Traditional rigid system of inequality imprisons the modern GAA

Ailing championship structure badly in need of a revised format

Cork’s Daniel Goulding in action against Clare’s Ger Quinlan  in the Munster football championship at Ennis last week. Munster has proved football’s most caste-ridden province. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Cork’s Daniel Goulding in action against Clare’s Ger Quinlan in the Munster football championship at Ennis last week. Munster has proved football’s most caste-ridden province. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho


Where would the GAA be without its traditions? That’s not entirely a rhetorical question but any satisfactory answer would be fairly complicated. Tradition is at the heart of the games’ appeal – the routine and the repetition of the season and the provincial championships with their long-standing rivalries of varying levels of competitiveness.

But it’s also the underlying reason for much of the association’s innate conservatism: that’s the way it’s always been done. It also underpins the gross inequality of the representative system, based on counties of vastly differing sizes and resources and provincial structures, which make optimal championship formats impossible.

On top of all of that it has helped to frame states of mind and attitudes, which appear to govern rigidly the power relationships between so many of those counties. These have been particularly prominent in recent weeks.

On Sunday in Castlebar, Roscommon manager John Evans put a realistic context on his side’s annihilation by Mayo.

“Look, none of the teams in Division Four and Three – and Two for that matter – have given any of the top teams any sort of a game and that’s a bit worrying, isn’t it?”

It may be but it’s been that way for a long time. Roscommon have to go back 12 years for the last championship win over Mayo. It’s fair to say that the margins between the best and the rest have recently been lengthening – Roscommon ran Mayo to two points as recently as 2011 – but the traditional priorities have always asserted themselves.

Format change
The Football Review Committee, under the chairmanship of Eugene McGee, having had some success in addressing deficiencies in the rule book, is currently looking at possible championship format change. McGee’s byword in all of the FRC’s dealings has been feasibility: don’t try and fly daft kites in the hope of attracting support.

But the tension between that guiding principle and the need to achieve something is considerable.

It’s no secret that the format thought most likely to succeed is the realignment of the championship into four groups of eight as opposed to the somewhat psychedelic distribution of a perfectly symmetrical 32 counties into groups of five, six, nine and 12.

Yet in the light of tradition how likely is that to succeed? Top-of-the-head reallocations tend to involve the moving of Donegal into Connacht, along with say, Longford and Westmeath and maybe Wexford in with the Munster counties. Presumably provincial names would be dropped but I haven’t detected any likelihood of Donegal meekly surrendering its Ulster identity to become a component part of Conference West or whatever it might be called.

Ulster counties are paradoxically the most attached to tradition as well as those least affected. It is the province with the strongest sense of identity but it doesn’t appear to produce the type of caste system that stunts opportunity elsewhere. For instance, the last four first-time All-Ireland winners are from Ulster.

There was an interesting response in recent days from the most experienced manager in football’s most caste-ridden province, Munster. Mick O’Dwyer, in charge of Clare, whose experience of the provincial championship extends back well over 50 years responded to what’s been happening in this year’s competition (average defeats for Tipperary, Limerick, Waterford and Clare of more than 17 points with only Clare keeping it in single digits) by looking effectively to reinforce the status quo.

Seeded draw
O’Dwyer suggested a qualifying group format for the weaker Munster counties – similar to what was tried in Leinster in 2000 – in order to produce two semi-finalists but that would effectively revert to the seeded draw, which is anathema to the same counties who have seen modest advances in the 22 years since an open draw was introduced to the province.

Clare have won a Munster title and there have been during that period three wins for those counties against Cork and Kerry: 1992 Munster final Clare v Kerry, 1997 semi-final Clare v Cork and 2003 quarter-final Limerick v Cork. There have also been draws in two provincial finals: 2002 Tipperary v Cork (which should have been awarded to Tipp after Cork fielded too many replacements) and 2004 Limerick v Kerry.

Compare that with the previous 25 years when not once did a weaker county avoid defeat against Cork or Kerry.

The championship’s main innovation in modern times – indeed, its entire history – has been the introduction of the qualifiers and that has helped counties attain some upwards mobility when defeated in their province. Counties like Sligo, Fermanagh and Wexford have enjoyed great summers as a result.

But it has also delivered a format in which the top teams have been able to impose their better-resourced challenges on a more consistent basis that used to be the case when you had to win your province to keep going into August.

Even the imposition of four, evenly sized regional championships wouldn’t alter the inequalities of a system in which the most populous county has something like 30 times the population of the least.

When it comes to attempting to make inroads into that density of tradition, there’s only going to be one outcome.

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