Ciarán Murphy: Clare are proof Super 8 is a good fit
Wrong to think new football championship format will be a hindrance to ‘weaker counties’
Clare’s Podge Collins (centre) has been tweeting his disapproval of the new football championship format. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho.
It has been a rather strange week in the GAA. Congress made the right decision, but delivered it in the most damaging fashion possible. The intercounty footballer has a chance to take over the Irish summer and, for all non-Dubs, an opportunity to play home games in August in front of a championship crowd, and bemoans that fact. The club player gets the biggest break he’s gotten in 130 years, and feels ignored and disenfranchised.
Everyone did pretty well out of it all, and yet everyone seems a little . . . angry. The introduction of the round robin series at the quarter-final stage was greeted with dismay by the GPA, who said that their members, by a 70-30 margin, voted against this proposal. They gave five reasons, three of which were that it did nothing for weaker counties. Podge Collins said something similar on Twitter, bemoaning it as a financially-driven decision. But this is nonsense.
I was sitting in the Hogan Stand last August when Clare failed to raise a gallop against Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final. I can only imagine the frustration of trying to deal with that sort of a display over the winter.
If the round-robin had been in place, Podge and his team-mates would’ve played Tipperary first up in Croke Park, before welcoming Tyrone to Ennis the following week. The third game would’ve been against Dublin in Croke Park. Two wins will more than likely get you through. Is beating Tipperary and having home advantage against Tyrone really a stiffer barrier to an All-Ireland semi-final than playing Kerry in a once-off game in Croke Park, which might as well be Kerry’s home ground?
The implication is that this makes it almost impossible for weaker teams to reach the All-Ireland semi-finals. Without putting too fine a point on it, the idea of a championship is to find the best team in the country, as equitably as possible. It’s not to artificially manufacture ways for lesser teams to progress, at least to the last four, when really you need to be getting down to the brass tacks of who’s actually going to win the thing.
But let’s take the proposal on its merits and assess its worth to teams in lower divisions. All told, 23 teams have reached the quarter-finals since they came into being. Instead of qualification for the last eight being a nebulous, but nevertheless potent, symbol of one’s status in the game, the round-robin is a chance to create a real and lasting legacy in a county that, if it describes itself as “weaker”, might need it.
Think about Ennis in late July, with Tipperary already beaten and Tyrone in town having lost to Dublin the week before (to continue our extrapolation of the 2016 season). Think about what that would be like for a Clare footballer – the promotional power of a packed home ground for a football game in high summer against a top side.
Clare have impressively targeted success in the league in recent years, because it is only by playing against teams who are better than you that you improve. In three years, Clare have gone from failing to get out of Division 4 to pushing for promotion into Division 1. Clare haven’t looked to anyone to give them a leg-up in the league, they’ve just gotten better. And by getting better in the league, they’ve gotten better in the championship.
Three more games in August against top-quality opposition, fully-motivated, and within touching distance of the All-Ireland final, would bring Clare on again.
Due to the work that they’ve done over the last three seasons, I’m not even sure Clare footballers are allowed talk of themselves as a weaker county. How did that transformation happen? By their own hand.
Johnny Magee, the Wicklow manager, called for an all-out strike after Congress. In 2013, Wicklow were a division above Clare, within commuting distance of Dublin, making training easier to organise and, without hurling to worry about, a sizeable playing population advantage over most of the other counties in Division 4.
He has talked before about how hard it is to compete with Dublin – but there are 26 teams or more between Wicklow and Dublin, and you have to overtake every one of them, step-by-step. Getting better doesn’t happen by accident. Help is needed to close the financial disparity (and the money from the round-robin series will go to the weaker counties), but at some stage the hard work of getting smarter and getting better has to begin.
This proposal was brought in because, depending on your province, you might need to win one game against Division 1 opposition to reach an All-Ireland final, or five. It’s not fair, and it’s never been fair.
This tried to straighten out that anomaly. Hamstrung by an unwillingness everywhere to scrap the provincial championships, it’s a pretty good effort. People waiting for a silver bullet to the fixtures mess will still be stuck with the same issue of what to do with the fact that there are more good teams in Ulster than anywhere else.
GPA chairman Dermot Earley said on Saturday that the new championship proposals had nothing in it for weaker counties. But those counties have repeatedly stated they don’t want a tiered championship. The GPA themselves reported that a ‘B’ championship would be boycotted by players if it passed Congress in February 2016. If you are the 30th best team in a 32-team open competition, you’re probably going to ship a few beatings.
Weaker counties have said they still want the route to success, as walked by Clare over the last three years, to remain open to them. They don’t want to be ring-fenced in with teams at their own level, so their aim must be to get up to the next level. Fair enough. If getting from third in Division 4 (the 27th best team in the country) to the All-Ireland quarter-finals is possible in three years, as Clare have done, don’t then ask for another leg-up to get to number four. Keep doing what got you travelling upwards in the first place.