Reform of championship format unavoidable


On Gaelic Games:It is common to hear the qualifiers being questioned and a yearning for the old thrills of pure knock-out competition

AN EVENTFUL week for the GAA: the big NHL curtain raiser called off because of snow – prompting an overdue rethink on the practice of taking un-receipted cash at turnstiles – followed by Kilmurry-Ibrickane taking their chance with glorious efficiency and becoming Clare’s first team in an All-Ireland club football final (and making it a 17th county to be represented in the St Patrick’s Day football showpiece).

Then on Monday the annual provincial convention reports started to emerge off the presses. When the various provincial chief executives write up these documents they – no less than the director general at congress – want to take the opportunity to air a few issues for discussion.

Over the years, Leinster’s Michael Delaney has successfully focused on a variety of matters, but this year he raises a topic that has been surfacing with increasing frequency: the future of the All-Ireland qualifiers in the context of a crowded intercounty season.

On the face of it there shouldn’t be a particularly intense debate. Since the introduction of the qualifier system for the 2001 championship, they have provided the GAA with additional fixtures and consequently additional revenue and promotional opportunities in the form of televised matches.

They have also brought to an end the tyranny of sudden death and allowed a number of less prominent counties to shine at later stages of the championship than would be their normative experience. The restructure agreed at the special congress of October 10 years ago also provided for All-Ireland quarter-finals, which have helped the GAA to stage big events during August.

Yet it is now increasingly common to hear the qualifiers being questioned and a yearning for the old thrills of pure knock-out competition. It’s hard to accept an argument to do away with the qualifier series is well founded, but that disillusion is out there.

It is fed by a number of factors. For a start, the purpose of the new format has often been misunderstood. Stripped down, the qualifiers were intended to prevent players training rigorously for months and being guaranteed just one match all summer. It wasn’t meant to be some sort of handicap system to give a leg up to weaker counties.

But then again, it probably wasn’t meant to be a process that made the success of strong counties even more assured than even the GAA’s exclusivist history had managed over the decades. Perceptions haven’t been helped by the stark elitism of the All-Ireland roll of honour in the past decade. Just two counties, Kerry and Tyrone, have made off with the past seven championships – more than half of them through the qualifier series after losing in their respective provinces.

It doesn’t seem to assuage the unease that it’s perfectly valid that a competition should be designed in such a way to try to ensure the best team wins it. The feeling has developed that the qualifiers have been net contributors to the prevailing duopoly.

Another factor that has become more and more noticeable is the growing disjunction between the ordinary levels of the GAA and the national administration in Croke Park. In his report, Delaney dwells on this in some detail – expanding the class war to a number of fronts, such as championship format, pitch invasions, the Gaelic Players Association and experimental rules.

In response, and in keeping with the national strategic plan, Leinster Council is to institute advisory groups to maintain a flow of information and concerns between clubs/counties and provincial/national levels.

Delaney is right about this. I have received many e-mails from people who are harshly critical of what is perceived as bias at national administrative level in favour of intercounty competition at the expense of club activity. One stressed that proper club activity should mean a schedule of matches arranged for as far as possible the same day each week and involving all of the club’s players – not intrinsically meaningless fixtures the import of which gets swept away by increasingly complex end-of-season play-offs when the county panellists get back.

Such a provision is not possible at present and, realistically, it won’t be ever possible if the GAA is to maintain its revenue streams from the intercounty game. If it doesn’t, who wants to take a cut?

The qualifier series has become unpopular also because of its impact on club programmes. Not alone does it provide additional matches, but it is by nature unpredictable and so planning becomes impossible at certain stages in the summer.

Another rising source of concern about the intercounty game is simply the number of competitions. Without going as far as the Leinster chief executive in relation to the All-Ireland qualifiers, GAA director general Páraic Duffy shared many of these concerns in an interview last month. The cost of preparing county teams has gone up by around 5 per cent over the past 12 months to over €21 million despite an economic depression so severe that it has led to deflation.

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the most senior administrators in the association are becoming alarmed.

I’m not sure that including the qualifiers in the calendar rationalisation is a good idea in the long term. The GAA needs both the exposure and revenue that comes from the enhanced programme of intercounty activity in the summer. But reform is unavoidable.

One logical initiative would be to split the intercounty football championships into different levels, as has been successfully achieved in hurling. Why should counties with no prospects of winning a couple of matches let alone any silverware be granted free access to the qualifiers at the expense of a congested fixture list? The problem here is that it is an established fact football counties, no matter how low their realistic hopes of attainment, believe they should be allowed compete at the very top level and not alone disdain the idea of graded competition but by the vehemence of their opposition a couple of years ago wrecked the sensible restriction of qualifier access to counties no lower than Division Three.

In the course of that charge the Tommy Murphy Cup, which had anyway been dishonoured by a truculent refusal to engage with a competition that many participants felt they were too good for, was trampled to death. Similarly, the proposal to scrap the under-21 football championship was refused even a trial. Neither would the provincial councils look too kindly on any move to do away with the secondary provincial competitions played in the pre-season.

But alongside all of these refusals to countenance some limitation on the intercounty season runs the looming reality: tens of millions being spent regardless of counties’ realistic means and what’s becoming an intolerable impact on an increasingly militant club membership.