Football championship reform proposal edging towards green light

Central Council likely to back plan that will then be presented to congress

It doesn't feel like almost exactly three months to the day since the GAA special congress delivered its verdict on football championship reform but that's what this weekend will be. The surviving Option B got a narrow majority but well short of the required 60 per cent.

President Larry McCarthy later summarised the outcome when speaking to the press: “I think everyone who spoke against it prefaced their remark by saying we want change; we just don’t like this change. And we also got 50.9 per cent of people looking for change so that would appear to me to be a huge mandate to push on.”

That change looks likely to come at next month’s annual congress but first this Saturday, Central Council will pass judgement on the two remaining reform proposals, maybe tendentiously designated as ‘red’ and ‘green’. The latter is virtually certain to be accepted and sufficiently emphatically to give it a fair wind going to congress.

Option B – to recap – proposed switching league and provincial championship. The league would move to the summer and become the main platform for determining how the All-Ireland championship would proceed. Provincial championships would be played on a round-robin basis in the spring.

Of considerable importance is the establishment of the Tier 2 championship, the Tailteann Cup, the structures of which will mirror the Sam Maguire’s for the 16 counties in the lower leagues.

Among the key findings to emerge from October were that whereas everyone was fed up with the current structures, nearly half still wanted the provincial championships to retain their central role in the All-Ireland.

A task force was set up in December and delivered two proposals within weeks. Members had reviewed around 50 documents or proposals – some submitted after special congress – and also taken on board points made in October.

The red was essentially a tweaked version of Option B. It addressed one of the main reservations – that some counties would lose their Sam Maguire participation to others, who had actually finished lower in the league, by resurrecting the old Division 1A and 1B.

By progressing the top four in either division, this would ensure that the best eight teams would contest the All-Ireland.

It is however the green proposal that has attracted most of the endorsements from provincial councils – incoming Munster chair Ger Ryan was a member of the task force – to, unexpectedly, the Gaelic Players Association, which did more than anyone to push Option B last autumn.

The green preserves the centrality of the provincial championships and makes their finals the basis of a round-robin All-Ireland structure of four groups. It caters for three counties per group progressing – winners into the quarter-finals and second- and third-placed into preliminary quarter-finals.

Already doomed

This structure guards against another of the reservations about moving the league to the summer and integrating it with the championship: the prospect of dead rubbers over a seven-match schedule in the lower divisions, which promised advancement only to the teams winning Divisions Three and Four.

For the GPA, the benefits of the green proposal were partly grounded in realpolitik. They knew as well as anyone else that the provincial championships were a sticking point for many and given that their key aims had been met, it made more sense to back the green proposal rather than the red, which in the eyes of most is already doomed.

This removed any potential friction with the Ulster membership, who were supportive of the provincial championships. There was the added consideration that the red proposal had deviated to a certain extent from Option B by redrawing the league structure.

The headline figure that 70 per cent of panels are in favour does not actually refer to 70 per cent of the players. GPA reps canvassed their county to get an accurate picture of what the views were, as panellists still have to be finalised in a number of cases.

The players’ organisation is however content that change is following its own prescriptions.

In the immediate aftermath of the special congress, GPA CEO Tom Parsons called for a new proposal to be brought to annual congress in February while GAA president Larry McCarthy and director general Tom Ryan were equivocating about the time available to turn around a new motion.

It should equally be pointed out that the CCCC, Croke Park’s most influential body in these matters, was also pushing for a February resolution.

Substantively, the green proposal ticks the boxes of ‘fairness, development and change,’ which the players identified as key criteria. It gives a greater number of matches during the summer and allows access for all to the Sam Maguire.

The proposal is likely to secure the backing of Central Council and will go to congress with the probable proviso that it be accepted for a three-year trial. Any glitches during that period can be addressed on the run, as they were during the trial phase of the All-Ireland quarter-final round robin in 2018 and ’19.

There is growing optimism among all stakeholders that the structure of the senior football championship can now be stabilised for a number of a years.

Green proposal: League in spring; provincial championships in early summer – as is. Provincial winners and finalists to be seeded into four groups with the eight remaining places allocated to highest-ranked counties in the league not already qualified. Winners straight to quarter-finals and second- and third-placed teams to contest remaining four places. Next 16 counties, based on league ranking, to go into four groups for Tailteann Cup.
Red proposal: Like Option B, which flipped league and provincial championship – the latter a round-robin competition in spring and the former moved to summer. Tweaks include league with Divisions 1A and 1B, facilitating the top eight counties progressing to quarter-finals. Divisions 2A and 2B winners to get playoff with fourth place teams in top division. Remaining Division 2 teams to Tailteann Cup.