Rugby could be the winner in planned switch to summer football

Rugby could be the winner in planned switch to summer football

THE FAI ANNOUNCED this week a short, interim season from August to December this year for the new National U17 League, with every club expected to play a minimum of twelve matches.

The next U19 League will follow suit. This decision will allow next year’s U17 and U19 seasons to begin in March, aligning all of the national league competitions into a Summer League.

It makes sense for League of Ireland clubs though there will be reservations as cash flow associated with running three nationally-competing teams simultaneously will be difficult, particularly for First Division clubs.

However, this will be offset by better quality pitches, reliability and regularity of schedules. Also, bright evenings allow the opportunity for additional training session while cutting costs in the provision of floodlit facilities.

It’s a very welcome advance for player welfare as it removes year-round competition for promising young players, where we risk burn-out. Take Limerick FC’s Val Feeney who has been playing year round, without a break, since Aug 2011 when he was just 15 — alternating between U19 and senior squads for Athlone Town before he joined Limerick FC.

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There are some concerns, including the requirement for clubs and league to work around the examination calendars of junior and leaving certificate students, as well as college exams. We will all need to show commitment to education of young players off the pitch as we put forward initiatives to educate elite payers on the pitch.

It’s a question that will also face the wider football community soon. The recently announced Player Development pathway has committed to aligning all schoolboy football to a summer season.

This is the biggest stumbling block to the summer switch and it doesn’t seriously affect the U17 and U19 National Leagues, as players in these divisions are already on an Elite path in their chosen sport.

Beneath this age level, right across schoolboy football, the reservation is the same. “We’re going head-to-head with the GAA”. I’ve heard it from a number of schoolboy clubs and associations already. They fear competing with the GAA will wipe them out. This simply isn’t true but it’s a valid concern.

Each year I would hear coaches lament the lack of competition for elite players after the Kennedy Cup, when coaches of the country’s elite 13-year-olds would resign themselves to losing players to other codes.

The planned FAI pathway will bridge this gap with both U15 and U13 National leagues in the development plan for the game, but that doesn’t help the grassroots.

There are clubs who will need to improve their organisations and standards to deliver a standard of coaching and engagement to retain the players they have. Of course, what is often forgotten is that the concern is shared in GAA circles.

We’re just coming to the end of the first of two short periods each year where the sports overlap. Going head-to-head with football over a period where exams, family holidays and school holidays already remove much of the structure around the average child’s life will concern GAA grassroots.

I coach football to kids at U8 and U9 level as well as coaching GAA, specifically hurling to U6s. I’m lucky that in my small town there is a huge overlap between coaches for both codes and we all work to ensure the kids come first.

Of course over the summer the level of commitment asked of volunteer coaches will increase dramatically and that is a concern that we will have to face shortly. The funny thing is that the real winner in schoolboy sport following the switch to summer football is likely to be rugby.

The decision to move to summer football allows rugby an unchallenged run over the winter months and school year. No competition for training, coupled with a desire for parents to see their children engage in sporting activity over a period where dark evenings shove them towards the TV and a more sedentary lifestyle will be a huge factor.

But everyone in the country has notice of the plans. Instead of rowing against it, it’s time to start planning to ensure it’s a success.

Follow John on Twitter @johngosullivan

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