Traditional championship model looks on borrowed time with dysfunction of provinces driving spirit for reform

By Dermot Crowe

Thirty years ago, over the course of four riveting matches, Meath and Dublin transfixed the nation and unintentionally changed the course of GAA history. At a time when live television was still treated with suspicion, broadcasting the last of the four matches live swung open new doors of perception; a mind-altering moment for the Gael. Suddenly, it was there as plain as the nose on a GAA delegate’s face: the vast potential to market the games and increase popularity and interest.

The message became clear that the championship had been selling both players and the public short. From there the GAA embraced live television and looked more brazenly at moving the championship away from its traditional knockout format. After four dazzling matches Dublin were gone and Meath had only reached the quarter-finals of the Leinster championship – it couldn’t be right. Ten years later the football qualifiers were introduced and by default the Meath-Dublin saga had been responsible for prodding the GAA in that direction.

Twenty years on from the introduction of the qualifiers the GAA is again taking a serious look at restructuring its championship and contemplating a move away from the traditional provincial model. Having seen the Super 8s go stale and do little to enhance the appeal of the football championship to its audience, the latest reform proposals will be voted on at a Special Congress in Croke Park on October 23.

Misgivings about the provincial system and its limitations – with Dublin having won 16 of the last 17 Leinster titles – are driving the current reform proposals. Who cares if Kerry win another Munster championship? The second of two proposals from the Fixtures Calendar Review Taskforce stands the most realistic chance of succeeding. It would not dispense with the provincial championships but move it to earlier in the year as a separate entity.

There are arguments both ways here. But the more persuasive one is that having the provincials in spring as a stand-alone competition is effectively euthanasia for a competition that has a rich tradition and lore. While this proposal aims to make the championship more interesting and competitive, it is well known that within living memory counties like Leitrim, Sligo, Clare, Tipperary and Cavan won long-awaited provincial titles.

But the sobering and overriding reality is that too many dull and predictable provincial championships cannot be ignored. The root philosophical argument revolves around the provincial model and whether it is time to retain it or put it to sleep. If you did a street poll now it would most likely back Proposal B; but that is not how a Congress makes it decisions. Will there be enough GAA officers willing to take that leap? The second reform proposal, the most likely to succeed, would have that effect of diminishing the provincials, sooner or later, with the National League replacing them as the way through to the All-Ireland knockout stages.

The League is admired as a perfectly calibrated matrix where a team’s status is fairly reflected in its placing. There are few glaring mismatches. Teams from all tiers, almost all teams at least, can entertain reasonable prospects of making an impact and building some momentum, of starting out with some degree of hope.

The GAA’s last significant move was on the split season, agreed at Congress earlier this year and to come into effect in 2022. This reform presented by the same committee appointed by former GAA president John Horan, a bit like Dublin and Meath in 1991, has been precipitated by an unusual series of events, namely a global pandemic. The ‘new normal’ surrounding Covid-19 made a split season less of a choice than an obligation. It offered the GAA the chance to see it trialled without having to go through a voting process and removed the element of risk.

There is every chance it would have materialised at some stage, just not as soon. And some of this spirit of reform, driven by the sheer frustration over three of the four provincial systems having reached a state of dysfunction and dreariness, is leading some observers to consider that the second proposal put forward for voting on Saturday week has some prospects of reaching the 60 per cent target needed. If it does it may be introduced on a trial format.

There are some strong misgivings already expressed, notably by the Ulster Council, whose secretary Brian McAvoy said he was dead against it on the basis that it will kill their thriving provincial championship. There are also worries about the lack of an apparent cost-benefit analysis but this was challenged by a member of the committee which came up with the proposals. Conor O’Donoghue said that the new system recommended in the second proposal, which would use the League to determine what 10 teams that play in the All-Ireland championship (Sam Maguire), has considerable scope to raise revenue and attract sponsors.

The other motion appears dead in the water, which proposes a continuation of the provincial system but moving counties around to form four groups of eight and then sub-dividing those into two
round-robin groups within each new provincial structure.

Apart from McAvoy, the former Donegal manager Jim McGuinness, in his column in The Irish Times, also appealed to the GAA not to back the second proposal because he felt it would signal the beginning of the end of the provincial championships.

“What I would say on that is the reality is that public interest in the provincial championship has fallen away dramatically and that is in only going one way,” says Conor O’Donoghue.

He refers to unsustainable “hammerings” experienced by counties in their own province.

“Of course there is nostalgia for big games from the past and I am from a county, Meath, where Leinster championships in the past were big days but there is just no appetite for that competition any more, given what’s happened over the last number of years.

“I empathise with Ulster [officials] but it is clear the players have a very different view. And they are the players at the front line. The brutal mismatches we have seen over the last couple of years has really killed interest in it.”

Despite Ulster opposition there appears a move towards change. On Thursday the GPA outlined its support for the second proposal, saying it had surveyed its players and found the majority in favour. Financial imperatives and the argument that you are losing a valuable piece of historical real estate don’t hold the same currency for players as the prospect of more games in a condensed space of time and greater novelty to the pairings.

Among those speaking in favour of the second proposal to use the league as a qualifier competition for the championship was Niall Morgan of Tyrone. “In my opinion this gives Ulster teams a better opportunity to compete for the Sam Maguire,” he said, “because . . . this year, for example [Tyrone had to beat] Cavan, Donegal, Monaghan just to get out of Ulster — just to get to compete in an All-Ireland series.

“In comparison, Kerry and Dublin basically walked their way through to their places in the semi-finals. So, it’s not saying that it’s going to be easier to get there, it’s just going to be a fairer basis where all the teams have to compete at the same level to get to the Sam Maguire.”

Morgan said an Ulster championship earlier in the year detached from the main championship would not be any less meaningful for him personally. But similar sentiments were expressed by players at one time for retaining the Railway Cup when it was clear public interest was virtually non-existent.

On Tuesday night Offaly’s management committee is believed to have been largely in favour of supporting the second proposal, and will be putting its position to a full county board meeting. There were some reservations and uncertainty over the revenue implications but the mood was undeniably towards change. Despite being winners of the
under 20 All-Ireland title this year, and having seen Dublin finally show signs of fallibility, Offaly football has been so bruised and deflated by the experience of its own province that the arguments of players and managers now hold more sway.

Sligo and Leitrim were demolished this year in Connacht. Clare, having had an encouraging league, lost to Kerry by 17 points in the Munster championship. Dublin’s winning margins started to go below double digits in Leinster this year but most of the last several years the province has been slowly strangled by the superiority of one county over the rest. None of that makes for good television or strong attendances.

Many of the Division 3 and 4 counties, outside of Ulster, are expected to run with the second proposal. The Sligo chairman Seán Carroll has publicly backed Proposal B. Sligo last won the Connacht championship in 2007.

“Under Proposal B the round-robin system will allow counties that lose a game to still be in contention and have a chance to learn lessons and apply the fixes in the short term,” he declared. “Concerns about potential waning interest/attendances can and should be addressed by additional marketing/promotion and investment support from Croke Park. Our provincial councils are vital to counties and are much more that organisations who run competitions so their many programmes and supports must be guaranteed to be funded. I think taking this concern off the table would be vitally important in making this decision and I would urge Croke Park for clarity on this.

“It is widely accepted that the National League, certainly in football, is our best competition. The radio coverage on the final day of the league as results pour in and calculators are out is one of the best days of the year for Irish sports fans. Moving the competition to centre stage, at a more favourable time of the year, will only enhance the excitement and the interest. The additional promotional opportunities are significant and the promise of seven championship games against teams of a similar standard, including at least three at home, is something most football counties couldn’t ever dream of. There’s a route to the Sam Maguire for everyone and the possibility of securing a national title is closer for many due to the addition of the Tailteann Cup.”

The Tailteann Cup, introduced for the weaker counties, has been held up due to Covid. It recognises the need for a second tier competition in the inter-county football championship and was due to take place for the first time in 2020, featuring Division 3 and 4 teams that failed to reach a provincial final.

Conor O’Donoghue admitted that the first proposal did not appear to have widespread support. He said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the second proposal can pass by gaining 60 per cent. There is a view that the overseas vote may prove influential and be seen as favourably disposed.

One leading provincial official said that Proposal B will sound the death knell for the provincial championships, saying the Munster series will become the McGrath Cup in everything but name. “Why would Kerry field a strong team?” he said. He also said there needed to be more clarity around finance regarding the proposals.

“The first one is dead,” he said, “it doesn’t make sense, it is not improving the situation. If Louth, Wicklow and Wexford are the bottom three teams in Leinster and Louth got to Connacht, say, and Wexford and Wicklow to Munster, what benefit are they going to get from that? Or Munster or Connacht are going to get from it either?”

But he acknowledged that there is a momentum towards reform. Conor O’Donoghue is optimistic that his committee’s case will gain a favourable hearing. “Obviously counties have not met yet officially,” he says. “It seems from talking to people behind the scenes that proposal B is becoming more appealing as they get a clearer understanding of it. Will it get 60 per cent? I don’t know. What I can tell you, I am very optimistic based on the conversations I’m having that there will be support on the day for it. That’s my honest view.

“The two carrots are the competitive games and the financial potential, it could be extraordinary in terms of the financial windfall that could accrue. I would love to have the provincial secretaries have a look at that. It is a much bigger cake.”

Seven games for each county is an appealing vista, with at least three at home. Whether that will outweigh the other concerns that exist around moving the provincials back to early in the year will be revealed on October 23. But at the very least they provincial model appears to be on borrowed time.

Option A – Eight-county provincial championships:
Bottom three seeded counties in Leinster and bottom one in Ulster move to Connacht and Munster (seedings based on NFL positions).
Each province split into two round-robin groups of four, guaranteeing counties three matches. Each group winner qualifies for All-Ireland quarter-finals, second and third placed into the qualifiers. Fourth placed teams headed to the Tailteann Cup, if a Division 3 or 4 county.

Option B – League structure for championship:
NFL moves to summer months with provincial championships played over February/March as a stand-alone competition. The championship would be played on the Allianz League basis with the top five teams in Division 1 and Division 2 table-toppers qualifying for All-Ireland quarter-finals. Second and third-placed Division 2 teams as well as Division 3 and 4 winners go through to preliminary quarter-finals to fill the last two spots in the last eight. The Tailteann Cup would comprise those Division 3 and 4 teams who don’t qualify for knock-out stages of the All-Ireland SFC.
If both proposals fail to reach the necessary 60 per cent the status quo remains with some version of the qualifiers in place next year, along with the provincial system as before. Super 8s may be jettisoned due to split season being introduced in 2022.

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