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GAA moves championship goalposts in major paradigm shift

Seán Moran: The day the All Irelands lurched in an entirely new direction forever

Dublin’s Con O’Callaghan scores his side’s first goal against Mayo in this year’s football final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Yesterday was a significant day for the GAA, although the news that the association probably won’t be called on to host rugby matches in the 2023 World Cup provided a downbeat backdrop.

The loss of public funds for the improvement of certain venues – principally Pearse Stadium in Galway and Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney – plus the loss of rental income may not create a massive shortfall but there had been considerable optimism that the Irish bid, in which the GAA had invested its support, would do better.

These same venues won’t, however, be short of fixtures in the years ahead – certainly compared with what has gone before – as was showcased at Tuesday’s Croke Park unveiling of the 2018 master fixture list.

Over the course of the past 20 years the GAA has changed beyond recognition. That evolution marked another milestone with the publication of next year’s schedules, significantly condensed to provide additional space for club activities.

Although the championship structures, which will be trialled in the next two years, are all about how the All-Irelands are to be ordered, the change will go beyond the procedural into the substantive.

There may be surprisingly little difference between the headline figures of the 1996 provincial championships – the year before the first major reform, which allowed defeated Leinster and Munster finalists to contest All-Ireland quarter-finals – and what is proposed for next year, but the compressed season represents a major departure for the GAA.

There will be 24 matches in the 2018 provincial championships, compared with 22 in 1996. Next year will be played over 10 weeks, compared with seven, but the cast has been considerably reduced from 18 participating counties to just 10.

Football changes

The football equivalent has been greatly expanded anyway since the introduction of the qualifiers, and that’s before you even get to the new round-robin All-Ireland quarter-finals, with their additional matches at the sharp end of the competition.

The qualifiers were introduced in 2001, and that year showed a jump in the fixtures leading to the All-Ireland semi-finals, from 35 in 2000 (already a slightly distorted figure as Leinster ran a round-robin preliminary group) to 59, including qualifiers and the newly introduced All-Ireland quarter-finals.

The first 10 years of this process showed that a county was more likely to win an All-Ireland having been beaten in its province than having won it.

That had an impact in the way counties – and supporters – approached the championship. Instead of a small number of carefully-prepared-for collisions, the summer required a steadier rhythm.

Hurling appeared to have a more rigorous approach to the credentials needed to win All-Irelands but that may have been influenced by the presence of an outstanding Kilkenny team, which only once had to avail of the second chance to capture Liam MacCarthy.

Yet it can be argued that the small ball game maintained the tradition of the gladiators with a season designed for big contests, sporadically staged. Provincial champions went straight to the All-Ireland semi-finals in all but three years out of the 21 since 1997.

Although that progression remains, the context is radically shifted as action will come thick and fast in the provinces with everyone getting four matches.

Public perceptions

How will the public take to these schedules?

The whole issue of promotion and media is probably the GAA’s biggest leap into the unknown. There are a number of weeks in April and early May in which no activity of national interest will be taking place. Added to that will be the empty September, previously filled with All-Ireland coverage.

Life will go on but there will be a serious reduction in column inches.

Earlier in the summer it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that individual matches will get lost in the deluge even if attention is guaranteed for the course of the championship, but that’s not necessarily a fatal flaw.

Twenty years ago, when the national league was played through the late spring and summer, there were impressive crowds and innovative scheduling, for example Wexford and Kilkenny drawing 9,000 to New Ross on a Saturday evening.

Four years later – assisted by the restrictions and postponements forced on the GAA by the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, which meant having to defer some of the fixtures – there were similar crowds, most notably the Limerick-Clare match in the Gaelic Grounds, played on a Thursday.

The GAA has made clear that it won’t be scheduling weekday matches in the new calendar but the same dynamic will be present: the rolling buzz of weekly contests and how teams cope with issues of adversity and momentum rather than sit around waiting for the next match on a distant horizon.

Home advantage

Advanced-level football will be seen in unusual places with home advantage for round-robin teams and the elite counties having to travel. On that point wouldn’t it be a good idea – even if it cost a little bit – to ask Dublin, assuming they qualify, to travel to a neutral venue for their “Croke Park” match rather than play twice there.

The champions could then play their home match in Croke Park – acknowledging that the county footballers haven’t in fact played league or championship at their designated home venue of Parnell Park in more than seven years.

Yet the biggest cultural shift is likely to be the planned vacation of September for All-Ireland finals – even if it won’t happen next year if the papal visit is confirmed for late August. In more than 90 years, this has only happened twice – for the polio epidemic of 1956 and the Save the Harvest campaign of 1946.

GAA trials are not usually aborted and so the likelihood is that barring a certified disaster, the new season will become an ongoing reality.

The additional weeks free from inter-county activity won’t solve the club fixtures crisis on its own but the space has been created for county schedulers to make life more tolerable for vast majority of the playing base. No more excuses.

smoran@irishtimes.com