised.

They need to find ad­e­quate space for it or for­get about it be­cause very shortly the col­leges are go­ing to say, what are the grants and schol­ar­ships for?

BEARY/IN­PHO PHO­TO­GRAPH: TOM

Mary Im­mac­u­late Col­lege, Lim­er­ick cel­e­brate their vic­tory in last year’s Fitzgib­bon Cup fi­nal. Right: For­mer UCD man­ager Nicky English.

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