GAA fixtures have long since become the kind of thing that Flann O'Brien would conjure up to comment on Irish officialdom, and for its latest farcical installment, we turn to Tipperary.
Last Sunday, Clonmel Commercials and Moyle Rovers met in the 2017 South Tipperary Senior Football championship final. (Eagle-eyed observers will now point out that a 2017 final was played in 2018, but that is just the beginning for this absurdity). The game ended in a draw after extra-time, and with county players on both sides now committing to pre-season ahead of the earlier-than-usual-to-facilitate-the-playing-of-club-games, the final is likely not to be replayed until April.
To understand how we've got to this stage, it is necessary to take a detour through the format of the Tipp championship.
The Tipperary football and hurling championships have traditionally been divided into four divisions: North, South, West and Mid. Traditionally, owing to intense levels of talent and rivalry, a number of these divisional competitions are extremely prestigious - the North and Mid finals in hurling and the South final in football.
Today, the football championship is divvied up into four groups, with the winner of each group qualifying for the quarter-finals. However, if a side misses out on a quarter-final via the new four-group format, they are offered a reprieve in the form of the Divisional championship: if they win their divisional, they earn a route to a preliminary quarter-final.
Clonmel and Moyle Rovers both qualified for the South divisional final and topped their county championship groups, so the need to play the South divisional final receded, with its completion no longer necessary to the completion of the county championship. As a result, a prestige event in Tipp football has been allowed to yawn across months and months.
Moyle Rovers played Killenaule in the South semi-final on August 29th, with the game finishing in a draw. A day later, Commercials beat Ardfinnan in the second semi-final and then set about waiting to find out their final opponents. The replay of the first semi-final was delayed by a Killenaule hurling fixture on September 2nd, with the football replay finally going ahead on September 10th. (Won by Moyle Rovers by a single point).
And then...the wait. A window opened up to play the final in November, but with both clubs depleted as players were away and training had ceased for a couple of weeks (Clonmel had just been knocked out of Munster by Dr.Crokes) it wasn't played. Nor could they find a date in December to play the game, and eventually it went ahead last Sunday, January 7th. That date had only been arranged earlier in the week, on Tuesday January 2nd. Someplayers weren't informed until the Wednesday.
The game was played in Clonmel without a scoreboard, and started 45 minutes later than planned amid concerns over a half-frozen pitch. With much of the turf so solid, a number of top-line Commercials player elected not to play as it would be a risk to the anke injuries they were carrying: Ian Fahey elected not to risk his. Commercials were also without Michael Quinlivan and Seamus Kennedy.
The game finished level at 0-08 after extra-time, meaning that the replay may not be played until the conclusion of the National league in April.
Clonmel and Tipperary footballer Jack Kennedy played in the belated final, but was unable to hide his frustration when speaking to Balls this week:
It was a bit of a disaster.
So that pushed it back. We only found out on Wednesday that it would be played on the Sunday. And then we don’t know when it will be played again.
It is frustrating. Even how it turned out Sunday. We went down, it was set for our home pitch. The pitch probably wasn’t in good enough condition, it was very hard in patches.
I’m lucky in the fact that I’ve no problems with ankles, if I did I wouldn’t have played.
I wasn’t forced to play, but the game went ahead anyway. It’s frustrating sometimes the way the football is dealt with it in Tipperary, but sometimes there’s not much else to do. They have to get the fixtures done.
The frustration of both managers was less reserved. Both spoke to Tipp FM's Stephen Gleeson, with Rovers' Niall Fitzgerald lamenting that the South final "used to be a huge event, and I think it's important for the development of football to get back to those peaks. It's now a headache fixture being played in January".
Charlie McGeever of Commercials, meanwhile, cried out over the county board's priorities and player welfare, particularly given that Clonmel's winter dragged onto the final weekend of October with the Munster championship meeting with Dr. Crokes.
The match was fixed on Tuesday night, in the middle of Christmas holiday time. Bear in mind that our club players have been playing right through to the Munster quarter-final against Crokes. There's a time of year when club players have to have a break. Otherwise, where is player welfare?
It is a complete mess, it's farcical, it shouldn't happen. Club players should not be playing football in January, it's a disgrace. But it tells us where Tipp football is at in term of its importance and how the players are treated.
Gleeson himself echoes the concerns of both managers:
Player welfare should be of paramount importance and to send two of the top club teams in the county out to play a divisional final in January with 4 days notice is unfair to say the least.
Players gave their all on the field as always but a divisional final in Tipperary has always been a prized event in hurling and football, and the value of the competition is downgraded by the circumstances surrounding the South Tipperary senior football final.
Both Niall Fitzgerald and Charlie McGeever felt the competition should be held in higher esteem and I do too.
So when will the replay be played? The South Tipp CCC told Balls their preference is to play the final sooner rather than later, but with this Sunday out of the question owing to too short a turnaround, that leaves just Sunday week, January 21st before the commencement of the National League.
If it isn't played by Sunday week, then the likelihood is that it won't be played until after the conclusion of the National League in April.
That the GAA have cleared April for club activity, and that it will likely be used in Tipperary to conclude a competition from the previous year neatly sums up the fixture crisis now facing the GAA.