Promise to reform flawed Option B later not enough for Congress

Change still afoot despite 60 per cent Special Congress figure failing to materialise

Motion 19 is defeated as it failed to get 60 per cent. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Motion 19 is defeated as it failed to get 60 per cent. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho


Change was on everyone’s lips at Saturday’s special congress in Croke Park. Even those opposed to motion 19, the formal expression of Option B - a league-based championship with provincial competitions switched to the spring - acknowledged that the status quo would have to change.

That remains the case and indications are that there will be a reformed championship ready for trialling in 2023 but given this consensus, how did the GAA end up rejecting the one vehicle for change on the table?

For a start the body that devised it, the Calendar Fixtures Task Force, had effectively been disbanded and in any case divided over what it wanted. Having started two years ago with two more or less equal proposals, the task force saw motion 18, their Option A - four eight-county, provincial based groups - fall without a word being spoken either for or against.

Lacking a coherent sponsor, the surviving reform lacked energy apart from the campaign mounted by the Gaelic Players Association in more recent weeks.

Yet listening to the debate with its 22 speakers - split 13-9 against the motion - it was impossible not to be struck by how well the proposition was presenting the case. From the start when former president John Horan took to the podium, the advocacy of those supporting change was persuasive.

Horan set out his feelings of disappointment that the Calendar Fixtures Task Force, which he had appointed, had split into camps and addressed perceived issues with the proposal, saying that he didn’t, “think the financial worry that’s out there for people is what it’s portrayed to be”.

A great deal of misgiving had been evident in the provincial councils at the prospect of their championships being moved out of the summer months and the certain reduction in gate receipts. The GAA has undertaken to make up the shortfall and it doesn’t look likely that any championship format will prove especially more lucrative than another.

“This proposal will mean more matches for our players and a better playing to training ratio,” said the former president, bringing in the players’ perspective, which was then amplified by GPA delegate Tom Parsons, who read out letters from county captains, anxious for change and said that the proposal would “spark life into Gaelic football”.

The perspective of smaller or less successful counties was unmistakable. Sligo chair Tommy Carroll and Leitrim secretary Declan Bohan made resonant speeches about how their players were desperate for change and in favour of the motion.

Bohan’s recounting of how the families of players hadn’t even all availed of tickets for the championship hammering by Mayo during the summer was particularly arresting.

Thematically the basic argument was made by Cork Central Council delegate Tracey Kennedy. “Fears and concerns about change are absolutely natural but if we look in our hearts nobody can say that the current structure is serving the majority of counties well.”

Above all, Clare manager Colm Collins, a member of county’s delegation, recalled the notorious 36-point beating sustained by the county against Kerry in 1979 and how contemporary reaction was shocked. “There was a call for mismatches to end,” he said, “but 42 years later they’re still going on.”

Horan’s line of argument was that the GAA should accept the motion, albeit with its flaws, and organise remedial action for next February’s annual congress.

This in a nutshell is why the motion fell for all the heartfelt arguments in its favour.

Opponents were quick to seize on the fact that even proponents of motion 19 were widely conceding that it was flawed. Why then accept it only to have to patch it up rather than remit it for further consideration and present a stronger package in February?

The marginalising of the provincial championships was also a key driver for opponents. This was integral to the post mortem. President, Larry McCarthy accepted that this concern had been significant - without sounding terribly sure how he would address it.

This issue bound together the most unified block in attendance. Ulster counties - all but one of whom (Down) spoke against - trenchantly opposed.

Parsons was later asked how would the GPA deal with this.

“We definitely need to alleviate fears that our provincial competitions, which are important, are going to be left behind in the wake here because they come before a competition that is just more competitive, that just develops all teams, that’s just for the interest of the association in Gaelic football.”

So what happens next?

Despite some humming and hawing afterwards, McCarthy and DG Tom Ryan agreed that change would emerge in time for 2023. Ryan pointed out that there had been a good deal of work done by the task force and that it would mean that the GAA wouldn’t be starting from scratch in reviewing the football championship.

McCarthy concurred.

“Oh yeah, what we have in front of us will be a good starting point. We’re not going to toss that away by any manner or means. Whether we get another committee to look at it, I suspect we probably will is my initial response to that. A fresh set of eyes on it.”

Expect that sooner rather than later. Next year is already challenging with the new split season and its All-Irelands by the end of July as well as the Tailteann Cup, the pandemic-delayed Tier 2 championship.

If the championship is to change radically the following season, the GAA will want that reform ready to go as soon as possible in order to plan for its introduction.


“That’s 42 years ago. In the papers the following day there were calls for these mismatches to end. Forty-two years later, they’re still going on,” - Clare football manager and delegate Colm Collins remembers the Milltown massacre of 1979 when Kerry put 9-21 past their neighbours

“Approving or not approving this motion will definitely cause hurt and division. Everyone in the Association wants much-needed change to the structures and I have no doubt that change will come soon. The only consensus that I have hear on this motion is that it contains a number of flaws,” - Tyrone delegate to Central Council Benny Hurl

“Perfect change never comes. Change is built layer upon layer upon layer. This gives everyone a path, a route, a place,” - Cork county CEO Kevin O’Donovan

“Our footballers told us in no uncertain terms that if something doesn’t change you won’t see us again. That’s the reality. They left Castlebar in despair. Talking about crowds attending games, as county secretary I was dealing with ticket allocations for that game. Family members weren’t even there to support them. That’s how lonely it was. That’s what the current system is providing for the footballers of Leitrim. It’s now time to be brave,” - Leitrim secretary Declan Bohan

“I do feel the motion has huge attributes but maybe we should go around to the provinces and invite in county officers and players to have their view. If we come back in 12 or 13 weeks with the same motion, then no-one can say we haven’t discussed it properly. Perhaps bringing this motion to Congress in 2022 is the best solution to the situation we find ourselves in,” - Kerry chair Tim Murphy

“No-one even in support of motion 19 said it was perfect. They all identified flaws. If you’re going to change, you have to have a better alternative. Anyone who studied it logically, and took the emotion out of it, it was a retrograde step.” - Ulster Council CEO Brian McAvoy

“I think everyone who spoke against it prefaced their remark by saying we want change; we just don’t like this change. And we also got 50.9% of people looking for change so that would appear to me to be a huge mandate to push on,” - GAA president Larry McCarthy

“Don’t tell me we can’t come to next February with a stronger proposal. We’ve got a proposal that got the majority today, that sparked huge interest and conversation. It is the foundation to something. Not all that work is undone because it didn’t pass today,” - GPA CEO Tom Parsons

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