Seán Moran: Status quo doing nothing for weaker counties
Graded competition the only way to provide meaningful games for less successful teams
Denis O’Callaghan, AIB, GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail, Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea, Donegal’s Paddy McBrearty and Dublin’s Jack McCaffrey at the launch of the All-Ireland football championship. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
And like that, the football championship is upon us. It’s a recurring complaint about the GAA’s premier competition that it arrives with no sense of anticipation, no trumpets and few really box-office occasions.
It can’t have those things.
As a competition designed to find a winner, produce decent gate receipts along the way and stick those with no real prospects on a life-support system for as long as is feasible – a few weeks – it is stretched out as long and painfully as a talkative heretic.
It is carried from the end of May by the Munster hurling championship and to an extent the Ulster football championship. In the era of the qualifiers, provincial finals are now judged strictly on their merits and if the public is intrigued by the likely contest, there’ll be a crowd and if not there won’t.
For example, Dublin’s reputation as crowd-pullers is struggling to survive the loss of competitiveness in Leinster and having closed the last decade with provincial final crowds of 80,112 and 74,573, in the years of plenty that have followed from 2011 onwards, the average is down to 52,935.
This problem with declining competitiveness and shrinking attendances was an influence in the round-robin proposal, which will be introduced as the quarter-final format from next year.
Voices were raised against the idea on the grounds that it did nothing for the weaker provinces and that is true but what has the championship ever done for the weaker provinces?
The more fundamental question is what is the function of the football championship: a means of identifying the best team; a summer entertainment required to bank-roll the GAA or the most fulfilling competitive test for all inter-county teams and players?
In an ideal world it could be all three but in early May, as counties get ready for the season that in many cases won’t take them more than a month, it’s clear the world of the football championship is far from ideal.
There are obvious contradictions in the system. Representative sport is always vulnerable to disparity. There are exceptions like Kilkenny hurling and New Zealand rugby but generally, in a homogenous context the bigger the resources – of population and commercial clout – the more successful.
Football however is more beginning to resemble boxing without weight divisions. Now, that was fine in the past. The inter-county championships straggled through the summer and when a team was beaten, it packed up and went home. There were lengthy gaps between matches but teams trained for a fixture and if it didn’t work out, what harm.
For the really big matches – All-Ireland finals – counties could go into training camp or ‘collective training’ as it was known. Ironically the practice got outlawed in the early 1950s as being too redolent of professionalism despite occupying just a week of the players’ time at a period when the other demands on inter-county panel weren’t as extreme as today’s.
In the words of one long serving official from a county that has known more dinner-times than dinners, championship used to be known as ‘the annual pilgrimage’ – with all the infrequency and ritual suffering that suggests.
Changes to the championship structure have generally been to improve it from the perspective of its later stages. When the qualifiers were introduced there was a belief that by guaranteeing all counties more than one match in a summer it would benefit everyone but for many at the bottom of the ladder the new format came to guarantee noting more than two defeats and little else.
Next year’s change will create more big matches in August and move the championship’s centre of gravity even farther from May and its perennial victims.
The issue isn’t hugely different in terms of its outcome – abrupt exit from the early rounds in the province – but now counties are expected to play along with the idea that they’re part of the same world as the contenders. It’s no longer enough to turn up and take your beating – there’s weeks’ more training to participate in before it’s over.
If hurling is to follow the example of the final eight format – just as 15 years ago it adopted the qualifiers – it will encompass two thirds of the MacCarthy Cup contestants.
If that would equalise the promotional and competitive opportunities for hurlers shouldn’t something be done to address the needs of weaker football counties? The problem is that they themselves have never been convinced by the idea of graded competitions. The Gaelic Players Association’s antipathy to such a solution was driven by members from those very counties.
Yet there is no other way of allowing all footballers a decent set of fixtures. Creating provincial round robins into which all would be thrown would – to return to the boxing metaphor – simply create too many heavyweight-flyweight bouts with all the enthusiasm that would engender amongst spectators – to say nothing of the flyweights once they were over the novelty.
The GAA’s next task in reconstructing the championship summer around the heightened concerns for club fixtures has to be to find some way to persuade less successful counties to embrace a graded competition – whether eight or 16 counties – that allows some meaningful summer fixtures for those players.
The question for Croke Park is whether the football championship is meant to be an inclusive opportunity for everyone to compete and for the counties affected and their players, is the status quo really that desirable?