The GAA has overwhelmingly backed a motion to trial a new All-Ireland football championship for three years from 2023. Sponsored by Central Council, the proposal was passed by 216-12 or 95 per cent of delegates, well in advance of the required 60 per cent majority.
After Option B (the switching in the calendar of the provincial championships and the league) failed to get support at last October’s special congress, the GAA remitted the matter to a committee to devise new proposals, which would address the concerns of delegates.
That this had been achieved within a few months was remarked by a number of speakers.
The new blueprint addresses the chief concern of last autumn, which was the marginalising of the provincial championships, which will remain in the summer, albeit within a far tighter timeframe. All eight provincial finalists will proceed to the round-robin group stages. Another eight counties, mostly based on league status will complete the groups, which will produce teams for knock-out stages of the Sam Maguire.
A similar structure will operate for the 16 Tier Two or Tailteann Cup participants who don’t qualify for Tier One.
Derek Kent, chair of the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC), proposed the motion, which was seconded by Kerry's John Joe Carroll, a member of the GAA management committee.
Support came from Tom Parsons of the GPA. "The players stand strong in support of this positive motion. Players are asking for unity, this is receiving a strong green light from players."
Former president Seán Kelly also supported, saying that it was a “better proposal” than Option B, which failed to achieve 60 per cent backing last autumn. But he expressed misgivings about the progress of three teams from four-team groups, which he said “could lead to dead rubbers”.
Jack Devanney, chair of Down, welcomed the revamped proposals but called on the GAA to stage the Tier Two championship final on the same day as the All-Ireland.
“The Tailteann Cup and the All-Ireland senior championship – the structure and format mirror each other. This opens the door allowing counties to be participants on the biggest day of football.
“Half of the counties have never played any part in All-Ireland final day in the last 60 years. This opens them to being participants on the biggest day in Irish sport.”
Conor O’Donoghue, a member of the Fixtures Calendar Review task force, spoke in favour but also expressed reservations, echoing Kelly’s point about dead rubbers.
“Some things are a concern,” he said. “There are issues around third level, which is a serious matter we are going to have to deal with. There is an enormous amount of consequence in the early part of the year. I do have a concern about groups of four with no relegation. Overall this is a very positive move for the association.”
Feargal McGill, of the group that drew up the revised proposal, commented afterwards that concerns about dead rubbers were misplaced.
“The possibility of dead rubbers because three places in each group progress is a provision that was inserted precisely to avoid dead rubbers. The possibility of games that have no meaning is minuscule in this proposal because each of the four places in a group will now have meaning:
“First place goes straight to quarter-final, second to home preliminary quarter-final and third qualifies for preliminary quarter-final. Fourth is eliminated.”
Congress also decided against introducing an under-19 All-Ireland. Originally envisaged as a replacement for both minor and under-20, the proposal received the backing of Saturday’s annual congress in the Connacht Centre of Excellence but couldn’t achieve the required 60 per cent weighted majority – getting the support of 55.5 per cent of the delegates.
Opposition centred on concerns about ambiguities in the proposal. Like Option B in last autumn’s special congress, some of those who agreed in principle argued for the matter to be deferred.
The motion was proposed on behalf of the Rules Advisory Committee by Paul Duggan (Armagh). He argued that the initiative had "at its core player welfare and player development".
A recurring concern among a number of speakers was that the regrading of minor from under-18 to under-17 had been successful in decoupling players from senior eligibility but had simply replaced the old minor championship with the same profile and pressures but in this case on 16- rather than 17-year olds.
To address that, the proposal was that there should be just one elite grade, under-19 and whereas the first year would include a special under-20 competition to allow an outlet for players too old for under-19, the latter grade would become the only elite intercounty championship with under-17 reverting to a developmental grade.
Duggan was supported by among others John Tobin, chair of the Games Development Committee, Mick McGrath (Donegal), Micheál Martin (Wexford), Liam Moffatt, former Mayo chair and member of the Medical Scientific and Welfare Committee, who argued from an injury prevention perspective and former presidents Kelly and Nickey Brennan, who said that exposing 16-year olds to the stresses of high-profile All-Ireland final occasions was "a form of child abuse".
Parsons said that whereas they supported the introduction of under-19, it would be better if the motion was remitted to resolve ambiguities.
Others expressing reservations were speakers from Kildare, Fermanagh, Limerick and Cavan, whose vice chair Mark O’Rourke echoed others by saying that he felt, “this is being rushed” and urged that the proposal “similar to Option B” be taken back and reformulated.