Seán Moran: Super 8s in fight against ingrained football culture
The round-robin format has work to do to convince sceptics after a faltering start
Darren Hughes of Monaghan and Kildare’s Kevin Feely in the first round-robin weekend, in front of plenty of empty seats in Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Archbishop Croke’s list of “favourite exercises and amusements amongst men and boys”, as outlined in his letter of acceptance to the GAA when invited to become one of the association’s first patrons, is by no means exhaustive.
Described as “our own grand national sports”, the various pursuits referred to include, “‘casting,’ leaping in various ways, wrestling, handy-grips, top-pegging, leap-frog, rounders, tip-in-the hat . . .”
Not specified but presumably included in “leaping in various ways” is the more specialised skill of “leaping to conclusions”.
The flag went up at the weekend on pondering the first weekend of the All-Ireland quarter-final round robins after Phase 1. Although most reasonable reactions were reluctant to pass judgment this early in proceedings, the ambience was downbeat.
Two double bills at Croke Park yielded very modest crowds, undermining the first weekend as a platform to launch the final stages of the All-Ireland championship.
There were a couple of complications to the original plan. First, the schedule now included the hurling quarter-finals as well, creating a logjam of big matches and diffusing the focus on football’s new era.
Second, the clash with the World Cup final on Sunday meant public attention was further diluted, and although that clash was obvious from a long time out, the impact on sports followers took longer to register.
Throw in the disappointment of the heatwave turning into a relentless drizzle, worthy of match recordings from the 1970s and 1980s, and proceedings were already under pressure.
If there is a fundamental problem with the new structure it is attitudes to the nature of round-robin competition. When it comes to the championship, the evidence is that the Gael has much in common with American sports fans, particularly in their shared suspicion of the ambiguous outcome.
They want clear winners – and by extension, clear losers – at the culmination of big events.
The theory behind the round-robin is interesting and worthwhile: additional big matches, providing a more even playing field for all quarter-finalists by standardising to a greater extent the path to an All-Ireland; home fixtures around the country, and a structural impediment to the most obvious danger in the system: schedules unwinding into dead rubbers.
Yet all of this grates with traditional views of the championship. Whereas the qualifiers – whose ingenuity is still striking – provided two parallel tracks of knock-out matches, the new quarter-finals are league-based. What is clear from the opening weekend is that this is a hybrid that has teams and spectators struggling for the right approach.
You want to win every match but, unlike knock-out, there are other considerations: keeping the score down and minding yourself for the next fixture.
It is consequently an almost cultural change that is being required of counties, to devise an even-tempo approach to the matches so that teams can optimise their performance over three matches. Obviously the blood-and-thunder of sudden death won’t be constantly on display, and that will diminish the appeal unless supporters make a similar adjustment.
There are contradictions and irrationalities at the heart of many objections to the new concept, but they are strongly held.
An obvious strength, you would imagine, of an extended championship is that the best teams win, but that cuts across the old desire for shocks and unexpected progress by outsiders.
Yet the nature of the county-based competition, with its absurd discrepancies between resources and populations, means that this hankering after romance is a fantasy when you have a football championship that has seen 50 per cent of the titles go to two counties, and the hurling equivalent, where the top three have won 75 per cent of the time.
It’s not uncommon to hear complaints that the structure on trial might allow a county win an All-Ireland after losing three matches. This is unlikely, but even if were to happen, so what? Competitions have rules, and if you observe their requirements and win, you’re champions.
Croke Park report
On a further point, it’s interesting to go back to the GAA’s unpublished marketing report from 2005, which laid out concerns about the new (as it was then) Croke Park’s impact on the GAA.
“The scale of the achievement of the stadium may become disconnected from the association that created it,” the report cautioned. “The former brand may grow in stature at the explicit expense of the latter.”
In fact, the once shining light of the stadium has dimmed in recent years. The same report described appearing there as “the sporting pinnacle in a player’s life”.
In reality Croke Park has been at the centre of friction concerning Dublin’s excessive familiarity with it and the cost and inconvenience for supporters in attending the venue for one of the quarter-final rounds.
That process had been well under way before this season’s new structure kicked in, given the increasingly lopsided nature of some of the quarter-finals, culminating in last year’s average winning margin of 14.5 points across the four knock-out matches.
This year Roscommon are the only side to have got a comparable trimming in the last eight, and they can move on from it with a home fixture against Donegal. That’s why the second weekend of matches is so vital to the overall concept. It enables teams to have a shot at redemption or improvement in more advantageous circumstances. Already two of the home teams are looking at historic opportunity.
Monaghan have never beaten Kerry in the championship, whereas Dublin are similarly unbeaten in nearly four years as they head to Omagh.
Coincidentally, Kerry’s first attempt at five-in-a-row All-Irelands perished in the Border region 85 years ago, when their semi-final – somehow fixed for Breffni Park – ended in defeat by Cavan.
The stakes on Sunday aren’t quite as high, but Monaghan can all but end their visitors’ interest in this year’s championship.
All to play for, as Archbishop Croke might say.