Seán Moran: Will the GAA have a brave new world to replace the old one?

It’s easy to forget that the pandemic struck at a time of real change for Gaelic games

The combination of a deserted Croke Park and dead rubbers has meant the round-robin All-Ireland quarter-finals  have not proved a huge success despite some truly memorable occasions in Clones, Salthill, Omagh and Castlebar. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

The combination of a deserted Croke Park and dead rubbers has meant the round-robin All-Ireland quarter-finals have not proved a huge success despite some truly memorable occasions in Clones, Salthill, Omagh and Castlebar. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

A year on and it’s hard to be certain where the GAA is heading. That’s not a reference to the short or medium term. We know that we don’t know – for the time being but what happens afterwards, assuming all of the current privations eventually go away?

Will Gaelic games return to normal or some approximation thereof? Or are we to expect a brave new world where pandemic lessons are absorbed and end up improving things for everyone?

There will be those tempted by experience to echo the blacksmith in the late Breandán Ó hEithir’s Begrudger’s Guide to Irish Politics, who after independence is comforted by a clergyman that the new state will offer new opportunities even if the British aristocracy desert the place.

The blacksmith has no faith in optimism. “Our own gentry! We will in our arse have our own gentry.”

Will the GAA have a brave new world to replace the old one that over the past 12 months hasn’t looked too bad in retrospect?

As things stand, very little is settled. There is an unspoken assumption that intercounty training will be able to resume in early April but with virus numbers stubbornly high and vaccine rollout bedevilled by supply issues, even Croke Park officials, although broadly optimistic that there’ll be no last-minute surprises, can’t be sure what the next Government move will be.

As things stand, it will still be a push to get a functional intercounty season up, running and finished in time to allow the clubs return with a reasonable share of the summer for their fixtures.

Already All-Ireland finals by the end of July look too tight a squeeze and any intrusions too far into July run the risk of irradiating the good will that broke out last summer when the split season worked so well.

There will also be a race against the calendar to complete club competitions, assuming the provincial and All-Ireland championships will get the go-ahead this year.

It is becoming accepted though that 2022 will also face challenges in terms of scheduling. That’s assuming that Covid is under control but the legacy of another badly affected year is bound to spill over into the new season.

What will that ultimately look like? It’s easy to forget that the pandemic struck at a time of real change for Gaelic games. Football was already two years into a three-year trial of round-robin All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Technically that experiment has still to be completed but the mood appears to have set against the format, which unlike the round robins in provincial hurling have not captured the public imagination apart from one or two fixtures along the way. The combination of a deserted Croke Park and dead rubbers has not proved a huge success despite some truly memorable occasions in Clones, Salthill, Omagh and Castlebar.

The Fixture Calendar Review Task Force reported at the end of 2019. The obvious indicator of how much the world changed in the months that followed was the split season. It had been on the task force’s agenda but was dropped as having no prospect of gaining sufficient support. Suddenly it became the magic bullet that solved the problems of 2020 with a highly improvised fixtures calendar.

Despite all of that change, the basic proposals of the task force have remained the same: the league-based championship or the shaping of the provincial championships into four groups of eight – displacement from a county’s own province being the price of losing preliminary matches.

Unsuitable forum

That choice has yet to be made. Annual congress a few weeks ago, held remotely, was – correctly – deemed an unsuitable forum for something as complex as discussing a new championship format.

The question does arise, however, to what extent the proposals might have been different had the task force’s deliberations had taken place a year later.

Maybe they’d be the same but there hasn’t been an eruption of support for either of the options and it’s unpredictable how a full debate on the matter will turn out whenever circumstances permit a special congress to take place, maybe later in the year.

What was essentially a straw poll taken at a November briefing session for the proposed new formats showed a preference for the “four eights” but at 48 per cent it was fewer than half those surveyed.

This was, though, nearly twice the next proposal, interestingly the “old” status quo of provincial championships and qualifiers with 27 per cent.

The league-based championship had just 15 per cent and propping up the poll was the status quo ante – Super 8s – with 10 per cent. Proportional representation was used and later preferences were more evenly divided so whereas the four eight-county conferences idea would on those figures win a vote, it might be a tighter-run thing than the GAA might ideally want for such seismic change.

It has been noted that whereas broadly, three provinces want the ‘four eights,’ opposition comes from the biggest – Leinster where concerns centre on the dominance of Dublin – which wants the league-based format.

When the All-Ireland qualifiers were introduced late in 2000, they were the product of the Intercounty Work Group, set up after the far more ambitious proposals of the Football Development Committee hadn’t got through that year’s congress.

Recognising that a mood for change existed, then president Seán McCague appointed the above work group, which came up with the qualifiers.

Could it be that if a major gust of enthusiasm doesn’t get into the sails of the “four eights” proposal, history might repeat itself and a compromise plan emerge instead?

smoran@irishtimes.com

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