Keith Duggan: Time for Plan C as Proposal B is just plain bonkers

Sideline Cut: Delegates will vote on worst collective idea since governmental tax on children’s shoes

Proposal B is completely bonkers. It is absurd in the extreme, arguably the worst collective idea since the governmental tax on children’s shoes in the early 1980s. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Proposal B is completely bonkers. It is absurd in the extreme, arguably the worst collective idea since the governmental tax on children’s shoes in the early 1980s. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Somewhere in the Billy Connolly comedy archives is a sketch where he claims that Mexican food is always the same dish, just folded differently. “That’s a burrito!” scolds the customer. “I ordered enchiladas! “Oh, so sorry sir,” says Connolly’s imagined waiter, leaning over and arranging the dish into a new presentation.

Something similar will happen at the GAA’s special congress today, when 183 delegates vote on whether they should change the venerable All-Ireland senior football championship into a burrito or an enchilada.

The original All-Ireland championship was drafted in simpler times and along the attractively clean provincial system, with the four best teams emerging from Ireland’s four green fields to duke it out in epic All-Ireland semi-finals and a final, to which people would cycle for days and sleep in barns in order to witness. Good times!

But it became clear, over the course of the 20th century, that certain counties were hogging the provincial silverware. We all know who they are. And that other counties – smaller, less-populous and less boastful, sometimes thoughtlessly referred to as “the weaker counties” as though they were wilfully puny of bicep and frail of breath – could not get a look in.

That is why landmark wins – Clare in 1992, Leitrim in 1994 – were regarded as minor miracles. They were a departure from the usual.

The recognition that the overall championship needs to evolve into something more inclusive is a good thing. The GAA has come up with two proposals, and it has become obvious that it’s the second one, named Proposal B, that has caught the eye. If passed it will do what it says on the tin by providing the nation with a new-look All-Ireland championship. There is just one flaw in the plan.

Absurd

It is completely bonkers. It is absurd in the extreme, arguably the worst collective idea since the governmental tax on children’s shoes in the early 1980s.

The first thing it will achieve is an instant end to the significance of the provincial championships which will, with a shake of the congressional wand, be reduced to pre-season warm-up competitions.

Where teams could once play for five significant cups (the four provincial cups and the All-Ireland), they now play for just one, the Sam Maguire. In other words, Proposal B will transform the All-Ireland into a contest in which almost no county will win anything, ever, again.

Think of all the hardcore, serious football county teams out there. Armagh have won a lone All-Ireland title in their history. Galway have won two titles, in close succession, since 1966. Outside Dublin and Kerry, the Sam Maguire has proven notoriously difficult to get hold of – which is why it is treated as sacred.

The second glaring problem is that the new proposal predicates All-Ireland participation on league performance. For decades the league was treated as a kind of mechanics workshop in which counties built a racecar fit for the summer. Now it is the route to qualification.

The bizarre outcome here is that the three lowest-placed teams in division one will be EXCLUDED from the All-Ireland championship on a given year. So, the reward for playing in the highest division, against the best teams and then failing to finish in the top five is that three teams from the top eight miss out each year.

On league results of the last few years then counties like Tyrone, Galway, Donegal, Monaghan and Mayo will inevitably miss out on an All-Ireland season very soon. What purpose does that serve? How does that improve the competition?

One-sided games

Somewhere behind the dismayingly muddled thinking exists an egalitarian impulse and a genuine desire to allow more counties to flourish. But because the structure has been forcibly manipulated to guarantee three teams from the second, third or fourth divisions a passage to the All-Ireland quarter-finals, where they will play against division one sides, this will inevitably result in a series of one-sided games just when the contest should be peaking.

In other words, with one stroke the GAA will have managed to reduce the significance of the All-Ireland championship – conceived as a big nationwide Fossett’s circus of a tournament – into three meaningful games.

The it’s-not-perfect-but-it’s-a-solution argument doesn’t hold water. Superior alternatives have been in circulation for a long time.

In 2015, for instance, former Donegal manager Jim McGuinness drafted on these pages a new championship system which punished no county. That system, like Proposal B, rewards league performance, with the top 16 teams playing in the All-Ireland championship. But it also rewards the provincial championships, with four places reserved for the winners of those contests.

Crucially, it also outlined the development of a second All-Ireland championship tournament for the lower-placed 16 teams – to be televised and promoted as seriously as the Sam Maguire tournament.

It stipulated that games from both championships feature on double bills throughout, including an All-Ireland Day, in which both finals would take place in Croke Park.

Fewer tickets

That would, of course, mean fewer tickets for supporters from counties in the Sam Maguire game as four different counties would be represented. But it would be fair and democratic – and it would give new counties a taste of real glory and tradition. It would have been change with purpose.

This new proposal fails on that front. It’s a dismaying fudge: change for the sake of change. The outcome will remain the same. It will advance the cause of no county and improve nothing.

It will be as big a disaster as the ill-devised and instantly forgotten “Super 8s” brainwave of a few seasons ago. Only the counties can save themselves now –and they probably won’t.

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