I read last week about the intention of the Gaelic Players Association to canvass its players on the structures of the All-Ireland championship. Dessie Farrell was at pains to point out that he felt the provincial championship has run its course. And although I could sympathise with Dessie's viewpoint, the idea set alarm bells off in my mind.
It is obvious to me that the All-Ireland championship needs some kind of shake-up or a new dynamic. But simply dissolving the provincial championships, which have provided the super-structure of the All-Ireland summers for over 100 years, is not the answer to my mind.
In fact, I think it would be a disastrous move for Gaelic football. Once a thing is gone, it is gone. The provincial system is far from perfect. But if you simply do away with it, it means that instead of five trophies on offer, you would be left with just one. And I know that in Donegal, winning the Ulster championship was critical in terms of creating a new space to challenge for the All-Ireland.
It got me thinking about ways in which we could improve the structure of the All-Ireland football championship – and, more importantly, to address the widening gap between the powerful counties and those struggling to stay in touch. The recent mismatch between Dublin and Longford provided further substance for those who would argue that the provincial system has run its course. I don’t agree with that.
What if we came up with a structure which linked the National Football League, the provincial championships and the All-Ireland? And in doing so created two distinct All-Ireland competitions for the first 16 and second 16 ranked counties at the end of the process?
Let’s agree in theory that by the end of July, say, we are left with two distinct All-Ireland championship competitions, featuring two groups of 16. The top-tier group, consisting of the 16 highest-ranked teams in Ireland, would play eight knockout games with the winners progressing to the All-Ireland quarter-finals and so on until a county lifts the Sam Maguire.
The same would occur in the other bracket, which would obviously need a suitable name and a cup: that would be up to the GAA to decide upon. But how do we arrive at identifying which teams are in each bracket?
This is where the National League comes in. The All-Ireland championship grade one and grade two competitions would be based on league ranking and provincial championship performance.
Let’s look at the race for Sam Maguire, in the grade one All-Ireland. The top six teams in Division One and the two teams promoted from Division Two would form the first eight ranked teams. The two teams relegated from Division One would rank number ninth and 10th respectively. The team that finishes third in Division Two is ranked number 11. However, the 12th ranking would be held for the winners of the grade two All-Ireland competition the previous year.
That leaves four places reserved for the provincial championship winners – irrespective of where they finished in the league. So in effect, only the top 11 teams in the league would be guaranteed a seeding in the Sam Maguire bracket. If the top-seed teams also won the provincial titles – as will frequently happen – then the top 15 league teams – and the winner of the previous season’s second-tier championship – go into the grade one All-Ireland play-offs.
So, to give a scenario: Wicklow earn league promotion from Division Three to Division Two and qualify for the Sam Maguire grade one All-Ireland as the lowest-ranking or 16th-seeded team at the end of the league. They then play the Leinster championship and lose in the first round. But that is okay: their league work is worth something.
Let’s say Mayo are the top-seeded team. Then Wicklow will play Mayo – and at home if they win the toss – in a last-16 knockout game with a place in the All-Ireland quarter-finals at stake. Wouldn’t that make it worthwhile scrapping to get out of Division Three?
But there is a proviso here. Let’s say Kildare have had a miserable league and are demoted to Division Three and therefore are out of the top 16 when the championship starts. They are facing a summer in the second-tier knockout series. In essence, they aren’t playing for the Sam Maguire – which is a huge psychological blow for such a strong football county. But they catch fire in the Leinster Championship – and they win it. This guarantees their place as a top seeding in the Sam Maguire bracket. They qualify as provincial winners. Wicklow are squeezed out.
The significance of the provincial championship is retained both as a standalone competition and as a means to compete in the All-Ireland.
I think this structure would achieve two things. It would ensure strong teams are no longer just drifting through the league on automatic and that teams from counties with no winning tradition can strive for something more tangible. It would end the whole idea of a strong league performance somehow equating to fool’s gold. The reward for a really all-out league contest is there: it is evident in seeding.
Preserving the provincial contest means that even if a smaller county is locked into Division Four and can’t make any league progress, they still get their chance to play against Cork or Kerry in the Munster championship, for instance. What is the alternative? If you abolish the provincial system and create a two-tier structure, then what incentive is there for a kid in Waterford, say, to aspire to play county football? There are good footballers in Waterford. And if you have a 20-year-old corner back, he deserves a shot at marking James O’Donoghue. His team may not win but he deserves a chance to test himself against the best.
So I feel that rather than abolish the provincial systems, it is time to streamline them. They could be run like tournaments rather than needlessly stretched out over months. The Ulster football championship is terrific. But imagine a weekend when you had a match on a Friday night, a double bill on a Saturday and another match on a Sunday. You could play the semi-finals a fortnight later. The importance of the competition is not diminished and even if a team like Monaghan or Cavan has had a tough league, there is always a chance that they will catch fire in Ulster and go and win the Anglo-Celt.
So: the two All-Ireland play-off brackets are decided upon by league and provincial championship performances.
I think that these should be called the All-Ireland Championship ‘Play-offs’. These are in-or-out knockout games, which will bring a cut and thrust feel to the season. I have absolutely no concerns about the play-offs for the Sam Maguire. Sixteen strong teams, with number one playing 16, two playing 15 and so forth – and home or away decided upon a coin toss – would make for a really fascinating competition and would produce unexpected results.
My priority would be in the promotion and elevation of the other competition into something valuable. This can be done. The first thing is that this competition has to be advertised, it has to be put up in lights, and the teams must feel as that their competition is worthwhile. Players want to feel that they are on the big stage. If they are playing in a venue packed with 30,000 people, then the sense of competition will take over. That, to me, is a world away from the reality of a contest like the Tommy Murphy Cup. So games in the second bracket should be guaranteed to be fixed as curtain raisers to the Sam Maguire games. That should follow right through until All-Ireland final day. If we are serious about promoting the game in counties that are struggling, then they should be encouraged to play on the big stage. If that means moving minor games, then so be it. Senior football teams should be given top billing. But there is no reason why there can’t be triple-headers featuring minor, grade two and grade one matches from the All-Ireland quarter finals onwards.
The key thing that any player or manager asks himself is this: what are we playing for? Right now, too many teams are playing for nothing tangible. If we abolish the provincial system and create a cold two-tier structure, that becomes even more true. We are effectively punishing struggling teams and instructing them to literally go and play by themselves. They need to have a chance to play against the glamour counties and, if they lose, to still have meaningful games to play in afterwards. This system still gives every team a second chance but to some extent, it removes the safety-net of the qualifying system which always seems to benefit the stronger counties. It means that counties have a clear incentive for progression in the league.
And it means that the tradition and legacy – the day out! – of the provincial championships is preserved. It brings an element of intrigue into the season. Most people can probably hazard a reasonably educated guess as to which teams will contest the All-Ireland quarter-finals in August. I think this idea would change that. It requires a little bit of bold thinking but nothing more.
And most of all, I would hope, it brings an element of fairness into the All-Ireland tradition. The big day should not be the preserve of the powerful counties. It is often pointed out – and rightly – that the difference in standard between Division Three and Division Four teams can be marginal. If they have the chance to be involved in a knockout All-Ireland competition with an All-Ireland final in Croke Park on the third Sunday of September up for grabs, then wouldn’t every county feel as if they are included in the conversation? Isn’t that what everyone dreams about growing up?