Real reform of the league not on the agenda

ON GAELIC GAMES: There has been a revolution in attitudes to the National Football League this decade and the GAA is still struggling…

ON GAELIC GAMES:There has been a revolution in attitudes to the National Football League this decade and the GAA is still struggling to work out a fitting response, writes SEAN MORAN

FOR SOME these are strange and unsettling times for the GAA. Within six days of a thinly-attended National Football League final at Croke Park, the association’s headquarters will host what is likely to be a world-record crowd for a club rugby competition.

There is a major contrast between the excitement of a Munster-Leinster European Cup semi-final in the middle of the most spectacular few weeks in Irish rugby history and what is effectively a lull period in the GAA calendar.

Good times for rugby are, however, irrelevant to the question of the GAA putting its own fixture scheduling in order and optimising the structures of its elite season, as at the moment it is struggling for a coherent intercounty programme of games.


This is a more fundamental problem than simply one of numbers turning up for national league finals – an anxiety that is generally overstated. All sorts of reasons have been advanced to explain the poor turnout at Sunday’s finals: declining interest in the league, competition structure and live television coverage among them.

As pointed out by the GAA’s operations manager Feargal McGill, the figure of 20,545 was twice the attendance at the same Kerry-Derry final pairing 12 months ago. It was also a better attendance than half of the previous 10 deciders.

Even going farther back into the 1990s before regular live broadcasts the comparisons aren’t exactly shameful.

For instance, in 1991 with Dublin surfing a wave of hype – that would break in the four-match series with Meath a month or two later – under newly-appointed Paddy Cullen and up against Kildare in Mick O’Dwyer’s first post-Kerry season as a manager, a comparatively modest 44,532 filed into Croke Park (a bigger crowd for instance attended the 2005 final between Armagh and Wexford).

The high point of the 1990s and the second-highest crowd for any league final came in 1993 when a rerun of the previous year’s All-Ireland between Dublin and Donegal materialised and went to a replay but neither match exceeded 60,000.

Those figures are obviously well in excess of last weekend’s – which in keeping with the modern structure include a lower-division final – but Derry-Tyrone in 1992 drew 24,541 and when Kerry won a first national senior title in 11 years in 1997, just 28,795 came to the final against Cork, which had been fixed for Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the counties’ convenience.

The league has always filled an anomalous place in the ambitions of teams. For a long time the evidence was that winning a trophy in May was a hindrance to championship preparation and that, for some indefinable reason, it took too much out of a side to give a big-match performance so shortly before the championship and still mount a sustained challenge in the summer.

Statistics backed this apprehension. In the 1990s only Kerry in 1997 managed the double and the relative lack of competition in Munster compared to the other provinces helped explain this.

Attitudes, both among the public and teams, to the league have, however, undergone a revolution this decade and the GAA is still trying to work out a response.

Since 2001 football has had both a calendar-year season and a qualifier series in the championship. The former has meant that the early months of the year are busy, from the pre-season tournaments of January through concentrated fixtures schedules in February and March with only the finalists getting very far into April.

This year, as lamented by Derry manager Damian Cassidy, the enforced close season in November and December has made further inroads into the time available to build teams so the first four months of the year pass in a bit of a whirl, particularly for new managers.

Former Donegal All-Ireland winner and Cavan manager Martin McHugh is among those who advocate the revival of the league quarter-finals with the divisional winners, second-placed teams in Divisions One and Two plus third and fourth in the top flight all competing – giving on this season’s placings four matches between Kerry-Antrim, Derry-Down, Galway-Monaghan and Mayo-Cork.

This would give more meaningful end-of-league-season involvement for the lower-division teams, as the current system of divisional finals is meaningless given that the priority of all counties outside of Division One is promotion and once that’s achieved interest in proving themselves the best of eight non-elite counties is minimal.

Finding extra dates would also be a big problem even allowing for McHugh’s suggestion that weekdays could be used, the main reason being that the qualifiers have pushed the start of the championship season earlier into May and teams would become jumpy about the additional league commitment.

The qualifiers also mean the surprise or novelty value of the above or similar pairings wouldn’t be what it was in the past because the qualifiers now fulfil that function of bringing together counties that would never have previously met in the championship.

Former director general Liam Mulvihill, attending his last National Football League launch event in 2007, succinctly stated the dilemma for the spring competition. “I just wish that we would have a sell-out for the final game of the league. It has been one of the features of the league that, whereas most competitions start with a whimper and end with a bang, the leagues have tended to start with a bang and end with a whimper. It would be my sincere wish that that wouldn’t happen this year.

“My own opinion is it’s too close to the championship at the moment and people’s focus is on the championship and the launches tend to take place in the weeks leading up to the league finals and people’s thoughts turn to the championship. We need a little bit more time between the conclusion of one and the beginning of the other.”

The long-term solution to that problem is likely to be a structural link between the league and championship, something to make managers and teams more interested in the former and establish more of a continuum to the intercounty season. The Football Development Committee proposals of 2000 tried to address this but ironically got shot down because they tried too hard to preserve a role for the provincial championships.

As things stand, any meaningful reform of the football league is likely to depend on a radical overhaul of the provinces’ role and that’s too seismic an upheaval for the foreseeable future – which means we’ll all have to stop worrying and love the league as it is.