Kevin McStay: Time for GAA to be bold and opt for a new championship format
Provincial championships are outdated and the qualifiers too have run their course
The increasing number of one-sided games under the current championship format remains a concern. The scoreboard at Portlaoise towards the end of the Dublin-Louth game. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
As the pulse of the football championship quickens, it has become more apparent we are watching one of the last of the old beasts roam across the plain.
This is a big week for the GAA, with the group tasked with redrafting the calendar year and the structure of the All-Ireland championship about to be announced. Everyone is certain something needs to be done but there are a thousand different theories on what that something is.
In thinking about this, I examined the perception that the football championship is producing an increasing number of one-sided games: the thumping All-Ireland champions Dublin visited on Louth on Saturday night was the most vivid and disheartening example of this.
But I was trying to define a metric that is a definitive hockeying. In a championship match, any margin of eight points or more makes for an uncompetitive game. Now, only six out of the 19 matches played so far have been decided by eight points-plus.
That is not a compelling reason for change. But if you twist that ever so slightly, there have only been three results that could be deemed as “shocks”. Cavan-Monaghan. Roscommon winning in Mayo for the first time since 1986. And Tipperary falling to Limerick. So only three from 19 games have delivered unexpected outcomes.
Also, there are some more drubbings coming down the line in the qualifiers and possibly several more at the hands of Dublin in Leinster. It’s not quite the avalanche we sometimes believe it to be but nor is it the most riveting competition in the world.
People think that this is quite straightforward and everyone is certain they could solve it with a pen, a sheet of paper and a pot of coffee. In fact, it is highly complex. If this was an easy issue, then it would have been solved by now. But the complexity is down to human nature: there are so many competing interests when people sit down to think about what is best. But for whom? Players? Supporters? Administrators? Clubs? Sooner or later, personal interest comes to the fore in these debates.
For instance, players think they should be the primary interest. I am not so sure. Players like to be put front and centre – and that is the remit of the GPA – but it has to be remembered that there are many other stakeholders besides the athletes.
Players, understandably, place themselves at the front of the overall line. There was an example of this over the weekend on social media when the plight of Darren Gallagher, the Longford player who was on duty as a Garda on Sunday rather than playing for his county against Kildare.
His decision to play in New York left him ineligible. His case generated a lot of sympathy. But as Joe Brolly correctly pointed out, life is about choices. Darren elected to go to the USA to play football, as is his right. But if he wanted to play for Longford, then don’t do that. Or vice versa. But it was just a decision he made based on his preference. There are many of these kinds of stories and they do play on emotions.
So it will be important that there is a strong chair of this committee and that the terms of reference are pretty broad. Provincial secretaries are the subject matter experts; they have to be on the committee, in my opinion.
The GAA has been a long, long time reaching this point. Back in the mid 1990s, the first break in this debate occurred when the link between club league and championship status was abolished. It was agreed that the championship determined your championship status the following year. So a team could play Division Two league but senior championship. So this was a tacit acceptance that you did not need your county man for the club leagues.
Then, in 2001, came the advent of the All-Ireland qualifiers. It was exciting and controversial and it meant more county games and so, for clubs, it meant that the county player/s were out of the picture for longer. This unsatisfactory situation reached an end point this year with the proposal from Cork of clubs playing championship games with their county players getting additional bonus points for doing so. It had its support.
It was madness in some ways but a rational response to an insane situation in another. The April closedown has not taken off. It was embraced fully here in Roscommon, for example and in some other counties: inter-county players returned to their clubs after the national league and the county squad closed down. But you look over the fence and see other county teams training away while your own is lying idle.
The rule was not uniformly observed in reality and the GAA did not legislate for it at central level. They left it up to the individual county – which in my view was a huge mistake. Once this scattergun approach was allowed, you end up with the tail wagging the dog and county managers calling the shots.
Then, the clubs began to complain that if their team happened to lose the first two championship games in April, all the lads cleared off to America. The team was decimated. So then those games began to be postponed. And nothing at all happened in April: it became a dead month. So this is where weak leadership feeds into the chaos.
Living to die
The need for redress is urgent. Any Super Eight county will play until August which means their club championship will probably start either at the very end of August or September. So the truth is that there is no club scene in the summer. They are making up competitions just to keep non-county players ticking over and they want to play with their county colleagues.
We know now that we have reached a crossing point in this club versus county debate. The April experiment has not worked. The qualifiers have been wonderful but as a concept, their race is run. Overall, the weaker counties did not benefit from the format. The main beneficiaries were the strong counties availing of their second chance to storm to All-Irelands, as Galway and Kerry and Tyrone all did.
The other counties were, in the horrible line, living just to die another day. A good draw was getting a team slightly worse off than you. Sooner or later, they would come up against a big force and then out they would go, often with a drubbing as their closing experience.
I was listening to Colm O’ Rourke, one of the architects of the format on RTÉ radio on Saturday, and he conceded that their day is done. Remember, there was a time when there was a real fear that the qualifiers would ruin everything. They didn’t. But the level of interest and novelty has died away too.
And I have been on both sides of this. When you are a club manager, you want the world to suit you. When you are a county manager, the club scene becomes another distraction. So we need an honest broker to ensure that none of those figures and vested interests can dominate the discussions and ultimate blueprint for the way ahead.
The radical decision concerns the retention or otherwise of the provincial championships. We are hearing of a report date of early winter with a special congress in September to pass whatever the new format might be. That seems a bit hasty to me. By the time you thrash this out and draft a few ideas it seems like a very tight timeline.
I know this: it will have to be simple and easy to understand – unlike the qualifiers, which was always a bit of a convoluted system. It has to be fair in the numbers of games – some teams only play four to win an All-Ireland; others eight. That has to be tidied up. What is at risk here? If the GAA goes out on this mission, can they turn the ship around?
Well, why not? Why not a three-year trial period? There should be no great fear in being bold in this. The championship has been interrupted by world and domestic wars, with finals not played or delayed for a year. Things happen. So I don’t think a radical three-year trial period means we can’t go back to the old system. If it is found that the championship without the provincial competition is not working, then there is nothing to prevent it being revitalised.
If I were king in all of this, my preference would be to use the senior, intermediate and junior national football championships as a template. There are 20 senior teams, six intermediate and six junior county sides.
The calendar season would look like this. January to April would be reserved for clubs, from pre-season through to club league games- featuring county players. The inter-county season would run from May through to August, with a national league running through May and June to decide upon the seeding for the All-Ireland tournaments.
The nettle needs to be grasped right now
The All-Ireland senior championship would feature 20 teams in four groups of five chosen through an open draw. Each team would have four games: two at home and two away. The top two in each group would advance to the All-Ireland quarter finals. And so on.
The intermediate and junior All-Irelands would each feature two groups of three teams. Each team would play the other two teams twice – home and away. So they would also get four matches. The top two teams from each group would play the final. And crucially: All Three Finals Would Take Place On All-Ireland Final Day In Croke Park. Rankings would be determined by the national league.
The All-Ireland season would be done by August. At the end of each year, one team would be promoted from or relegated to one of the three tiers. September and October would be reserved for club championships. Finally, the provincial and All-Ireland club championships would run through November and December. So for the vast majority of teams, players, managers, backroom staff, those last two months of the year would be a complete close season.
The big advantages of this format, as I see it, would be that the season would become more game-oriented for players. Clubs would be able to field their strongest sides for league and championships. The home and away dimension would help to balance the differences between counties and the thrill of the knock out kicks-in at the quarter final stage.
The nettle has to be grasped right now. I think any system based along this format would rejuvenate the club season and bring new excitement to the revered All-Ireland tradition. It is time to be bold.