A fairer football championship format?

The stale if necessary event that is next year’s provincial championship draw takes place in Montrose on Thursday evening. In an attempt to jazz it up, RTÉ are making available a number of their pundits for interview afterwards.
A fairer football championship format?

You wouldn’t know media rights are up for grabs, would you? The heaviest criticism of the draw is it takes place too early and has all the appeal of a wet blanket when the first games are seven months away. Such comments ignore the need to plan and accommodate the volunteers working at county level.

It may not be entertainment but then the GAA have never pretended it is anything other than a bowl-pulling exercise.

Believe it or not, it’s also done with the players and managers in mind. Several of them may have gripes with the provincial system, yet in the coming weeks the provinces will assign dates to the opening matches and there will be something to circle on the calendar. No matter how the league goes, players and managers will have the one-size-fits-all quote: “All that matters is May 14/21/28.”

So what can we expect on Thursday? Cork and Kerry to be drawn on the same side of the Munster SFC draw for the first time since 2014 when they received byes into separate semi-finals? Might Tipperary and Limerick’s hurlers avoid each for the first time in six years? Will Down finally catch a break and a home game in Ulster? Will there be further calls on Dublin to open their championship account outside of Croke Park?

It’s not electric stuff but it will create some debate and, more importantly, the vast majority of counties, who have either reason or need to look forward, have something to look forward to.

Anticipation, no matter how outlandish it may be, can build again. What is more democratic than offering the majority hope at the earliest opportunity?

It will be the same in 12 months time although by that stage the All-Ireland senior football championship series may have a different complexion. GAA director general Páraic Duffy is aiming to introduce a round-robin format to replace the quarter-finals. He recommends two groups of four with each team playing three matches, the top two sides in each qualifying for the All-Ireland semi-finals.

Croke Park has changed its tune on increasing the number of games but both Duffy and GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail’s arguments are the eight extra matches would “invigorate” the competition. Providing additional games among the most successful teams, it would also mean more revenue but there are as many drawbacks as there are advantages to the scheme.

Success stories like Tipperary this year will be hard to materialise when they will have to negotiate a gauntlet of three quarter- finals as opposed to one. Is it any wonder they opposed the proposal?

There is the distinct possibility this blueprint will make All-Ireland semi-finals more of a reserve for the big, traditional counties.

Included on this page is a different format, which instead of increasing the number of games towards the end of the year would add to those in the provincial series. Based on a round-robin model, there would be eight groups of three (two in Connacht and Munster and three in Leinster and Ulster) with an extra group of four in Leinster.

Earlier this year, a variation of it was shortlisted for consideration by the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC). The CCCC agreed it would have little or no impact on the club scene although its call for a second tier championship following the provincial groups was never going to be agreeable to the weaker counties. The format we put forward does not alter the existing qualifier system or All-Ireland series.

With no mood for a “B” championship or to break up the provinces, there must be an acceptance that the football championship will never be equitable. At the same time, it can be made fairer and worthwhile within the current parameters.

Providing a home game (not to mention a minimum of three games instead of the current two) to a county would be valuable. Played over a shortened period, it would also free up space for the possibility of club championship activity in the better weather months. Also, all but two of the provincial semi-finalists will have played three games to qualify for them.

One of the CCCC’s major criticisms about the previous round-robin provincial system was teams could be knocked out of the All-Ireland SFC on the basis of score difference.

They described it as “the greatest fear” and “a pretty major flaw”.

In Duffy’s All-Ireland group stage, score difference can be used to eliminate a team. Not for the first time this year, the GAA finds itself facing an existential question: Does it promote or publicise? Equalise or entertain? They are not always mutually beneficial, certainly not when it comes to competition structures. A victory for Duffy’s proposals would a signal the organisation has taken a step towards the latter.

HOW IT WOULD WORK

  • All four provincial championships played on round robin basis with different criteria reflecting their strengths and sizes
  • Back-door system and All-Ireland series the same as before – those 16 counties who haven’t qualified for their provincial semi-finals go into first round and so forth
  • Seventeen extra games but duration of provincial competitions dramatically cut
  • All county teams guaranteed at least one home game
  • With exception of Dublin and New York, every team guaranteed at least three matches
  • Extra-time to apply to all games bar All-Ireland final. Home advantage to be given to Division 3 and 4 teams in qualifiers

HOW IT MIGHT LOOK

CONNACHT

  • Top two teams in each group qualify for semi-finals. Preliminary round fixture in New York continues.
  • Galway / London / Leitrim / Mayo / Roscommon / Sligo
  • Increase of games from six to 10. Duration reduced from 10 weeks to seven weeks (gap week between semi-finals and final).

LEINSTER

  • Dublin receive bye into semi-finals. Top team in each group join them in semi-finals.
  • Laois / Louth / Carlow / Longford / Offaly / Kildare / Westmeath / Wexford / Meath / Wicklow
  • Increase of games from 10 to 15. Duration reduced from nine weeks to seven (gap week between semi-finals and final).

MUNSTER

  • Top two teams in each group qualify for semi-finals.
  • Cork / Clare / Kerry / Limerick / Waterford / Tipperary
  • Increase of games from five to nine. Five-week duration increased to six (gap week between semi-finals and final).

ULSTER

  • Top team in each group qualify for semi-finals with best runners-up.
  • Armagh / Donegal / Antrim / Cavan / Down / Derry / Fermanagh / Tyrone / Monaghan
  • Increase of games from eight to 12. Duration reduced from nine weeks to six (gap week between semi-finals and final).

Recovery not beyond reviled black card

There is no black card. Literally. It’s worth reminding ourselves it doesn’t exist in the first place. All referees are doing in penalising a footballer for one of the listed cynical fouls is brandishing the black cover of their notebook.

Are we being facetious? Yes. Pedantic? Absolutely. But in the stampede to rid Gaelic football of the third card some will find it ironic that it doesn’t actually exist. And it’s actually not the fabled black card that is hurting the game but what it does and doesn’t stand for. If the black card was the signal for a temporary removal, i.e. the sin bin, instead of an automatic substitution then it mightn’t be the most reviled phrase in the GAA at the moment.

The question for the GAA’s playing rules area, ranging from director of games Pat Daly to Jarlath Burns’ group, is have the connotations with the black card become so negative that it needs to be replaced with either a different colour or, if not that, a new gesture?

Such a move would be interpreted as cosmetic and arbitrary and in fairness the black card is still enough in its infancy to recover as a disciplinary measure. It just has to be mean something more than it currently does.

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