Seán Moran: Congress proposals are a risk worth taking
Reshaped season comes with no guarantees but isn’t it worth trying for three years?
Dublin celebrating their All-Ireland win last September. Soon the hurling and football finals could be taking place in August. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
The GAA’s Annual Congress is a hard sell for most people. There’s a vague awareness of it as a shadowy/meddling/preposterous influence on Gaelic games but it only usually attracts attention in the aftermath of some disastrous misjudgment or perceived false step.
There are misrepresentations along the way. The whingey dismissal of congress decision-makers as ‘suits’ is, for instance, laughable and not just because you’ll never see a county delegation featuring in a Louis Copeland ad but because the average delegate has far more in common with the average GAA member – because, in most cases, that’s what they are.
Anyway, this year it’s important.
Next weekend could radically change the games at the top level and also their traditional place in Irish life.
Most people are now familiar with the proposal for a round-robin format at the quarter-final stage of the All-Ireland football championship and how the additional matches will be spread around the country and take place in a new, tightened games calendar.
That tightening will allow the All-Ireland finals to be done and dusted by the end of August.
This would be a big change to the rhythms of the GAA summer and there are, understandably, anxieties about the consequence of turning off the traditional focus on Gaelic games that has traditionally run through the early autumn.
Let’s look, however, at how we got here.
There have been widespread misgivings about how the football championship has operated in recent years. A symptom of the concern was evident in the number of proposals (18) received by Central Council last year in response to an invitation by president Aogán Ó Fearghail to units to suggest improvements.
This extensive trawl ultimately came to nothing because although there were strong views on the matter, there was equally no consensus on how to fix it. The two most obvious problems with the current format are the provincial system, which requires different counties to do different things in order to win an All-Ireland, and the disparity between top and bottom counties.
Yet if there was a consensus, it was to do nothing about either. Sixteen of the 18 submissions wanted the provincial championships retained and the one – albeit half-hearted – proposal to make it to the clár, a plan for a graded championship, was ruled out by the very counties it was designed to accommodate.
So nearly everyone wants change but no one agrees what that should be.
In a surprising move, GAA director general Páraic Duffy produced last summer a detailed proposal for a new football championship structure, and that has become the basis for the motion that goes to Congress this weekend. That proposal seeks to reinvigorate the All-Ireland series and also to streamline the season by condensing the fixture list and requiring extra time in nearly all matches.
Whereas there may be reservations about aspects of the plan – round-robin formats and the less-than-ardent nature of many county supporters aren’t generally a good mix – it does address a few of the deficiencies in the system by giving the last-eight counties a minimum of three matches, which approximates to providing a common starting-line for the All-Ireland title.
It will also seek to replicate the growing success of the league by providing a range of fixtures in the summer and by spreading them around underused provincial venues.
There are concerns in some counties that the compressing of the calendar will prevent what club activity that does take place during the summer from going ahead but those concerns can be overstated. For instance, Kilkenny, who have a solid practice of releasing players to their clubs after the Leinster final and All-Ireland semi-finals will still have the same intervals – five weeks and four weeks, respectively – to continue doing so.
Break from tradition
How well grounded though is the idea to bring the curtain down in the season in August?
It would certainly be a break from tradition. Apart from 1956 when the All-Irelands were affected by a polio epidemic in Cork, the finals (not including replays) have been played in September for the past 90 years.
It’s not really sustainable to argue that there is no downside to losing three weeks of promotion in September when, for instance, the return of the school year makes community events easier to organise amongst children. But that’s not the issue.
The question is whether it’s a price worth paying for the benefit of creating more time for club programmes. It’s hard to believe that this isn’t the case. Ultimately the intercounty season is giving three weeks back to the clubs and even if that means less promotion, it’s worth asking, what is the GAA trying to promote if not its primary activities?
Are these possibilities worth a three-year trial? That’s what will be decided on Saturday. In a way, the trial is irrelevant, as the ideas will either work or not and being enshrined in the Official Guide wouldn’t have changed that, but it does give Congress a double lock on the proposals, which would require a further two-thirds majority in 2020 to be accepted as permanent rule change.
The question therefore for delegates this weekend is the same as when the hurling championship was weaned off sudden-death 21 years ago and when the football qualifiers were accepted in 2000: is this worth trying?
It’s hard to see why not.