Form battles substance all the time in GAA competitions. It was explained to me last week for instance how the format of the Munster under-20 championships influences the choices made by young dual players in Cork.
One, hurling, offers them a sequence of matches against top counties whereas the other, football, is straight knockout – potentially one match and you’re finished.
Is the senior football championship suffering from the same problem? It’s well worn at this stage that the GAA, in their anxiety to avoid a series of dead rubbers, overcompensated by devising a form that would guarantee live rubbers, even if dependent on life support machines.
The weekend after next it is likely that one of the Sam Maguire qualifiers, Kildare or Sligo, will be a team that has failed to win any of its previous four matches.
There’s no disgrace in that – it’s how the competition is structured and Sligo’s manager Tony McEntee was blunt in his declaration at the weekend that his team, already promoted from Division Four, and present at this stage of the championship because of the vagaries of the Connacht draw, had no real designs on the knockout stages.
Kildare will feel differently but have a tough contest with in-form Roscommon.
The final round of matches has one unhelpful context – first place in Group 4 is likely to come down to how heavily Roscommon and Dublin can defeat their opponents on Sunday week – a kind of incentivised punishment beating, which will also encourage ultra defence as a survival mechanism.
Overall though the competitiveness of the round robin fixtures – although there are unlikely to be any surprise qualifiers – has been impressive and just three teams have nothing to show for their two matches to date and one of those, Louth have lost by margins of one and two points.
The intention was to give teams a guaranteed number of matches and that has been achieved with a reasonable quota of well contested fixtures – so far, just three beatings by more than six points.
Why so has there been such a deluge of criticism or stated indifference, reflected in underwhelming attendances?
Two reasons have generally been given. One is the obvious lack of consequence in matches because of the permissive structure. Why bother turning up for an event when the outcome isn’t of vital importance and there’ll be another one along shortly?
That impacts in another way. Just because a team is progressing to the next round under this structure doesn’t mean that they have any form or momentum and the prospect of supporting a team that is simply counting down the days to its inevitable exit is not particularly enticing.
The other reason is ultimate form versus substance debate, the state of football: too much defensive play and patient probing, sustained by Herculean feats of concentration in stringing together low-risk hand passes. That rarely bothers the supporters of a winning team so the aesthetic argument isn’t universally accepted.
Yet the fundamental problem for the game is the lack of contest for possession.
Interventions to re-engineer the genetics of football aren’t lightly undertaken. Writing in the Irish Independent, Colm Keys raised an interesting point about a reduction in playing numbers to 13 – a solution which is a long time in existence, as he pointed out, referencing the GAA’s two most recent major policy reviews, the 2002 Strategic Review Committee and 1971′s McNamee Commission.
It goes back even farther than that. As soon as Central Council reduced team numbers from 17 to 15, in 1913 there followed advocacy to make further inroads.
A year later, Kerry captain Dick Fitzgerald in the GAA’s first coaching manual, How To Play Gaelic Football wrote: “Finally, there are some things to be said in favour of the thirteen a side game”.
His reasons don’t particularly resonate with modern audiences and included shortage of players and the average pitch size around the country. He also saw smaller teams as likely to encourage or necessitate ground football, a tactic that is all but defunct.
Modern preoccupations that would benefit are more potential for the one-on-one contest and less fouling, which was also mentioned in 1913. The game rationalised from 21-a-side in 1884 to 15-a-side within 30 years so it’s not radical to wonder if a further reduction might benefit football given all of the advances in the past 110 years.
Aside from the playing rules, what other changes might improve things? The form of the current round-robin structure could also maybe benefit from reduction.
Colm Collins, manager of Clare, the only team so far eliminated, remains an enthusiastic backer of the system but also believes the lack of jeopardy with just four teams eliminated after 12 matches needs to be addressed.
“Obviously, we’ll have to refine a few things in it. I suppose it’s a bit ridiculous that you only lose four teams but apart from that I think it’s the way to go.”
Doubling the number of eliminated teams from the round robin would make sense even if it reduced the number of matches everyone was guaranteed.
A final point about form: surely there is no need in future to elevate the seeding of provincial finalists – whatever about champions – in the composition of the groups. The league standings have been extraordinarily accurate in predicting the outcome and should simply underpin the seeding of everyone from five to 16.
The likely 12 remaining counties are exactly as ranked in the league with the slight exception of Kildare, 13th, replacing Louth, who are 11th.
To date just one county has managed to beat an opponent with a higher league finish and that was Cork, who defeated Louth – a case of fourth in Division Two beating third and so hardly seismic.
Bookies’ odds on this trend continuing average roughly 1 to 4 over the eight remaining fixtures.
Definitely a case where substance prevails.