Seán Moran: Provincial draws toss a curve ball at GAA special congress

Cork could be in trouble if the wrong motion gets through on Saturday week

For something as incongruous as it always is, the GAA football championship draw has already thrown a bit of a curve ball at Saturday week’s special congress in Cork.

Elongating the provincial draws over the best part of a week has simply focused attention on the randomness of it all. A good seven months before a ball is kicked, we have been fed these bulletins – like the shipping forecast, a matter of acute interest to the few but general bemusement to everyone else – of what can be expected halfway through next year.

Surely, the whole thing could be conducted in the aftermath of the league, to create a bit of interest in the close-season.

Yes, fixtures take time to plan but, in the middle of June, Central Council manage to draw the first round of the qualifiers, make the fixtures and a week later throw the winners in with the defeated provincial semi-finalists and sort out the next round of the qualifiers – a process involving eight matches per round – all in the space of a fortnight.

The lifelessness of the whole thing was partly recognised by Leinster’s decision to defer the semi-final draw until after the quarter-finals so that teams could avoid the ‘death row’ experience of counting down to a potential meeting with Dublin.

Anyway, the point about the Munster draw is that for the first time in what will be eight seasons, Cork and Kerry find themselves on the same side of the draw and meeting in the provincial semi-finals.

As a preliminary to the main business of deciding whether to go with a new Tier Two football championship for Division Three and Four counties, the upcoming special congress will be asked to choose between a definition of those groups that includes the counties relegated from Division Two that year or one that sticks with the status quo at the start of the same year.

Blah, blah, I hear at the back, but this has a major bearing on Cork, who got relegated last spring to Division Three. The county’s get-out clause was believed to be the provision allowing provincial finalists into the Tier One championship (Sam Maguire) regardless of league position.

It's not that Cork would never find themselves in the awkward position of not qualifying for a Munster final – even without Kerry, in the past three decades Tipperary, Limerick and Clare have all done them in semi-finals – but chances are that they would have qualified.

Cork football is one of the most conspicuous good-news stories of the year. Not alone did the minors and under-20s win the All-Ireland but the seniors – reviled by even their own for much the current decade – gave a top account of themselves in June's Munster final and pushed Kerry to the pin of their collar.

Gold standard

Subsequently they attained football’s new gold standard, qualification for the quarter-final round robin, and gave decent performances at Croke Park against both of the previous year’s All-Ireland finalists, Dublin and Tyrone.

The flashing red light now warns that far from the Super 8s next year, Cork – should they lose the semi-final against Kerry – will be in Tier Two.

Aside from Cork’s predicament, it is hard to understand the reasoning behind the motion that interprets Division Two as the group that started the league rather than the one that ended it.

Promoted counties would in general bring far more energy to the championship than those relegated. Cork’s 2019 summer came in just those circumstances but they were only the third county to make the All-Ireland quarter-finals having been relegated into the bottom half of the league in the 12 seasons of the current league format.

Hardly surprising so, if Cork support the Tipperary motion, which defines Division Two as incorporating the following year’s membership rather than the current. Of course they’ll have to get promoted first – or else just beat Kerry in the summer.

There are also broader concerns for the concept of the Tier Two championship, as it’s hard to avoid the notion that the whole idea is being oversold at present. One of the most consistent sources of scepticism about the graded championship is that it will end up like all of the other attempts at providing an outlet for weaker – or, if you prefer, traditionally less successful – counties.

Whereas that might not be entirely fair on either the All-Ireland 'B' (as it was desirably designated) of the early 1990s, which ultimately produced two historic provincial champions in Clare and Leitrim, or the Tommy Murphy Cup, which in its initial years ticked the box for having its final on a big day in Croke Park, it expresses the concern that the new competition will either be or end up as an afterthought.

With all of the talk of media coverage and All Star schemes, the thrust of the pitch is unwisely close to ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter’.

Players however look at the hurling equivalents – there are five tiers – and notice a lack of Time magazine covers.

Hurling precedent

It’s not such an issue in hurling because the vast majority of counties have never won anything at senior level and remain content within the tiers although it’s instructive to look at the stürm und drang that erupted over Offaly’s plight.

One hurling precedent that does recommend itself at a time when the gap between elite and non-elite counties is stretching and Tier Two is seen as a tool for addressing that, is the rationale behind changes to the hurling championship in 2013, which introduced a qualifying group for Leinster and a reduced MacCarthy Cup.

Feargal McGill, the GAA's Head of Games Administration, said at the time of the proposal:  "It's incorporating the principle of 'win your way up'. We felt that over a period of time it would lead to teams getting stronger and putting in the work, doing the development, eventually being rewarded."

Football’s proposed Tier Two isn’t as radical but the emphasis should be on its potential as a vehicle for improvement rather than the improbable implication that you won’t notice you’re not in Tier One.