Seán Moran: No clear consensus on how to reform football championship

Autumn’s GAA Special Congress could force delegates back to the drawing board

Leitrim have suffered heavy defeats in the Connacht championship on  a regular basis for a number of years. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Leitrim have suffered heavy defeats in the Connacht championship on a regular basis for a number of years. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

The ‘quiet weekend’ reared up on the GAA on Sunday. It’s not the first time an unpromising championship match has got the full RTÉ treatment on live broadcast, simply because there’s nothing else to cover.

Mayo’s 5-20 to 0-11 win over Leitrim struck a chord but you’d wonder why this particular annihilation should have had that effect.

Leitrim have now exited the Connacht championship – having also filed a couple of narrow wins over New York and London – by an average of 16 points over the past five seasons: defeats inflicted by Mayo and Roscommon.

Going down by 24 is a big one alright but surely a matter of degree rather than a paradigm shift.

Provincial championships have been under fire for a long time and for obvious reasons.

The case against the current championship was eloquently made by the report of the ‘Towards 2034’ committee.

The current imbalance between counties, both nationally and within provinces, is already having a detrimental effect on inter-county championship competitions

“The GAA inter-county championships are based on county structures whose boundaries do not change, thus creating major disparities between counties in terms of demographics, population distribution, fund-raising capacity and geographical factors.

“For example Connacht consists of five counties, Munster six, Ulster nine and Leinster 12. A major demographic disparity exists between Dublin with a population of approximately 1.3 million and less than 33,000 people living in Leitrim and 40,000 in Longford.

“It is no wonder that a gulf exists between competitive and non-competitive county teams with fewer county teams being able to realistically compete in order to win championship titles.

“The current imbalance between counties, both nationally and within provinces, is already having a detrimental effect on inter-county championship competitions in terms of aspirations and the morale of officials, mentors and players.

“It could be argued that the provincial system, as presently constituted, is an impediment towards progress and, in effect, could be counter-productive to the development of Gaelic Games in less competitive counties.

“There have already been changes made to the provincial structure especially in hurling with positive effects on the game itself.”

In other words, the unfairness is both national – giving teams from Leinster and Ulster more to do to win an All-Ireland – and local. The first chipping away at the primacy of knock-out competitions took place in hurling and part of the rationale was that in the localised setting of provinces, the balance of power in neighbouring relationships can quickly become stifling tyrannies.

Provincial narrative

Leitrim for instance actually won the qualifier match that followed two of those recent defeats, which meant that they had some positive experience of the 2018 and ’19 championships. It’s one of the major disadvantages of a pure knock-out competition that there are no such opportunities to redesign the end of a county’s season. For the past two championships, the provincial narrative has governed the year.

The case for tiered championships is unarguable on a purely logical or competitive basis but the GAA also needs to take into account a vision of what the championship should be.

Leitrim had the happy experience of provincial success in 1994, fewer than 30 years ago. It was a second Connacht title and a first in 67 years and was beyond quibble, as they had to beat Galway, Roscommon and Mayo to win it and were able to take the show east to play the Dubs in Croke Park.

Nearly every football county has a fine day somewhere in their trove of memories. Are they on that basis entitled to come every year with no earthly prospect of success and take up fixture space on an ever-restricting calendar?

Not according to the precepts of a coherent competition but as the representatives of a community-based sport, who have long learned to live with their place in the pecking order even as it has been annually copper-fastened by unchanging realities?

The phenomenon of everyone agreeing that something isn’t working and yet being unable to agree on the remedy is not unusual for the GAA

The options due to go before the autumn’s Special Congress on championship reform broadly break down into retaining a version of the provincial championships made more symmetrical or switching the national league to the summer and using it as part of the All-Ireland series – relocating the provincials to spring.

Strategic review

The Fixtures Calendar Review Task Force, which produced the proposals, mentioned in its report that judged from the various submissions, “a sizeable minority” of 46 per cent was opposed to any role for provincial football championships in the All-Ireland.

Intriguingly, although nine previous reports were cited in the introduction to its own document,the FCRTF made no reference to the Towards 2034 committee or its concise demolition of the provincial system.

(Since the unpublished report three years ago, GAA president Larry McCarthy, who sat on the T34 committee, has appointed his own strategic review body to identify future challenges. Whether the findings will be considered any more congenial than its predecessors’, remains to be seen.)

There doesn’t look to be any consensus on what to do about the football championships as the autumn approaches.

A number of players and managers appear to favour the league-based option but there is reason to believe that administrators prefer the ‘four eights’. One straw poll after a briefing session earlier this year showed it as the choice of 47 per cent.

The phenomenon of everyone agreeing that something isn’t working and yet being unable to agree on the remedy is not unusual for the GAA.

Unless the current championships decisively shifts the debate in the weeks ahead, the Special Congress is on course to end up like one of those US presidential ‘deadlocked conventions’ and force delegates back to the drawing board – even as the current championship proves less and less fit for purpose.

smoran@irishtimes.com

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