The case for summer soccer at local level must surely be revisited after the decimation of the adult and underage seasons due to the worst winter in years.
The Waterford Junior and Schoolboy Leagues have been in a state of virtual suspension for weeks – and two months in the latter’s case – what with the deluges of November swiftly followed by a deep freeze.
Pitches are in an awful state, and most players haven’t seen any game-time in ages. Indeed, only for the advent of all-weather astroturf many wouldn’t have kicked a ball since Thierry Henry handled one in Paris. (Ok, ok, I’ll get over it eventually.)
But seriously, something will have to change because the winters sure aren’t going to get any milder or dryer now that the effects of global warming have proved to be more than a myth invented by John Gormley, who, in case it needs clarifying, isn’t the Minister for Snow.
As can be read elsewhere, Pat Kelly, long-time secretary of the Waterford Schoolboy League – whose success in running off its myriad divisions on time each year is an annual minor miracle; thanks in no small measure to the efficiency of its fixtures mastermind Davy Cullen – is vehemently opposed to switching to a summer season. Despite having over 900 matches left to play he’s adamant that it’s manageable; though the parents of kids doing junior cert exams mightn’t concur when games are being crammed in along with their sons’ studies come May and June.
For the Junior League, a season of upheaval behind the scenes in Ozier Park has been exacerbated by the prevailing conditions out-of-doors. In truth the junior soccer calendar is no stranger to fixtures pile-ups. The problem is keeping players interested. The current season is too stop-start, with more emphasis on the stop unfortunately this weather. Nowadays there are so many sports fellas are into, from golf to athletics, cycling, triathlon and martial arts. You name it, lads are trying it, and like having a reliable routine. There’s no secret as to why some established soccer clubs have folded, why others are struggling to field more than one team. Or why the once-flourishing Factory League has been made redundant. The alternatives are becoming more attractive.
The usual argument against summer soccer (which won out the last time a vote was taken among Waterford clubs) is that it would clash with the GAA’s peak period. But haven’t ordinary hurlers and Gaelic footballers been complaining ’til the cows come home that they spend the best months of the year bone idle while championships are suspended on account of county teams’ participation in the various provincial and All-Ireland series? Moves are afoot to improve that situation, but most club players aren’t holding their breath in anticipation of any great difference.
The League of Ireland eventually made the move from the traditional August-May parameters to a March-November timeframe. Needless to say there’s still the odd torrent or two to contend with (property boom/bust similarities aside, this is Ireland not Dubai after all) but imagine if they hadn’t: where would the 2009-10 season be at now? Pat Fenlon and Brian Murphy would probably still be trying to impress potential suitors at Bohs and clubs would be weeks without any gate receipts. The present structures might be far from perfect, but the old way just wasn’t working.
So why can’t the grassroots game follow suit? (And I’m not forgetting the girls and ladies leagues as well.) Some might argue that playing through the winter ‘hardens’ young players. But does it improve skill levels, or encourage ‘up and under’ tactics, giving brawn an advantage in coping with mud-bath conditions. Better and safer pitches would bring out the best in kids especially.
Soccer’s authorities should show confidence in their own product and go head-to-head with the GAA. They already do it in terms of summer camps (the success of which – financial and otherwise – is perhaps one of the reasons the game’s governors at juvenile level might be reluctant to change). How many players would actually cross-over between the codes in reality? Less than the powers-that-be might imagine, me thinks. No sport should have a monopoly on the prime months. And it’s not as if too many players would be off on ‘builders’ holidays’.
The biggest stumbling block, of course, is that Waterford would be loathe to go it alone, though the Clare Schoolboy/girl Leagues introduced a summer season to positive reaction in 2007 (notably arranging its fixtures lists in liaison with GAA juvenile officers to avoid clashes, with an acceptance, as regards training, that players can’t be everywhere at once).
The feeling is that unless there was wholesale change from the top, via Munster Council and FAI channels, bringing every county into line, local clubs would find it practically impossible to compete nationally. And such has been the success of sides representing Waterford in the various cup competitions at all grades – from Villa to Carrick United – one might ask the question: if it’s not broke why fix it?
The answer is similar to the one the GAA fraternity give time and again: that the game is not just about the winners, the elite. It’s for everyone that plays, organises and supports it. And right now the majority are experiencing another long winter of discontent.