Páraic Duffy’s football revolution in spin all over again

GAA director general aims to pilot through biggest reform to championship since 2000

 Páraic Duffy:  as chairman of the intercounty work group, 17 years ago, he successfully introduced the most radical reform in the history of the GAA’s championship. Photograph: Donall Farmer

Páraic Duffy: as chairman of the intercounty work group, 17 years ago, he successfully introduced the most radical reform in the history of the GAA’s championship. Photograph: Donall Farmer

 

“I think we’re into an inevitable period of change,” says Páraic Duffy, with gentle self-approval, reflecting on his plans to revolutionise the football championship. 

“And I think we’re realistic enough to know that we probably weren’t going to get permanent change. My own feeling would be that once you go down the road of change, whatever happens in two years’ time, it’s highly unlikely we’ll be back to where you are now.” 

To some, he’s finally won over his ardent critics. To others, he’s just placed a bomb under Croke Park. Time however soon proves him right – and now Duffy gets to sit through the moment all over again. 

Because that was then, 17 years ago, when as chairman of the intercounty work group, he successfully piloted through the most radical reform in the history of the GAA’s championship structure: the introduction of the All-Ireland football qualifiers. 

Now, as director general of the GAA, Duffy heads to this weekend’s Congress in Croke Park looking to pilot through the most radical reform to the championship structure since then: not just the new ‘Super 8’ round-robin stage, replacing the All-Ireland football quarter-finals, but also in bringing both All-Ireland finals forward to the month of August, and that the only championship matches to accommodate replays will be the provincial and All-Ireland finals. 

If successful, and there are reasonable hopes all three motions will receive the necessary two-thirds majority, it would neatly bookend his achievement back in October of 2000, when at a Special Congress at the Citywest Hotel in Dublin, the All-Ireland qualifiers were first adopted. 

That was very much Duffy’s hour, even if it came on the back of the failed proposals of the Football Development Committee, which at Congress the previous April, were considered too radical (they wanted to link Connacht/Ulster and Leinster/Munster, with all championship games then played on a league basis, the brainchild of Eugene McGee, Pat O’Neill, Colm O’Rourke and co). 

Still, even with the now near universal recognition that the All-Ireland football qualifiers have been good for the game (and finances too: within two years the GAA’s coppers were up 47 per cent, hitting €25m), it is worth recalling the resistance that was there at time – largely because it reflects some of the resistance surrounding this weekend’s proposals. 

Second chance

Club fixtures, not surprisingly, was the main bone of contention: “If counties have a problem getting their club games played, it’s not because of the intercounty programme, it’s because managers are dictating when games are played,” said Duffy. “There are plenty of counties who run terrific programmes. It can be done.” 

Time hasn’t necessarily proved him right about that. 

Many of his critics at the time however were adamant. Speaking at that Special Congress, Séamus Aldridge of Kildare, then chairman of the Leinster Council, argued, “the jewel in the GAA’s crown is the championship. To change from that is to devalue football”. Meath’s Mick O’Brien reckoned “we’re sending a man to his death while he is at the peak of his health”. 

Jack Mahon, PRO of the Galway football board and 1956 All-Ireland winner, said that he felt he was “standing in the dyke against a torrent”; although Mahon accepted the measures were “much more plausible and attractive than the FDC proposals”, he reiterated his belief in the knockout format. “When you win, you win and when you lose, you lose.” 

The gentle irony about that comment is that Galway went on to win the 2001 football All-Ireland, by coming through the qualifiers, having lost the Connacht semi-final to Roscommon. Five other counties have also won the All-Ireland coming through the qualifiers in the 16 years since. 

Speaking to RTÉ News that evening, then GAA President Seán McCague said: “I think it proves, that contrary to public opinion at times, we are changing, we are evolving, and we are a vibrant organisation that are prepared to change.” 

Duffy had been hand-picked by McCague to design a football revolution that wasn’t considered too revolutionary not to succeed. At that stage, also serving as the intelligent and articulate chairman of the Games Administration Committee (now the CCCC), Duffy set out his proposals in largely unanswerable arguments in favour of reform. 

Permanent basis

 Even if the so-called weaker counties didn’t benefit as much as some envisaged, they still had their moments – Westmeath famously beating Mayo in that summer of 2001, Sligo beating Tyrone the following year, Fermanagh reaching the All-Ireland semi-finals through the qualifiers in 2004, Limerick beating Meath in 2008, etc. 

Things have not run quite as smoothly this time, Duffy’s championship proposal certainly not sitting well with the newly formed Club Players’ Association (CPA). Time will soon prove whether Duffy is proved right again.

 That Special Congress in October 2000 also made three further decisions: drug testing of players was introduced under a new anti-doping code; the half time break went from 10 to 15 minutes for senior intercounty games.

And the provision for a ‘blood substitute’ was accepted ‘in principle’ in order to facilitate bleeding players receiving attention during matches. 

Time proved those alright too.

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