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Ciarán Murphy: It’s not hard to do away with superfluous finals and increase drama

Sponsors would still get a bang for their buck if emphasis was shifted to the final round of league fixtures

We are not yet out of March, and yet I’m coming dangerously close to your GAA columnist’s yearly recommended dosage of competition-structure-talk. Have I dangerously front-loaded my most explosive, audience-friendly material? Or is the arse-boxing season finally drawing to a close? You can draw your own conclusions.

But this week’s league finals shouldn’t be happening, and the real victims are not Wicklow, Sligo and Mayo, who are all out in the championship seven or eight days after their respective games in Croke Park this weekend.

The real victims are Armagh, relegated from Division One after Mayo made a raft of changes for their final regulation game of the season against Monaghan in Castlebar and promptly fell to a six-point defeat.

Consider for a moment Mayo’s outlook if the first-placed team in every division was awarded the title, without recourse to a final. Even with a points difference before the start of play 20 points better than their closest rivals, Galway, they would have been far more intent on finishing the league on a high if they were playing to confirm their status as league champions.


Instead, given a situation where they would have to play that Monaghan game, this week’s league final, and then a Connacht quarter-final against Roscommon in consecutive weeks, they were always going to prioritise the latter two, and throw their hat at the Monaghan game.

Monaghan, presented with even the slightest glimmer of a chance to escape relegation, weren’t going to hang around. They duly did the business, Armagh couldn’t beat Tyrone, and so down went Kieran McGeeney’s team. But the Mayo team that Armagh played was a rather more motivated bunch than the team Monaghan had to face.

The integrity of the competition shouldn’t be quite so easily manipulated. Armagh had a chance on the field to secure their place in Division One, and couldn’t do it, so you rightly won’t be hearing any complaints from them. It happens in plenty of leagues, and it’ll happen in the Premier League if Arsenal wrap up the title with two or three games to spare. But in a league of just eight teams, situations like this can be much more easily avoided.

Of course, the imposition of another game, after seven games in nine weeks, also means we have to listen to the endless chatter about teams that ‘want’ to win the league and teams that couldn’t be bothered. Jack O’Connor apparently wasn’t interested, and people just took that at face value (‘they don’t need the extra game’) instead of investigating just why Kerry wouldn’t fancy another national title.

He was very concerned about the Clifford brothers being ‘burned out’ after their efforts with Fossa in the junior club championship in the middle of January. But if he didn’t care about winning the league, why did he bring Fossa captain Paudie Clifford back at the start of February to play in Kerry’s second league game?

If everyone had to play the same amount of games to win a league title, then winning it wouldn’t be seen as some sort of punishment.

The argument is that league finals are a cash-cow for the GAA, but to be fair, the CCCC recommended they be gotten rid of last year - it was the GPA who insisted they remain. Sponsors might also have their say, but there are more creative ways to give Allianz one final bang for their buck.

Instead of the finals, why not (as Eamon Fitzmaurice, myself and numerous others have suggested over the last few years) make the last round of fixtures the focus of attention? Why weren’t the last Division Four games played simultaneously at 4pm last Saturday, followed by the last round of Division Three fixtures at 6pm, the last Division Two fixtures at 2pm on Sunday, followed by the Division One games at 4pm?

Just one weekend of Soccer Saturday-style coverage might put a strain on TV companies’ resources, but even if there was only one league game shown live, with reporters at all the other games in that group, it would be far more dramatic and dynamic than a set of finals teams are peering over the shoulder of, anxiously scanning the horizon beyond them.

Wicklow manager Oisin McConville told us earlier this week that his side will be prioritising their championship game against Carlow the weekend after next.

Their opponents Sligo are playing London seven days after that Division Four final and will surely have at least half an eye on that, given their path to a Connacht final is far from insurmountable. Maybe the GPA’s player survey is at odds with the feelings of inter-county managers, but if the lads in Division Four aren’t that bothered with the idea of a final in Croke Park, can we not just take that as definitive proof these games are unnecessary?

PS: There is an event at Croke Park this Saturday, April 1st, part of the Thinking Futures: Building Recognition initiative for the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool and the GAA. Each forum will feature a chaired panel discussion with two pro-union and two GAA panel members with 10 minutes each to explain their identity and attitude to the constitutional question. The aim is to start a conversation and build reconciliation.

Tickets are available on eventbrite.