It was probably inevitable that Waterford Whispers, the amusing satirical website which takes its lead from The Onion, would have its say on the GAA’s brave new world with its headline: Local Dad Just Needs All-Ireland Super 8s Explained To Him One More Time.
After the longest of drum rolls and intense debate, the newly minted format for the elite stages of the All-Ireland football championship start with Saturday and Sunday double-bills in Croke Park. Advocates of the new format are describing the new departure – two groups of four teams; championship games played home and away and the top four teams to advance to the All-Ireland semi-finals – as “a festival of football”.
Detractors – and they have been numerous – have decried the idea as elitist and unfair and further proof that the GAA is abandoning its core constituency and values for a revenue-generating sideshow. It’s hard not to think about this weekend’s games without recalling the headline that popped up on An Spailpin Fanach’s blog in early May: All-Ireland Championship Cancelled for Next Three Years; Possibly Forever.
“The cuckoo has taken over the nest, and the end is nigh for the GAA as we knew it,” he wrote then. “We are now on a slope that will tumble us, sooner than we think, towards a professional league of maybe eight football teams, six hurling. They’ll call themselves the Leinster Lions or Breffni Badgers or the Earl of Desmond Ranger’s, and they’ll have woolly mascots that the kids love and it won’t be too bad really, and we’ll get used to it sooner than we think; even whingers like your correspondent. But what it won’t be is what we once had, the pearl worth more than all our tribe that was the championship.”
The point is not whether such a vision comes to pass as that many GAA people out there are convinced that this is the wrong way to go. The GAA are asking that it be given a chance and have approved the Super 8s for three seasons. Already, its impact has been felt. Darragh Ó Sé, writing for this publication in early summer, noted that the provincial championships didn’t matter a hoot anymore: that making it to this weekend had become the Holy Grail. And it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the old showpieces in Ulster and Connacht felt a little more muted this year.
As it was, they were done and dusted with a haste that seemed indecent. One of the traits of the All-Ireland championship was that it seemed to mosey along with all the urgency of the Mississippi during a draught summer. In other years, the Ulster final would still be a week away. Instead, it is mid-July and there are just eight teams left in the championship. (Leaving the other counties with little excuse not to enjoy the novelty of playing their local championships in high summer).
Dublin’s arrival at this point was a foregone conclusion. The All-Ireland champions (since 2015 and counting) are runaway favourites to emerge from Group 2, comprising Donegal, Roscommon and Tyrone. Kerry and league finalists Galway match up on Sunday afternoon, with Kildare and Monaghan opening proceedings in Group 1.
Even the most conscientious objector would be hard pressed to deny that the opening weekend has produced a mouth-watering series of games. Each of the four ties are attractive games and the hope, for the devisers of the Super 8s, will be that the intrigue thickens over the following weeks, with unexpected results and everything to play for in the concluding round on August 4th and 5th.
The innovation will bring about scenes previously unimaginable in the August tradition of the All-Ireland championship. It is difficult not to become excited about the idea of Kerry football supporters venturing into the dipping streets of Clones for their fixture against Monaghan or to guess at the bartering that will go on for tickets when Dublin come to Omagh to play Tyrone.
The Super 8s does come perilously close the realisation of that dreariest of ideas, “something like the Champions League format” but is sufficiently tight in numbers and time to make it feel like a mini-competition within the All-Ireland. The logistics are simple – sort of. The top two teams in each group advance: if they are tied on the table, then the head-to-head result will apply. If the relevant game ended in a draw, then scoring difference will come into play (you can see Local Dad’s dilemma).
Maybe it will be a runaway success. Maybe it will be a grand fiasco. The GAA will argue that if you’re not in, you can’t win – which, strangely enough, is the precise argument that the other side have been making too. Roscommon and Tyrone get the ball rolling at 5pm this afternoon.