Sean Moran: GAA has a big decision to make on championship reform

Choice will essentially be – rejig the provinces or bring the league into the summer

What does the GAA want to be? The question and its answer go to the heart of what happened on the first weekend of championship. Opening day was Saturday and a spate of beatings that emphasised the gulf between competing counties.

Five matches across three provinces and two championships culminated in a combined winning margin of 93 points – well over 18 per fixture.

It can be argued that this is a bit random and unrepresentative given that Sunday’s fixtures were a lot more competitive, but it was hardly unprecedented for the GAA championship to start so underwhelmingly and can it simply be glossed over as one of those things that can happen?

Firstly, the GAA condition. Public interest ensures that the focus on Gaelic games is always on the big intercounty competitions. They are the activities that get most attention with sponsors’ advertisements and broadcasters’ promotion. Yet the core business of the association is as a community sporting organisation based in 2,000 or so clubs around the country and the world at large.


Of course a central part of that existence is the provision of competitive on-field activities, which impact on the public interest. By the nature of these things vast numbers of clubs have no realistic prospect of regular success even within the graded championships.

I remember former GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail in a speech launching the five-year plan of Cuala, then All-Ireland hurling champions, that in his own club Drumgoon when they spoke of championship wins, they meant actual matches rather than titles.

Jarlath Burns, a presidential candidate and former Armagh captain, made the same sort of point when talking about what drives clubs in competitions which they have little chance of winning. He said that the motivation is to do something notable, be it simply beat a better fancied team, win a first round or whatever.

His own club Silverbridge has a modest history with high points being an intermediate championship, a first division title and sundry similar achievements. Down the road is Crossmaglen with their six All-Irelands and yet Silverbridge is as vital a part of their community with a stunning clubhouse despite not troubling the trophy engravers that often.

This is commonplace in amateur sport. A club’s or a team’s sense of itself is not exclusively tied to silverware.

This might be the case at intercounty level but for the fact that it is a world far more in tune with professional sport. Its most visible presence is in the coverage on national television and the major competitions and All-Ireland finals. It has become, like it or not, a ‘product’ for broadcasters rather than in the old days, simply a championship that allowed the cameras in for it handful of big days.

Widespread exposure

That meant that the casual followers got to see the most important matches, which were generally the most competitive and exciting – and not the likes of Sligo-Mayo and fixtures as likely to attract the interest of the Irish Council Against Blood Sports as a rapt TV audience.

By professional standards the GAA championship is not built for widespread exposure. The counties by size and resources are grossly divergent and nearly all know their fate in advance. Why do they persevere? Ask Drumgoon and Silverbridge.

Amateur sports were founded on knockout formats, as they didn’t need the regular income stream of league-based competitions. Knockout appeals to the ‘have a go’ mentality even if the giantkillers have no notion of winning the competition and few expect to replicate the feat.

At present the GAA is trying to manoeuvre what is an amateur arrangement into professional packaging and from a certain stage it works very well, but it also contains the seeds of days like last Saturday.

There are two gripes with the proposed Tier 2 championship. One is that counties don’t want to be involved, not just because of the status it signifies but because the dream of a big day dies with it. Secondly, the mechanism for tiering creates resentment because there isn’t a clean division between top and bottom.

In the league just concluded, the Ulster and Munster champions were relegated to next year’s Division Four by Wicklow and Longford respectively. The main reason for that, however, was the history-making identity of the 2020 provincial championships, which were an outlier compared to recent years.

In 2019, the previous season to have an All-Ireland qualifiers section, for instance, of the 67 matches played just five saw a county beat opponents from a higher division.

Hurling incorporates tiered championships but it has no history of open competition and so no counties with significant days in the past, wanting to stay involved.

Football does. Just two counties, Wicklow and Fermanagh, have yet to win a single senior provincial championship. For many it may all be as far in the past as wrist watches but that sense of themselves is there.

How do you force that sensibility into a conventional competition structure? There is universal acceptance of the league divisions and the concept of winning your way up the pecking order but championship is different.

The GAA has a big choice to make later this year with a view to reforming the championship: essentially, rejig the provinces or bring the league into the summer. It will have to decide what it wants its competitions to be.

In the meantime, the beatings will continue.