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Kevin McStay: Championship changes are needed but we may not see them just yet

Provincial championships are broken but they shouldn’t be swept away entirely

Roscommon showed us in 2017 the joy that comes with winning a provincial title. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

It's late October, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, and normally GA championship draws. That usually provides a focus on the following year, whether it's the odd appetising fixture or more commonly, simply the death knell for about 75 per cent of the intercounty teams.

There isn't even the leaking of the league fixtures so no spring trips to Killarney or Galway being lined up.

This, as most will be aware, is because the entire structure of the 2022 season is up for grabs this weekend unless it isn't and 60 per cent of the delegates don't give their backing to either proposal, A or B, should both of them even make it as far as Saturday's clár.

We could also be about to revert to 2017 structures, provincial championships and qualifiers but without the round-robin All-Ireland quarter-finals - so no Hateful Eight.

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Of course the motions up for debate are essentially putting the cart before the horse. Instead of investing in struggling counties so that they might improve, we’re re-categorising and removing them.

To deal with the malaise rather than the symptoms would take a decade of funding facilities, structures and personnel and we just don’t have time for long-term solutions because the championship will be dead if we hold our breath too long.

I accept that the provincial championships are broken but I’m not sure about sweeping them away. That’s not a view I’d have expressed 20 years ago but in the meantime, having managed Roscommon and seen the delight and celebration that a provincial title can bring to a county, I would like to retain them in a more rational format.

We've seen a decade in which the provincial championships have been blighted by lack of competition, especially in Leinster and Munster but why is the solution to ditch them at a time of extreme dysfunction? This century in 21 years, 17 counties have won a provincial title and for most it made their summer meaningful and memorable.

There were signs this summer that Dublin’s domination of Leinster may be easing and Cork are likely at some point to revert to the historical norm of being competitive because they produce great talent. In other words does one bad decade mean that we abandon the other 13?

Foreign land

Proposal A was always in trouble because it adds insult to injury by taking poorly performing counties and transporting them to a foreign land, which is both wrong and unworkable. The only thing going for it was mathematics: 32 has a beautiful factor of eight, which breaks down into a perfect knockout structure.

Not enough, though, so that boat was never going to float.

Proposal B has a fair wind at this point but unfortunately, it also has its own issues. Chief among them is the fact that Division Three and Four winners get to compete in the latter stages of the All-Ireland series at the expense of Division One and Two teams. For me that's a huge flaw.

There is, though, a lot about the proposal that I like and I was amused when Brian McAvoy said it was “the worst proposal” to come before congress. It’s only 11 years since an annual congress in his own back yard voted to drill holes in trophies to stop them being filled with alcohol.

It struck me as a strange aspect of these proposals that Ulster GAA folk should be so opposed. They constantly protest the difficulties they face in their province annually and its inherent lack of fairness but when a chance to correct the imbalance emerges, they are vehement in their opposition and turn their backs on any attempts to level the playing field.

The core problem with B is the provincial championships being moved to the spring. They will inevitably become competitions like the O’Byrne Cup and FBD - maybe they’ll have a little more status but one thing they won’t be is a championship.

I would like to see proper provincial titles awarded on the basis of the summer league. By all means play the early competitions on a localised basis but use the counties’ finishing AFL positions to run pared-down provincial championships.

Here are the teams in Division One and Two, as determined by the 2021 standings:

Division One: Kerry, Dublin, Donegal, Tyrone, Armagh, Monaghan, Mayo, Kildare.

Division Two: Galway, Roscommon, Clare, Meath, Cork, Down, Derry, Offaly.

The provincial championships can easily be structured from the above tables each year:

Connacht (three teams): Mayo in final v winners of Galway v Roscommon

Munster (three teams): Kerry in final v winners of Cork v Clare

Ulster (six teams) two byes to semi-finals (Donegal and Tyrone) and two quarter-finals (Armagh v Derry, Monaghan v Down)

Leinster (four teams): Dublin v Offaly and Kildare v Meath

The All-Ireland series would be a traditional format: Leinster champions v Munster and Connacht v Ulster - to rotate every year. The Tailteann Cup should proceed simultaneously with fixtures on the same bill as the All-Ireland series and the final must be staged on All-Ireland final day.

I think, however, the raison d’etre of the Tailteann Cup is undermined by importing teams from Division Three and Four.

One of the big arguments for reform is the scale of the mismatches we have seen in the provincial championships. Either we want a league-based championship or one open to everyone. It doesn't make sense to try to have it both ways by insisting that every county should get the chance to play for Sam Maguire.

Allow the Division Three and Four teams to develop at their own level and pace and emerge stronger for the experience into both Division Two and the provincial championships - or by winning the Tailteann Cup.

This would be for a two-year trial.

I haven’t been convinced by the financial back and forth on the revenue prospects for new championship proposals. It is impossible to be definitive about gate receipts until we know how the public will respond.

Super 8s

If memory serves me, the same argument was a feature of the super 8s debate but massive gate receipts never materialised. Then you had the notion that Dublin could have Croke Park as a home venue - as well as a neutral venue and that scuppered the idea that the system would be fair. So it was neither equitable nor a cash cow. Its demise won’t be widely lamented.

Of course there can be tweaks and the provincial leagues can be incentivised with opportunities for home advantage in the summer.

The new season then might look like this.

Closed intercounty season: January

Provincial Leagues: February/March

NFL: April/May (to include NFL Finals weekend)

All-Ireland series, including Tailteann Cup: June/July

Club season: August to December (to include All-Ireland Club finals weekend in mid-December)

It cannot really be a big moment in the history of our championships if the prevailing wisdom is that nothing will change and the 60 per cent requirement to carry either of these radical enough proposals will prove too challenging. But I can’t believe that such an outcome would be the end of the movement for reform.

There’s a widespread desire for change and even if it lacks consensus on the precise format, I think that will be recognised before next year’s championship even if actual change is delayed until 2023.

Football championship reform proposals

Option A and Option B will go to Saturday's special congress. If neither secures the necessary 60 per cent support, the 2022 championship will default to the provincial-plus-qualifiers format with the likelihood that the All-Ireland quarter-final round-robin or Super 8s will not be retained and knock-out quarter-finals as in 2017 will be reinstated.

It is envisaged that the Tier 2 Tailteann Cup will replace the minor football championship on double bills with senior championship fixtures. It is also likely that revised proposals for championship reform will go to annual congress in February 2022, for implementation if successful in 2023.

Option A

- League to remain in the spring. Provincial championships retained in four groups of eight teams. The bottom six teams in Leinster (based on that year’s league finish) to play off with two of the losers switching to Munster and the third to Connacht.

- The bottom two in Ulster to play off with loser going to Connacht - giving four ‘provinces’ of eight counties, each divided into two groups of four.

- Three matches, one home, one away and one neutral venue, with the top teams in each group playing provincial finals and the second and third teams across the eight groups, playing each other over two knock-out rounds.

- The four survivors play the counties that lost the provincial finals with the winners going up against the provincial champions in All-Ireland quarter-finals.

- The bottom team in each group proceeds to the Tailteann Cup, the eight competing to play off knockout quarter-finals.

Option B

- Provincial championships to be played on a round-robin basis in February and March and have no link to the All-Ireland championship.

- The All-Ireland will be played on a league-based format with the national league moved to the summer. The four hierarchical divisions that would otherwise constitute the 2022 AFL will be played between April and June.

- Proceeding to the 10 knockout All-Ireland places will be the top five counties in Division One, the top three in Division Two and the table toppers in Divisions Three and Four. The latter two counties will play preliminary quarter-finals against the second and third counties in Division Two.

- The remaining eight teams are drawn together in the All-Ireland quarter-finals on a seeded basis, ie first in Division One v one of the preliminary quarter-final winners, second placed against the other preliminary quarter-final winner etc.

- The second-placed team in Division Three gets a bye to the quarter-finals of the Tailteann Cup with the remaining 13 teams plus New York drawn together in preliminary quarter-finals. The seven winners plus the team with the bye play off a knockout championship.