GAA solution to a GAA problem but what’s the alternative?
For all their shortcomings the FRC proposals would improve the football championship
GAA president Liam O’Neill and Chairman of the Football Review Committee (FRC) Eugene McGee: The FRC would have become aware that there is a huge interest in the whole business of fixing the inter-county season. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
In a couple of months it will be the 35th anniversary of then minster for health Charles Haughey’s deathless description of his Family Planning Bill as “an Irish solution to an Irish problem”. This sprang to mind while scanning the second report of the Football Review Committee.
Since 1979 the mists of time have obscured the phrase’s intended meaning but the minister meant it as a positive reference to the ingenuity required to address an issue – provision of access to contraception that the Supreme Court had deemed a constitutional right a mere five years previously – while bearing in mind public and church sensitivities.
Over the years however the words have come to be regarded more in line with the view, expressed in the Dáil some years later by Eamonn Gilmore as, “the sort of fudge that has been the hallmark of many social reform attempts”.
In between the approving and pejorative lies the reality of what Haughey was attempting: to do the reasonable thing without annoying too many people but the compromises made the whole package unreasonable. There is a difference however between a government and a GAA committee: one has a guaranteed opportunity to pass laws whereas the other has to convince an annual congress if it wants change.
Not annoying people matters.
Eugene McGee’s FRC decided a year ago that it would be impossible to draw up a report that covered both the rule changes needed in football and proposals to improve competition structures and so the latter task was deferred for 12 months.
In the meantime the committee worked tirelessly and fought hard for acceptance of their rule changes in relation to the playing of football.
Competition structures are another day’s work. For a start this wasn’t just a single issue; there were two considerations: how to optimise the inter-county calendar and how to ensure club players – who are as we keep hearing, 98 percent of all footballers – are provided with a decent schedule of fixtures rather than a series of cryptic clues dependent on how the county team is going and the whim of its manager.
Then, as the FRC would have become aware, there is a huge interest in the whole business of fixing the inter-county season. Taking the second report on the road would be a far more wearying task than even plugging part one.
According to McGee the most obvious solution and the one which appeared to command most support was the “four eights” – basing the championship on adapted provincial lines so that the 32 counties would be arranged symmetrically.
It would of course be easier simply to designate four “provinces” or conferences and allocate the counties accordingly but the FRC wisely anticipated that forcible ejection from their province would not find easy acceptance. By allowing counties to play for the right to contest their own provincial championship, the spectre of forced displacement is removed.
Is the proposal worthwhile or simply the lowest common denominator, the most change that the GAA might be able to get away with? Would it be an improvement?
It’s very hard to argue that it wouldn’t. It would streamline the championship and make sure that nearly all counties have to play the same number of rounds to win a provincial title and All-Ireland. By playing matches over an agreed number of weeks – a fortnight each for provincial quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals – there would be a tidier inter-county programme.
McGee pointed out that the suggested programme would allow the GAA greater scope in devising a decent promotional campaign in advance of the first weekend.
More crucially, this rationalisation would allow club matches to be played during the summer, which is one of the FRC’s most urgent ambitions. Yes, there would be dual players who would create difficulties on hurling weekends but that wouldn’t apply to all counties.
The downside is that such a structure would require iron discipline to see it through. Just because there’s a few weekends freed up doesn’t mean that managers will want players off with their clubs. Some counties may have to be forced to do the right thing by their club players.
Is that fight winnable? That’s effectively the report’s core issue.
There are still miles to go. Central Council has to deliberate on the report and work out how it’s going to canvas responses and it will be well over a year before anything goes before congress but this is an attempt to grapple with the biggest issue in Gaelic games at present.
FRC II can be characterised as an Irish solution to an Irish problem but most of the significant reforms in the GAA have been just that – hurling’s back door, the qualifiers etc.
It comes down to this: are the proposals an improvement? It’s hard to argue otherwise so opponents have to be asked, “what’s your alternative?”