Could this plan fix the club fixtures in Tipperary?

Brian McDonnell

Reporter:

Brian McDonnell

Email:

bmcdonnell@tipperarystar.ie

Could this plan fix the club fixtures in Tipperary?

The last thing anyone wants to see is mismatches in the senior hurling championship. Photo: Eamonn McGee

If seventy-five per cent of club players in the county are not happy with the current championship structures in Tipperary surely something must be done about it. Here Tipperary Star Sport assesses the situation and consults CCC chairman John Devane on a potential pathway into the future.

County Competitions Control Committee (CCC) chairman John Devane is on the record - there is an “urgent need” to address issues associated with the club fixtures schedule in Tipperary in general and the exact structure of our club competitions in particular.

At the November County Board meeting, hosted specifically to discuss club competition structures, John Devane told delegates: “We have three choices. We can continue as we are and hope for the best like we have been doing. We can go tinkering with the system or we can go for radical change. I would go for radical change and suggest that we run the divisional championships separately to the county championship. If we keep going the way we are going we won’t have county teams and we won’t have club teams. It really is that serious”.

CCC chairman John Devane (who is also the vice-chairman of the County Board) is well-placed to assess where the county stands; he knowns the landscape of the club scene in Tipperary, the pinch points and also appreciates what is regarded as best practice across the country.

And, the Boherlahan-Dualla man is encouraging club people in Tipperary to get beyond the blame game, peak around the corner and work together in order to come up with solutions to the problems. Indeed, the idea of this entire feature is to present the reader with a potential solution as opposed to pointing fingers.

Right now we enjoy an opportunity to do something about the issue since the agreed term for the current format of the county championship comes to an end this year and the County Board are also piecing together a new strategic plan (2017-2020) for Tipperary. So, it’s an ideal opportunity to take a hard look at ourselves, face up to our responsibilities as a county and address the issues for the sake of players and club people everywhere.

How do you achieve anything of substance? You assess where you are, decide where you want to go and everything in between becomes the project.

CLUB FIXTURES CONTEXT

In the wake of Tipperary’s four-point defeat to Cork in the recent Munster Senior Hurling Championship quarter-final the CCC shipped severe criticism for the decision to schedule a round of both the Tipperary Water county senior hurling and football championships within seven days of that contest at Semple Stadium, Thurles.

Reacting to such criticism at the May meeting of the County Board John Devane told delegates that there had “been criticism because we played so many matches in such a short space of time” before agreeing that the situation was “unsatisfactory”. John Devane then highlighted the fact that he had previously described the situation “not sustainable” and had warned delegates about the issue at the February meeting of the County Board.

Expanding on the point at the May meeting of the County Board John Devane agreed that the situation is “unacceptable, but we don't have any options”.

And, a crucial point worth making here is the fact that the CCC works within a system which has been designed and voted upon by the clubs i.e. the committee operate within a structure decided by the clubs in the first instance.

“We get the blame because it looks like we are trying to impose this on people when we are not,” John Devane argued at the meeting last week.

The CCC, for example, met on forty occasions during the 2016 season and faced a situation between May 22nd and September 1st when there were only five weekends available to schedule club action (when no Tipperary team was in competitive action).

John Devane and his colleagues on the CCC, especially secretary Tom Maher (Moyne-Templetuohy), find themselves in an impossible situation as they try to piece together and manage an unworkable schedule. During the October meeting of the County Board, for example, Tom Maher pointed that “our championships are not fit for purpose; the dates are not there to support the structure”.

John Devane, the chairman of the CCC, has long argued that the structure of the Tipperary club schedule needs to change and that the gearing, the ratio of league games to championship games, needs to be altered drastically.

“We are trying to put square pegs in round holes,” John Devane explained at the November meeting of the County Board.

“The CCC gets criticized for a lot of things, but we are only implementing what is decided here (at the County Board). If we were to start again in terms of looking at our competition structures we would not do it this way at all,” John Devane said.

“It is not humanly possible to fit them (the fixtures) in,” County Board chairman Michael Bourke said in November.

“Tom Maher is blue in the face from trying to explain it and no one is listening. The space is not there in the schedule and it can’t be invented. I think we are going to have to separate the divisions from the county championship,” the Upperchurch-Drombane man added.

“The difficulties in finding dates to play these competitions are well documented and every year sees clubs having to play hurling and football in the same week. This is totally unsatisfactory, but there is no choice,” CCC chairman John Devane told the Tipperary Star this week.

“In my view, we need a radical overhaul of the whole system. There are too many rounds in our championships. There are not twenty-nine teams of senior hurling standard in Tipperary. The divisional championships should be stand-alone competitions with no entry to the county championships. Compared to other counties, we have a complicated system which is not helping either our county or club players,” the Boherlahan-Dualla man added.

FORMAT CHANGED FIFTEEN TIMES

It is extraordinary to note that since 1960 the format of the Tipperary senior hurling championship has been altered fifteen times.

The 2001 season, for instance, saw a significant change when twenty-eight teams were permitted to enter the race for the Dan Breen Cup via a group phase structure, but that system was altered dramatically a year later when the divisional semi-finalists constituted the last sixteen.

There were further tweaks in 2003, 2004 and 2005 before the Ó Riain Cup was introduced in 2008 and, significantly, relegation was abolished.

More changes to the structure of the championship followed soon after before the two-tier format (Roinn I & Roinn II) was voted through (68-8) in time for the 2014 season.

A further alteration to the championship was then voted through unanimously, which essentially created a new grade, ahead of the 2017 series of games - now teams competing in Roinn II are not afforded the opportunity to compete for the Dan Breen Cup unless they win their respective divisional championship.

In 2013 the JK Bracken’s motion, which sought to effectively transform the structure of the senior club hurling championship, was outlined to the County Board meeting by former chairman John Costigan who indicated that attendances at senior club games had dropped forty-five per cent over the previous four years.

“I think it is clear to us all that something needs to be done,” John Costigan said in 2013.

“We are on the threshold of a good era for Tipperary hurling,” John Costigan explained.

“The final piece of the jigsaw is to have a competitive, energetic and energized club championship,” he added.

At present there are twenty-nine senior hurling teams, sixteen senior football and twenty-one intermediate hurling teams competing in Tipperary. It takes ten or eleven rounds to play off the senior hurling championship and it can take nine or ten rounds to play off the senior football equivalent while the intermediate hurling championship comprises ten rounds of competitive action.

Perhaps the time has arrived for the stakeholders associated with this structure to take an enlightened look at the bigger picture. There seems to be a cultural disposition within Tipperary that clubs want to compete at senior level in hurling, for example, regardless of their capacity to realistically to do so. The time may have come for clubs to put their players first.

At the 2013 County Board fixtures meeting Catherine Gleeson made a telling comment when the Kiladangan delegate revealed that her club had canvassed the opinion of their players and based their support for the JK Bracken’s motion on that basis.

“Our players feel that this is the way forward and we will be supporting the motion on the basis of the players’ wishes,” Catherine Gleeson explained.

How many other clubs are actually thinking about how they can best work to provide their players with meaningful games and act in their interests as opposed to wanting to be seen as a senior club or otherwise?

John Devane (pictured right) is the chairman of the Competitions Control Committee and vice-chairman of the Tipperary County Board.

STRATEGIC PLAN SURVEY

In his report to Convention County Board secretary Tim Floyd called on Tipperary people everywhere to have their say in a new strategic plan. The “wheels” had been set in motion to develop a new strategic plan (2017-20) and one of the first steps in this process was to seek out the opinions of players, officers and the general public via an online survey which went live on the Tipperary GAA website in February.

The results of that survey were presented to the April meeting of the County Board along with the new strategic plan proposals. And, the survey results illustrate the need for change.

The County Board received over six hundred responses to the survey from officers, players and the general public. And, the number one issue, as revealed at the meeting of the County Board in April by development officer PJ Maher, was the scheduling of club games. Indeed, ninety per cent of the respondents regarded the scheduling of club games as very or critically important and the vast majority agreed that some competitions should be organized on an all-county basis.

Seventy-five per cent of players revealed that they were not happy with current championship structures, seventy-one per cent were not happy with the games-to-training ratio, sixty per cent were not happy with the number of club games played, seventy-nine per cent said that there were too many senior hurling teams and eighty per cent of players agreed with the concept of relegation.

DIVISIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS

The spectre of Tipperary’s jam-packed club fixtures schedule featured, as usual, at the County Convention. And, once more, Tom Maher, the secretary of the Competitions Control Committee, pointed out in reasonably blunt terms that the format of the Tipperary senior hurling championship was not fit for purpose.

County Board secretary Tim Floyd also argued that “separating the divisional championships from (the) county would certainly streamline the county championships and should be considered if difficulties in reaching deadlines continue. If divisions want the status quo to remain they will have to produce workable fixtures plans”. Indeed, Mr Floyd made specific reference to the 1969-76 period when “we had separate divisional and county championships and they worked well”.

This week County Board vice-chairman and CCC chairman John Devane argued that “our divisional system is in place for over one hundred years and has played a significant role in the development of the GAA in Tipperary. Tipperary is a large county and there is need for our divisions now and into the future. However, retaining the link between divisional and county championships in many grades is difficult to justify and adds huge complications to our competitions.

“Winning a divisional championship is a great honour in itself - not having a link to a county championship should not lessen that honour in any way,” John Devane said.

“Maybe the biggest fear divisions have is that these competitions will be left until late in the year and reduce their impact. This should not necessarily be the case and maybe if the new inter-county proposals in the pipeline are introduced there is a strong case for the divisional competitions being played earlier rather than later in the year,” the Boherlahan-Dualla man added.

“The impact of reducing the number of rounds per competition is straightforward. Then you can plan far more clearly when you are going to be playing in any particular round. This is one of the greatest criticisms we get - that nobody knows exactly when they are likely to be playing. But, of course, that is totally dependent on our inter-county teams’ progress.

“But, just as importantly, we can then have a proper all-county league for all of our teams. A new system was introduced this year and three rounds out of five are already played. However, it becomes more difficult as the year progresses to arrange these leagues, as clubs are, by then, focusing more on championships and are less inclined to play (league games),” John Devane explained.

“With a reduced championship format, there is scope to increase the leagues. This is a key point because it is a regular criticism that our competitors, rugby and soccer in particular, do provide regular games. Yes, but league not championship.

“In my view, all parties have to work together to solve the problems,” Devane added.

BLANK SHEET OF PAPER

So, if someone like John Devane and his colleagues on the CCC were presented with a blank piece of paper and asked to come up with a structure which could, potentially, solve Tipperary’s problems what might a transformed club structure look like?

John Devane, for instance, supports the proposals presented to delegates at the April meeting of the County Board and is asking clubs to consider and then also support the proposed championship format. Devane especially agrees with the principle that the number of rounds in the county senior hurling championship needs to be drastically reduced (the maximum number of rounds involved should be seven).

In the broad strokes the structure of the proposed club hurling championship reads as follows: sixteen senior clubs (stand-alone championship), sixteen premier intermediate clubs (stand-alone championship - champions to compete in the Munster intermediate championship) and sixteen intermediate teams (stand-alone championship) with the junior A and B clubs qualifying for the county series through their respective divisional championships.

In football John Devane argues that a twelve-team senior football and a twelve-team intermediate football championship is the “way forward”.

And, a central pillar to the entire structure is that promotion and relegation apply to all grades in order to create more competitive and meaningful championships for players where all teams enjoy a reasonable chance of winning their respective grade.

The structure would also mean that no club could be knocked out of their respective championship before July 1st while the divisional championships would be stand-alone competitions (with no qualification route to the county championships).

At the November meeting of the County Board the Clonmel Commercials club proposed that the minor football championship be run on an all-county basis. The motion was warmly-received by County Board vice-chairman John Devane: “of all the grades this is the one competition where players are getting completely neglected. I believe that there is huge merit in a proper county championship at minor level”.

Further to that comment it may now be sensible to adopt the proposals made at the April meeting of the County Board whereby a number of competitions could be run on an all-county basis.

It has, for example, been proposed to run the minor A hurling and football championships on an all-county basis while the minor B and C grades could be run in the divisions as at present with the winners qualifying for county championships.

It has also been proposed to run the under-21A hurling and football championships on an all-county knock-out basis and to run the under-21B and C hurling and football championships in the respective divisions with the winners qualifying for the county championships.

NOW IS THE TIME TO ACT

As pointed out by County Board vice-chairman John Devane there is an "urgent" need to address the club fixtures issue and the structure of our club competitions here in Tipperary. Now is the time to act and club members, officers and players across the county are encouraged to sit down and consider the options before a decision will be made on the route forward later this year.

“I believe it is vital that both the club and county player are treated fairly and get a proper chance to develop to their potential. Our club players should have a regular set of fixtures with our clubs playing at the best level they are competitive at,” CCC chairman John Devane concluded.