Format needs new blueprint

Last week, work took me to the German capital Berlin, where I spent four days in the company of cement kiln refractory specialists from around the globe.

Needless to say the Ulster championship didn’t feature highly on their list of after dinner conversation topics!

To be honest, it was nice to switch off from the championship buzz for a few days in advance of ramping up again for our semi-final with Down in a fortnight.

Some free time on Wednesday afternoon saw me visit the Brandenburg Gate and a Berlin Wall commemoration centre. Along with the opportunity to brush up on my clearly patchy world history, it also got me thinking about the sporting divide in the GAA between north and south and how this could arguably prove the greatest barrier to any proposed changes in the structuring of the football championships.

Anyone aware of the workings of the GAA on both sides of the border will accept there are significant differences between the two, on and off the field.

As the most competitive province —from schools to senior inter-county level — those involved in Ulster’s GAA administration are very proud and protective of what has been fostered over the past 20 years. And rightly so.

Against a backdrop of socio/political unrest the Ulster Council has successfully managed to advance the development of games throughout the province, with multiple All-Ireland titles at all levels testament to the great work done by many.

So if someone proposes a potential change to their crown jewel, the Ulster Senior Football Championship, they better have a good argument, or it will fall upon deaf ears.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, that The Sunday Game would use Dublin’s mauling of Louth as a trigger for opening this debate about the structuring of the championship.

Heavy defeats for the footballing underclasses at the hands of their provincial superiors have been the norm for a long time. So why is it an issue now? In this column, I have often discussed my thoughts on why and how the championship should be changed. However, a Twitter survey in the wake of last Sunday’s hammering, trivialises, what is for me, the most important issue facing the GAA at present.

Cutting to the chase I would certainly not like to see the abolition of the provincial championships. A different format certainly would be refreshing but they need to be retained in some shape or form. For the majority of counties this is the only realistic chance of securing silverware or reaching a final of significance. Up here we do love our Ulster championship, often to the ire of those from outside the nine counties. While I would love to see a different blueprint for the football season, one without the prospect of lifting the Anglo Celt Cup would not be one I would back.

Incorporating a round-robin system into the provincial championships, where your final standing dictates your position in the All-Ireland series, would be my favoured option. The inevitable and familiar dispersing of counties towards the top and bottom tiers can then take place but at least it is done in a fair way. Everyone gets a shot.

The All-Ireland series is the place to separate the top and bottom teams into two competitions, but at the beginning of the season everyone still should be afforded the hope that this could be their year.

The All-Ireland series has and always will be reserved for the well resourced minority with the occasional pretender to the throne taking a seat at the top table every so often. Any proposal that doesn’t recognise the importance of retaining the provincial set-up as part of an overall restructuring will, in my opinion, struggle for support.

Though the quality at times can be up for debate, the Ulster championship is without doubt the most competitive of all provincial championships, with every county reaching the final over the last 10 years. You can be certain that those who walk the Ulster Council corridors will fight any proposal to disband the format tooth and nail.

If there is an appetite for change amongst the GAA fraternity, and I do believe there is, it needs to be discussed in an open and structured fashion.

It is important to get all the relevant people around the table. I hope Croke Park chiefs recognise what is starting to bubble and take a more proactive approach to the issue than it usually does to matters of significant change.

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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

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