Maurice Aylward is a vastly experienced and highly regarded hurling man
There is discontent, serious discontent, out there at grass roots level about the structure of games, and the GAA had better take note.
Ironically, in a season when the inter-county hurling scene is ablaze because of the brilliance of the fare in what has been classed as one of the most thrilling senior championship of all time, clubs are feeling more disconnected, even neglected, than ever.
While the inter-county scene has been flying, the scenario at club level is very different. Games are no more than chugging along, with secondary competitions providing the main diet for club players while the main leagues/championships have been at a standstill for ages.
In Kilkenny the most important adult competitions - the senior, intermediate and junior leagues/championships - will resume this weekend after a 17 week break since the last full round of matches on April 14/15.
Mullinavat manager, Maurice Aylward, is feeling the pain like many others. He has been involved in Gaelic games all his life and he is concerned about the mood he has experienced as his club played challenge matches all over and he chatted with people locally and in surrounding counties like Waterford and Wexford.
“The feeling is that clubs were being totally ignored,” was his summary of a situation in which club games have been shelved while inter-county matches dominate. “The worry I have now for clubs is that a lot of volunteers will step down. They are just not going to continue.
“They feel they are getting no help to keep things going,” he added.
Maurice is a hurling man. He is a true blue Ballyhale Shamrocks man. After he gave up playing when he was around 36 he slipped into management a few years later.
He began the trek with Tullogher-Rosbercon. With his own club, Shamrocks, he won four championships, three senior and one intermediate. He also helped St Patrick’s (Ballyragget) and Adamstown (Wexford) to county victory at junior level.
Along the way, two All-Ireland club titles were won too, with Shamrocks and St Pat’s.
“Games depending on this or that happening is no way to run sport,” was his summary of a situation in which the local club scene was dictated by Kilkenny results in the championship. “I can’t understand that the GAA can’t put 12 brainy people in a room and come up with a solution to suit everyone.
“It can be done if the will is there, but the will doesn’t appear to be there.”
Mullinavat’s situation reflects life for Kilkenny clubs in general. They played James Stephens on Saturday, April 14. They performed well and scored a confidence boosting 4-18 to 0-12 victory, but with the league halted after that they were forced to take a break.
Training stopped because there were no meaningful matches to be played.
“If we had a second match at that time we had the possibility of getting four points which would have been huge against relegation,” he said. “That was what we were training and aiming for all along.”
Instead, all involved in the club walked off the pitch in Hugginstown that afternoon knowing the next action in the competition wouldn’t be until June 12 at least, two full months later.
“We just stopped,” he said of the post first match situation. “As the evenings were beginning to get longer, and the pitches better we had to give up training. That was a killer.”
He recalled the County Board contacted clubs early in the year to outline all possibilities about local games, fingering dates for rounds of the leagues/championships depending on Kilkenny’s progress in Leinster and beyond.
The promise of two games for clubs in April that had been communication from Croke Park never came to pass. It was one game...STOP.
The proposed start up date was known earlier, so they commenced training in late November with indoor work in Mullinavat hall. Around the middle of January training moved outside, but finding pitches at the time wasn’t easy because the Mullinavat grounds took a battering because of the weather.
The first few early season matches they played in IT Carlow and WIT, while they travelled to Wexford and Waterford in search of challenges matches.
“We hardly trained in our own pitch up to the first round of the league against James Stephens,” Maurice recalled. “It was terrible. It was very, very hard on bad, wet nights and you were all the time ringing around trying find a pitch.”
The start of the League worked out well for them. The win over The Village added to the feel good factor in the club after Mullinavat’s strong showing in the championship last season.
“The whole thing fell asunder after that,” Maurice explained. “There were huge expenses on clubs around December and January between trying to hire fields, meet team expenses and so on.”
For the sake of clubs and the personnel involved he hoped there won’t be a repeat next season. If the round robin system was to continue - and that seems certain - he wondered would it be an idea for Kilkenny to play subsidiary cup matches and new league games, plus the football championships, at the start of the season.
“Just tell the clubs there will be no league matches until Kilkenny are out of the championship,” he offered. “Then we would know we needn’t start training until March or so. Evenings would be getting longer, and the fields would be better.
“You know exactly where you stand then. It is very hard because the games are so far apart this year. We stopped totally for five to six week. That is not the way to do things.
“You bring players to a certain level, then you stop. Then you have to start all over again. That’s not fair.”
In the absence of regular training, Mullinavat used the new Kilkenny league and other matches to keep in touch.
“We haven’t had a good training sessions in the field for about four months,” Maurice explained. “Sunday’s was the most meaning training session we have had in months. That was a pity after the good start we had. Morale was high after that win, and it would have been huge for us to keep going.”
He said he had never seen the depth of feelings, close to bitterness, among club people over how the club scene was being treated. That wasn’t only in Kilkenny, but in Wexford and Waterford as well, he suggested.
He recalled the old saying of admiring the majesty of the great tree, and the warning that the roots must not be interfered with.
“This is what I am worried about,” insisted the former forestry worker. “The GAA is cutting off the roots bit by bit. If they keep at it the majesty of the great tree will be affected eventually. I don’t know how many people told me this will be their last year involved with clubs if things stay the way they are.
“That was the message I got from managers, chairmen, secretaries and so on when playing challenge matches around the place.
“I don’t want to be knocking things. I enjoyed the round robin, and I enjoyed the matches at the weekend. I love hurling, but I also love the club matches. I love the club scene.
“I love going to Mullinavat, to Thomastown, to Inistioge and places like that to look at matches and meeting people for a chat. Players can become disillusioned too.”
For more on Kilkenny People sport read here.