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Denis Walsh: Two tiers are not enough for the football championship, it needs three

The CCCC’s preferred option for change is better than the current system but it is another flawed and ultimately doomed solution

Empty seats in Croke Park. The GAA public has not been energised by the flood of extra games; it has been anaesthetised. Photograph: Evan Treacy/Inpho

Here’s the thing. There have never been more matches, and there has never been so much ho-humming. The football championship, one of the vital organs of Irish sporting life, has assumed the quality of elevator music: in the background, on a loop. Not white noise. Beige. The championship should always feel like Sunday; it feels like Tuesday.

The convoluted new system is only in its second year and was scheduled to run for a third season. But all the indications now are that it will be replaced with another flawed compromise at a Special Congress in December.

The current system is bold in ways, and it felt like a worthwhile risk when it was adopted. But the GAA have spent the last two years trying to explain why it was exciting, when excitement is not something that can be consumed as an over-the-counter supplement. The championship will generate it naturally or not at all.

The Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) are on a short nationwide tour, reportedly offering six new alternatives. Their preferred option is to ditch the round-robin phase of the Sam Maguire Cup and have a more dynamic system to separate the top 16 teams in the country.

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In that proposal every team would have the safety net of a second chance in their first two games, but no team can survive losing twice. One of the things that has spooked Croke Park, and undermined the current system, is the sight of teams reaching the final round of group matches having already lost three times but still clinically undead.

Derry have turned into the Black Knight from Monty Python and The Holy Grail. King Arthur cuts off the Black Knight’s arms and legs with his sword and as each limb is severed, he refuses to concede. “All right then, we’ll call it a draw,” the Black Knight says finally after he’s reduced to a stump.

Flawed as it is, however, the current system served two important functions. It convinced enough people that the football championship was ill-served by just one tier. And it demonstrated that there is a finite appetite among GAA followers for intercounty matches. The GAA public has not been energised by the flood of extra games; it has been anaesthetised.

The drop-off in attendances has been alarming. Before this weekend the combined attendance at Dublin’s last two matches – a Croke Park meeting with Roscommon and a game on the road against Cavan – came to 20,204. Yesterday Dublin and Mayo struggled to fill Dr Hyde Park, a venue with a capacity of about 18,000.

Young fans let their attention wander during the Cavan v Dublin clash at Kingspan Breffni Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Dublin had won their previous two games by an aggregate of 31 points. Before this weekend, they had won their five championship matches this season by an average of 14 points. The round robin system works in the provincial hurling championships because there is the prospect of any team suffering a consequential defeat. In football now, there are too many effective treatments for losing.

As a rule, supporters of intercounty teams are fickle, moody and disloyal. Every team has an unblinking hard core, but they are in a minority. Losing teams are routinely abandoned.

The Cork hurlers, for example, brought a truly extraordinary crowd to the final group game against Tipperary in Thurles last month. Maybe as many as 35,000. But two years ago, when it looked like Cork would be eliminated from the Munster championship in Walsh Park, the Cork County Board were allocated 3,000 tickets and sent back hundreds of them, unsold.

Nothing moves a championship crowd like market sentiment. It is unusual for a winning team to lose its crowd, but Dublin’s early season winning has become an intolerable bore. With the Kerry footballers this dynamic has been at play for generations; they have massive support for All-Ireland finals and a floating crowd for the rest of the year. Dublin resisted that trend for a long time.

For the GAA this is the challenge: for a championship to feel exciting it must have crowds; to attract crowds, there must be competitiveness and consequences; to generate competitiveness, teams must be playing other teams from their peer group; it must feel like there is more than one possible outcome.

What has harmed the football championship is a nanny state approach. Hurling suffered from the same misguided compassion for years. Systems were devised, and constantly reviewed, to keep fringe counties involved when it was clear they were no longer competitive. To what end? The only outcome was demoralising defeats.

The current flawed compromise was designed to give every county a defined chance of being in the Sam Maguire. To engineer that possibility counties from Division Three and Four of the National League could still qualify if they reached their provincial final. The tiered system would not have gained traction at Congress unless that qualification route was established.

But that thinking is critically flawed. Two tiers are not enough for the football championship: it needs three. The top 12 should contest the Sam Maguire with promotion and relegation, just as there is in the National League and just as there is in every club championship in the country.

To flourish as it should the Sam Maguire must have the dynamics of a strictly elite competition, just like the Liam MacCarthy Cup, where winning is hard and losing is brutal. It is not for everyone. It cannot be. Elite sport is exclusive, not inclusive.

The National Football League is successful because teams are playing against opponents of similar ability in four distinct tiers. Club championships work spectacularly because teams find their level at senior, intermediate or junior according to their performance. Protected entitlement does not exist. Nobody would stand for it.

In the provincial football championships this year there were 19 matches involving teams from different divisions in the league; 16 of them were won by the team from the higher division. Two of the other three games involved Donegal beating Division One teams – Derry and Tyrone.

With not enough exceptions, the provincial championships are killing the buzz for five precious weeks in an overloaded calendar. Tackling their overbearing influence will take courage. There is no sign of it.

The CCCC’s preferred option for change is better than the current system, but it is another flawed and ultimately doomed solution. The only worthwhile change now is truly radical change. That will take visionary leadership and guts.