New format gains tentative approval
The only surprise about the GAA's decision to revolutionise the football championships was that it was taken so tentatively. During the lead-up to the Saturday's special congress at the Citywest Hotel in Dublin, it appeared that the proposals of the Intercounty Work Group had gained such widespread acceptance that they had a chance of being permanently adopted.
Instead there was sufficient caution in the air for delegates to opt for a trial basis and the more restrictive (two years rather than four) of the two periods on offer. In effect, this doesn't make an enormous difference as the new structures will be well in place after two years and even if they prove less than a complete success, there will never be a reversion to the old system.
"I think we were realistic enough to know that we probably weren't going to get permanent change," was the reaction of Padraig Duffy, chairman of the Work Group, who steered through the proposals. "My own feeling would be that once you go down the road of change whatever happens in two years' time,
it's highly unlikely we'll be back to where you are now. I think we're into an inevitable period of change and I'm happy with what happened today."
He had every right to be. Duffy has been one of the great successes of Sean McCague's early presidency. As well as piloting through these reforms he has been an intelligent and articulate chairman of the GAC. On Saturday his exposition of the Work Group's proposals was a model of low-key lucidity, setting out largely unanswerable arguments in favour of reform.
Afterwards he was quick to recognise the influence of the Football Development Committee whose radical plans for the championship triggered a wide-ranging debate early this year. Although they failed to find acceptance at last April's congress, they prepared the way for change.
"I think what happened today could not have happened without the FDC in advance," said Duffy. "That was absolutely crucial. A lot of what we were doing was taking up where the FDC left off. It's worth remembering that four members of our committee were also members of the FDC."
He was also emphatic that the reforms would not impact on club competition within counties and pointed out the number of counties who do manage to stage club programmes at the same time as their county team is doing well in the All-Ireland.
"As a result of today the championship will start two weeks earlier and finish at the same time. Some counties will have one extra game; the average will be two. So if counties have a problem getting their club games played, it's not because of the intercounty programme, it's because managers are dictating when games are played. There are plenty of counties who run terrific programmes. It can be done."
The debate on the proposals was fairly clear-cut. Most delegates accepted the need for change. Players' Committee chairman Jarlath Burns spoke of the sense of "hopelessness and bewilderment" felt by players who train four days a night for weeks and find their season over after one match.
There were some voices raised against the proposals. Seamus Aldridge of Kildare, chairman of the Leinster Council, acknowledged that he was "speaking against the flow" (and indeed his own county's stance), but argued, "the jewel in the GAA's crown is the championship. To change from that is to devalue football."
Jack Mahon, PRO of the Galway football board and 1956 All-Ireland winner, also knew that his cause was futile and said that he felt he was "standing in the dyke against a torrent". Although he accepted the measures were "much more plausible and attractive than the FDC proposals", he reiterated his belief in the knockout format. "When you win, you win and when you lose, you lose."
There was, however, a feeling that the proposals should be confined to a trial basis. Noel Walsh, GAA trustee and chairman of the FDC, and his county delegation from Clare made the point most forcibly. Ironically it wasn't to be their proposed four-year trial which was adopted, but the more restrictive motion from Roscommon.
One other significant variation on the Work Group's proposals saw the plan to give provincial champions home advantage in the new All-Ireland quarter-finals rejected by delegates and the question of venues referred back to the GAC.
There were several other matters down for decision at the congress.
The GAA's drug testing code was accepted. Pat Daly, the GAA's Games Development and Coaching Officer and the person in charge of implementing the complicated process, starkly pointed out that the GAA "had no choice but to comply with European law" on the issue.
Half-time interval at championship matches extended from 10 to 15 minutes.
Provision for a `blood substitute' was accepted `in principle' in order to facilitate bleeding players receiving attention during matches.
Donegal's motion that a coaching officer be added to the list of county board officers was passed.
All motions in relation to the National Football League and implementation of the Work Group's suggestion that it switch to calendar year were referred back to GAC.
Questions about the disbursement of the extra money to be generated by the new championship structures were referred back to Central Council.