herald

Saturday 21 October 2017

No winners and one big loser in fixture madness

ELSEWHERE on these pages - right beside this column, in fact - you'll read Jim McGuinness talking at length about the postponement of this year's Donegal club championship and how it has facilitated his team's march to the All-Ireland final.

As ever, the Donegal manager delivers an eloquent, cogent, at times compelling argument that elite county players need a free summer run if they're serious about chasing Sam Maguire.

But there's a costly flip side to delaying your entire county championship until after the inter-county season. Donegal should know: they've been here before, just two years ago ...

Karl Lacey (pictured) was Footballer of the Year in 2012. The following year was a virtual write-off. He missed the entire league following hip surgery; returned as a sub for Donegal's Ulster opener against Tyrone; then picked up a fresh knee injury in club championship action which ruled him out of the provincial semi-final. He returned for the final against Monaghan but, both that day and in what remained of Donegal's imploding All-Ireland defence, Donegal's defensive talisman was a barely-fit pale shadow of his true dynamic self.

Now, you could blame his misfortune on the early-June scheduling of a club match ... or the fixture "madness" (Lacey's own word) of the previous autumn.

FRENZY

Lacey had been minding his troublesome hip right throughout the All-Ireland winning campaign. Meanwhile, the Donegal SFC kept being deferred - cue a frenzy to complete the county championship. Finally, during Four Masters' semi-final against Naomh Conaill in late October, came the inevitable breakdown.

"Six games in 22 days," the player recounted ahead of last year's championship. "One of the games went to extra-time. I was just out on my feet. I wasn't recovering from each game. It wasn't just me. I think there were four or five players who just hobbled off that day."

In the same interview, he cited this compressed schedule as the cause of his lengthy lay-off. The county board was striving to deliver a champion in time to compete in the Ulster club SFC, but Lacey felt the schedule could have been relaxed, adding: "In this day and age, a club championship means everything."

GROUNDHOG

Welcome to autumn 2014. Say hello to Groundhog Day.

The All-Ireland SFC final is on Sunday week. Arising from last September's contentious vote, by Donegal's own clubs, their local SFC starts a week later, September 28. Whoever emerges as champions are due to play their Fermanagh counterparts in the Ulster club SFC on November 2 - just five weeks after the Donegal race commences. Did someone mention madness?

According to this week's local media, the Ulster Council may now look favourably on Donegal's request for a week's grace. However, even if that game were moved back to November 9, you have the distinct possibility that one or more Donegal stars will play championship football eight weekends running: the All-Ireland final, followed by three round-robin matches, then a county quarter-final, semi-final and final, then that Ulster opener.

This is what happens when an entire club championship is left in limbo. It has happened in myriad silverware-chasing counties, not just Donegal. You can blame the county board, its own clubs, a manager with too much power ... you can even blame the Sigerson Cup or the big chiefs in Croke Park for a fixture calendar no longer fit for purpose.

But you can't blame Karl Lacey or his fellow fall guys.

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